5 phone tips for escalating your problem to someone who cares

Konstantin/Shutterstock
Konstantin/Shutterstock
The first rule of solving a customer-service problem may be to get everything in writing, but there are exceptions to every rule.

For some issues — a quick product question or a change in reservation — a phone call might still work fastest.

Or not. Phone agents can waste your time with scripts and long hold times. That’s when you need to know how to escalate your call to someone who can help you.

Here are a few tips to help you get that decision-maker on the phone:

1. Be polite.
Call center representatives are people too. Taking your frustrations out on them probably isn’t going to get you anywhere. And if a manager has a slew of calls to take or make, the one for the screaming, swearing , insulting customer may understandably end up at the end of the line.

2. Be clear.
When asking for a manager, it’s helpful to explain why. Saying, “I understand that you may not be able to help me, so I’d like to talk to a manager about your company’s refund policy,” can help the manager try to resolve your issue before they even get on the phone with you. They know you’re not just asking for a manager to vent.

3. Be reasonable.
Asking for round-trip, first-class ticket anywhere the airline flies because a flight attendant was rude to you — well, you know where that’s going to get you. If what you’re asking for doesn’t pass the laugh test, it’s less likely you’ll get the person you want to talk to you.

4. Be patient.
Attempting to escalate a call from a front line phone rep directly to the CEO of a company just isn’t reasonable. First, you’re skipping many levels of decision-makers that, frankly, probably know a lot more about your issue than the CEO would. Asking for the CEO or other very high level manager right out of the gate can sometimes get you branded as a kook and make it harder to have your requests taken seriously. Besides, even if you did get the CEO on the phone, he or she is going to end up having someone else resolve your issue in the end anyway.

5. Be persistent.
If you’re still having trouble getting a decision-maker on the phone, figure out who else can help you. (And don’t forget the first rule — start a paper trail!) For product or service issues, sending a letter to your state’s Attorney General’s office may prompt the company to have someone at a higher level reach out to you. A request for assistance from your state or federal congressional representative can also have the same effect. Use this tactic wisely, however, and only in extreme cases. Overusing it can dilute its impact.

Remember that in the end, most of the folks you deal with on the phone would much prefer to go home at the end of the day knowing they helped someone and made their company look good. If you follow these easy steps, you can help them, too.

Betsy Mayotte is a consumer advocate and the director of regulatory compliance for the Boston-based American Student Assistance.

Have you ever successfully escalated a call to a real manager?

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  • Deborah Orth

    These all seem like reasonable and helpful suggestions to me. Thanks Chris

  • Carol C

    I’ve noticed a tendency recently to keep customers from a manager. Last week I finally had to resort to saying “Ok, so you’re telling me I can’t talk to a mgr?” Had to say it a few times. They just do NOT want you to escalate. I can’t even remember what company but it infuriated me. What a waste of time to have to keep repeating.

  • Travel Grammie

    I successfully escalated two issues just this week – and got what I wanted in both cases. Chris’s tips are right on. What I would add is that you need to be clear in your own mind what it is you really want (not just to vent – what is the action you want this person to take) and you have to be able to articulate why this is a reasonable action for them to take. You have to present your case based on facts, not emotion. Don’t make the call until you have these two things clear in your head or it’s too easy to get derailed by emotions at the time. Right down what you want and why it is reasonable for you to get it if it helps clarify it for you.

  • jerryatric

    Grand Circle Travel!! Called for a Tour & made arrangements, including Insurance.
    Spoke to 3 different “call” people for different things & each time was told that we had insurance that we paid for now. GCT calls us for information & we ask re the insurance in the cost- we’re told we have none! Even though we paid for it.
    We request a Manager to explain or get a refund. One week later no manager calling back!!! Time for e mails so I write to several managerial type including the CEO & here’s what we have after 2 – 3 weeks.
    1 Supervisor no longer there,2nd supervisor on extended leave & the general manger will try & get back to us in 2 to 3 weeks. The CEO never even opened my e mail.
    I do believe we are getting the refund for the insurance but imagine if we didn’t enquire & we were in India & some terrible incident occurred & we did NOT have insurance after paying for it!
    Great Customer Service – Great training of Personnel. They are sadly lacking in bothOh & still waiting for a Supervisor to call back

  • deb

    It is NEVAH a good idea to insult, berate, or even be irritable to anyone who holds even a fraction of yer life in his/her hands. I always, always say, “I don’t know if you can help me, but may I say first off…I do NOT want yer job! I’m not sure I could handle complaining people all day.” Then after the voice on the other end laughs (and they always do!) I give my pitch. And I end it with, “How can we straighten this out? I’m sure that I can do something…” or words to that effect. You cannot imagine what I have gotten with this technique, how fast a situation is resolved, when the voice on the other end is acknowledged as a human being with a difficult job. Same thing with an e-mail…acknowledge the other person as a person. Yeah, I know how hard that is when you’ve got a huge credit card charge that you don’t deserve, or whatevah, but a little sugar can grease the skids very well (yes, mixing metaphors, I’m a human too :)

  • Alan Gore

    Terminology is key here. Never ask to “speak to a manager.” That first-level script reader you got at the start of your day of calling doesn’t appreciate you calling attention to the menial nature of her job. Instead, say “we need to escalate” when there is some specific out-of-script situation that you are sure calls for it.

  • Kairho

    6. Be Persuasive. In conjunction with #3, Be Reasonable.
    I don’t believe I’ve ever come out poorly when I recently had a reasonable issue and (adhering to all Chris’ points) was easily able to persuade the front line agent that I had a valid case, after the agent said she needed to escalate since it was technically not permitted. So I offered to put the case into simple dot points (you know how supervisors are … she agreed and laughed) and offered to wait (no problem, I can get some work done on hold) for the supervisor.

    Never got through to the supervisor. Never had to. The agent came back, said she had been able to easily convince the supervisor that I had a valid case and they could overrule the code sharing operator of the flight. She laughed as she told me the supervisor said, well of course we will do that and put my (the supervisor’s) name in the record in case they have “une issue.” [Drat, gave it all away.]

    So ever since, I make sure the front line agent is not only my friend but also on the side of Distressed, Annoyed, and Right, er, me. Winning record approaches 1.000

  • 1pop

    You’re right, especially about “patience”

  • Grant Ritchie

    Thank you for naming the miscreant. More often than you’d think, we get every detail of some juicy customer service FAIL… except for a name.

  • Miami510

    Very Good Advice. I have one suggestion:

    .

    After identifying myself, I ask the operators to spell their name and then ask for their company identification number.

    I find that I am never hung up on and the service is much better. I believe they are intimidated knowing that they can be identified.
    I’m always obsequisously polite… and that seems to work.

  • Grant Ritchie

    I’ve sometimes asked, on the rare occasions I received great service, for a name and I.D. number so i could pass along an “Attaboy (or girl).” It never occurred to me to do it up front. Terrific idea. Thanks.

  • RetiredNavyphotog

    Grand Circle is pretty bad if you have a problem. I traveled with them a few years ago…never again! The people who answer the phone are only interested in making a sale.
    Now I make my own reservations on the airline’s website, book my own room and buy a tour book to hit the high points in a city.

  • polexia_rogue

    i agree, especially the ones who say “I don’t have a manager”

    i knew a few people in tec support who say

    1. you get punished for escalating

    and

    2. there is one manager for 50 people or some large number so putting the caller on hold will just mess up call times

  • EdB

    One of my favorite CS calls and dealing with scripts was a time I had lost a CC. I called to tell them so they could cancel it. No problem. Everything was fine. I had another question, can’t really remember what it was, but asked the rep about it. Their response, scripted answer I’m sure, was to call the 800 number of the back of the card. I paused for a moment and then asked them if they remembered why I had called in the first place. They responded, to report a lost card. Okay, and where is that number I should call? She said, on the back of the card. I waited a moment again then asked if they could see the problem with this picture. The line went silent for a moment and then she started to laugh, apologized, and gave me the number. We both had a good laugh about it.