Handling customer escalations calls
Turn a potentially negative experience into a positive one
If you are a Product Manager in a B2B company, you will find yourself getting pulled into customer escalation calls. Going up the ranks, it is common for Product leaders to manage customer relationships - manage retention and help win new deals. During such calls, tensions can run high.
It will start with the Sales team reaching with something along the lines of “this customer is very unhappy. They are about to churn because a feature is not available” or “the product is not working as expected” as common reasons.
I have seen Product Managers avoiding such meetings as much as possible. However, these meetings are a good opportunity to get to know your customers, how they use the product, and their expectations from the product, to get feedback and to validate your roadmap.
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Reasons for having a customer escalation call
Sales or Customer Success, or customer facing teams, will normally send an SOS to the relevant Product Manager. The most common reasons cited are:
Customer is about to churn because of a lack of feature,
Customer is angry about a bug in the product or the product is not working as expected
If you are lucky, it will be to know more about the product roadmap before they renew their contract or sign a new one.
What to do next?
Get to know more about the customer and their problem.
Try to understand more about the situation from the Sales / Success Manager before the customer call. Set up a call or reach out via Direct Message (DM) to get to know more about the customer, their situation and their problem. I have found that Sales/ Success’s description might be biased and solely focused on getting to a solution. You may need to shift the conversation to understand what is the problem they are trying to solve and the expected outcome. Reiterate that you are willing to work with them to reach a solution.
Work with the Sales or Success Manager to come up with agreed next steps.
Possible next steps based on the escalation:
If the customer is angry about a bug already identified, share an update with the Sales / Success executive. Provide more details about why the bug requires time to solve.
If it is about a feature gap, a conversation about the roadmap would be a good next step.
Call set up
Sales / Success will be responsible for setting up the call. You could optionally invite Product Design and Engineering counterparts to the call. It is a good opportunity to understand the problem right from the customers.
Conversation with the customer
From the customer’s side, the person on the call is your product’s sponsor inside the organisation. Put yourself in the person’s shoes. They were one of the key decision-makers during the buying process. Now he/she is getting the heat from their teams or management because of the bug or the feature gap.
During the call - spend time understanding the problem
In the beginning of the meeting, give the customer some time to describe their problem. It will give you an unbiased view of the customer's needs. There will be a strong urge to be defensive. Take a deep breath. Acknowledge the bug or the problem. This will significantly de-escalate the situation.
Treat the customer as a partner/collaborator on the product
If it is a bug, provide more details on the process of resolution. Aim to get more information from the business to replicate the issue. Highlight if you need more time to identify the root cause or to get the bug resolved.
If it is a feature gap and you have acknowledged the problem, you could move the conversation in a couple of different directions -
Roadmap - Talk about how you are planning to solve the problem. Also use the opportunity to discuss the other work on your roadmap. Explain why other capabilities are prioritised on the roadmap and highlight that their feedback matters. Invite the customer as a collaborator to comment on the roadmap. Be cautious about sharing internal documents that reveal roadmap items which are not public or ready to be known to the public.
Short term solution - During the call, discuss short-term solutions for the problem. This might include using a third-party product, custom integration or code.
Process change - Certain times, businesses may not using the product as expected. There could be incorrect set up or inappropriate processes along side the software. Share best practices and how other businesses have processes around the product.
After the call - follow up on your open questions/actions
It is normal for the conversation to move to other product areas. It is great if you are familiar with those other areas. If you are not, it is perfectly acceptable to say you do not know and volunteer to follow up on the question / feedback.
Share notes or recordings of your customer call with other Product Managers, Product Designers and Engineering teams. It is a good way to show your awareness of customers’ needs, proof of validation for your roadmap and create a sense of urgency for resolution.
Always keep in mind - the feedback is for the product, not a personal attack. The customer is in a tough spot with his team. Frustration and anger are natural responses. Take a deep breath, look at the big picture and re-iterate that you are here to help.
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