30

Difficulty: How do I deal with someone who won't escalate my complaint?

Assumptions

  1. I'm the customer, and can't take business elsewhere; the other party (let's call them REP for Representative) works for the government or corporate behemoth (e.g. airline, university).
  2. Email and telephone are both possible, but not meeting in person.
  3. I need escalate to someone else because REP still hasn't resolved the difficulty even after much interaction.
  4. I can't locate their superior's contact details, and so can't contact them directly.

Context

REP should escalate immediately, but sometimes, REP tries to obstruct your request (e.g. fear of appearing incompetent to superior, or even failing to understand the need for escalation). For my first try, I'd state: 'Our prolonged communicating still hasn't solved the difficulty. So I request to try communicating with someone else for efficiency.'

But then I have had REP answer obstructively:

Escalating above me will not solve the problem, or produce a different answer.

Or

I'm the most senior person who can help you; nobody else can.

The following retorts against these obstructions sound too insulting:

  • I don't wish to communicate with you further because I'm troubled by your resistance to my request.
  • I lack the time and energy to repeat myself about escalating.
  • Your refusal of escalation isn't progressing my case.
  • You appear incompetent or inept. (This last reason is too offensive.)
  • 4
    Could you perhaps add a location/culture tag to this question? Because this is really uncommon to where I am from, for example. Here, if I want to escalate, I go to my manager, not to the manager of the person I'm escalating against. Are we talking workplace? Or is this about being a customer? – Tinkeringbell Sep 10 '17 at 17:42
  • 1
    @Tinkeringbell Thanks for your edit. A location tag will be a problem, because my acquaintances and I have suffered this problem with employees in North America, Europe, and Asia. Is there another global tag? – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Sep 10 '17 at 22:02
  • 2
    "Escalating above me will not solve the problem, or produce a different answer." this could actually be true, in which case you'd just be escalating until you get to someone smooth-talking enough to actually convince you of it. – Tin Man Sep 11 '17 at 19:35
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    "I'm the most senior person who can help you; nobody else can." Unfortunately, this might be the truth if that has been laid down as law within their company internal structure - A company is free to decide to never escalate customers below a certain business volume, even if this leaves unhappy customers. – rackandboneman Sep 12 '17 at 5:31
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    I don't think this question is much about IPS. It's about interactions with government. Those are impersonalized and described by procedures, which you must comply. IPS assumpt also at least a bit of sincerity from the other party, which might not be the case, if the other party is encouraged or even forced to lie to you. – user3406 Sep 12 '17 at 7:47
44

I have tried the following things, each with some success.

  • Refuse to get off the phone or answer "is there anything further I can help you with today" until I am transferred to a supervisor
  • Hang up and call back immediately, hoping that a different CSR will do the escalation
  • Tell them that if they can't find anyone within the company for you to talk to, you'll be talking to [an external authority they fear.]
  • Demand to know where they are located so the conversation can continue in person
  • Give up and go to the external authority (a governing board, the media - including social media - or your lawyer.)

Asking for the office address with a school board administrator got me her boss immediately. [I expect she realized the office location is easily discoverable.] When things didn't go well with the boss, telling him that my next step was a call to my lawyer got me what I needed on the spot. Venting on Twitter after a terrible experience that included claiming I couldn't be transferred to a supervisor but one would call me (surprise, none did) got me DMs and emails of concern and my problem was resolved in the end.

You have options other than this stubborn CSR. Make sure you know this so you feel less desperate. Make sure they know this so they realize stonewalling you on the escalation won't stop you.

  • 4
    "Demand to know where they are located so the conversation can continue in person." Sounds like wishful thinking with the "corporate behemoth" type. When I went to a certain bank to show them how they'd done the math for something wrong, all they did was phone into the same call center that they expected me to call. Which didn't fix the problem... because the rep just took my concern, wrote it for another department, and they just said nothing was wrong. The people who actually have the power will do anything to avoid interaction with you. – Mehrdad Sep 12 '17 at 1:59
  • Sure, it depends on the company to a large extent. But local governments and school boards have offices you can visit - and more importantly, just asking where someone was so we could discuss this in person got my call transferred to someone who in the end, did what I wanted. (And what was right according to their own rules, despite what the first person kept saying.) – Kate Gregory Sep 12 '17 at 2:05
  • Did you mean "or answer 'yes' to 'is there anything further I can help you with today'"? Took me a minute to understand what was happening in that scenario :) – Em C Sep 12 '17 at 18:18
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    Refuse to answer 'is there anything further' when they keep asking it. That is their cue phrase that means "we're getting off the phone now." If you don't answer directly, they can't get off the phone. For people whose metric is call length, they will become very motivated to get you off the phone. Hanging up angrily because they won't escalate is a relief for them - they're off. Refusing to disengage hurts them. Enough to let you escalate? Depends on the situation. – Kate Gregory Sep 12 '17 at 18:32
13

You can continue to repeat the phrase "I need to talk to someone with the authority to solve my problem. Please connect me to a supervisor." But at some point, if this is ineffective, you and the rep will just be repeating stock phrases back to each other. This is not going to get your problem solved. The rep is following the policy they've been given, and whether they are personally sympathetic to your situation or not, they're not going to risk their job by violating a policy. Continuing the conversation under such circumstances is pointless.

In addition to Kate Gregory's excellent suggestions, there's another last-resort method you can try when diligent repeated efforts to resolve the problem have been unsuccessful: The Executive Email Carpet Bomb, a tactic named at the Consumerist blog a decade ago, and featured in such outlets as the New York Times.

First, hang up, take some deep breaths, and be sure you're being reasonable. Maybe run the situation past a friend or family member. It's easy to get emotional, frustrated, and to lose perspective when you're being stonewalled by a customer service agent.

Once you're calm and collected, compose a letter detailing the situation. Provide necessary details, but don't write a 20-page rant or make threats; just succinctly explain what happened and what you'd like them to do about it.

Then collect the email addresses for corporate executives at the company in question. Consumer advocate Christopher Elliott maintains an extensive collection of contacts for many companies. Email away (or call, should you find an "executive customer relations" contact number for that company).

Wait for a response. Even if the executive you contacted isn't responsible for solving your problem, they can simply forward it to someone who is. This, of course, isn't guaranteed to work, but it's quite successful with many companies, and can get you in touch with someone with sufficient authority and training to address your concerns.

Note that if you're having a problem with a government agency, elected representatives in many countries have staffers assigned to "casework," assisting people with problems they have with the government. Contacting the office of your reps and asking for assistance can be an effective strategy here if such a service is offered in your country.

In addition, it is not uncommon for local news stations in the United States to have consumer reporters who receive and attempt to resolve complaints about businesses. If one of your local stations offers this service, you could contact them. The aforementioned Christopher Elliott will also do this for travel-related problems (FAQ on how this works and what they can and cannot do), and his site has many resources on how to communicate effectively with customer service.

  • 8
    +1, especially for the part about elected representatives. One time, I was reading an e-mail newsletter from one of my state's U.S. Senators. In the newsletter, the Senator mentioned having recently met up with a business owner from my state that his office had helped resolve a problem with some particularly insane regulations. Scrolling down a bit further, I saw the picture of the Senator standing with my boss... (And I know the situation he was referring to, it was indeed insane, and his office did indeed help to stop the foot-dragging that was going on in a certain federal department.) – reirab Sep 11 '17 at 6:00
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    I forgot the "email higher up" thing, Very early in the days of email, Fast Company printed the email address of an airline CEO as part of an interview about how modern he was. I had spent days trying to get a departed employee off their list of "deals of the day", which were coming to me as postmaster. The phone reps and email people would accept nothing other than an email from the (deleted) account. I emailed the CEO and never got another email again. – Kate Gregory Sep 11 '17 at 12:29
8

There are already excellent suggestions, especially by Kate Gregory, so I present a more general point on how to be polite (prior to last ditch attempts).

In most of your examples, that you deemed to be too offensive, you are stressing what you don't want ("I don't wish to communicate with you, [...]", "Your refusal [...]", "You appear [...]").

Instead, stress what you want without focusing on Bob at all. So while communicating with Bob, your goal changes (temporarily) from your earlier request to "I want to talk to your superior".

This way, you can still be firm about it and have all options available. But you also remain polite towards Bob. I like the example in Zach Lipton's post (first paragraph). You may even thank Bob for his efforts, and still be firm about your request for escalation.

This may not work as a last ditch resort and there are already excellent answers covering that. But by shifting the focus from how Bob can't help you to how you want to be referred to a superior, you can formulate a polite second try.

4

The other answers already here may be effective but I think they don't really address the direct question of how to do this politely.

Just last week I went through a very similar situation, but got through it by sympathizing with the REP (which I can tell you was rather hard given how he was yelling at me). I listed the non-solutions the REP had (repeatedly) offered and said,

"I'm sorry, but X, Y, and Z do not solve my problem. I know that you are trying to help me and I understand you may not have been given the authority we need for this special case. If we've exhausted what you are allowed to do, can you please connect me to someone who might be able to help?"

As with your case, I was repeatedly told that nobody could help me any better and that talking to the manager would be fruitless. I gently insisted, "Thank you for the warning, but I'd still like to talk to them. This matter is too important to drop."

Your corporate behemoth may be different, but in mine it turned out the first two layers of contact were basically there as human shields. The company has hired a foreign call center whose job appears to be to repeatedly offer the same 'solutions' and say that nothing else is possible. I suspect the workers are being judged by how well they prevent calls from escalating up to more expensive employees. It was almost amusing how, when I finally got transfered to the first REP's "manager", it turned out to be just another person telling me "no" but, this time in an overtly belligerent, dismissive way. Fortunately, reminding myself that this poor chap was being thrown on the frontlines with no power other than to say, "I'm the manager", gave me the patience to not just hang up on him in response. I really do feel sympathy for those folks.

Eventually, that manager transferred me to his manager and I was surprised to reach an extremely helpful person. She was even empathetic about her company's outsourced phone support. She suggested that the next time I call, I could get taken right to her "Special Situations Department" by simply saying, "I'd like to speak to a U.S. representative, please." It turns out the "manager's manager" wasn't a specific person, but anyone at the U.S. call center. (I doubt it works that way in all behemoth conglorporations, but it's worth a shot).

Hopefully, my experience will give you the patience to deal with your powerless and obstructive REP. Don't be surprised if he's telling the truth and his manager can't help you any better than he can, but don't stop there if that's the case. Good luck!

2

Whether or not a representative should escalate depends on their internal policies and not about whether or not you want him to escalate.

The company that you are dealing with might have an internal policy against escalating the issue about which you are calling. A REP in a call center in India might be evaluated on keeping his sticking with fairly specific rules, keeping the time of the call to a minimum and some customer satisfaction score.

He might have a rule that when a customer threatens to cancel the contract, he can transfer you. Legal threats might allow a transfer.

Social media is often handled by a different team. Addressing the company on Twitter might bring you to a person with more power.

1

I don't know the full history of your communications but I would do all further communication using email so that you have a trail. I would start by stating something like

While I appreciate your attempts to solve my problem, the problem still has not been solved to my satisfaction. I request that my case be transferred to another rep, or if no other rep is available, to your supervisor for their input. When should I expect to hear from them?

If they come back and state (again) that no one else can help you, you won't get a different answer, etc. then ask them if they are refusing to transfer your case. After some communication, you should have proof of their refusal and other difficulty in dealing with them in writing.

I'm assuming after all this communication you have their name and where they work (e.g. office location, etc. or some way of identifying them specifically). Now you should be able to call some other generic number like customer service, etc. Once you find someone else from the company, you tell them that you are trying to locate the supervisor for <insert rep's name> from <insert rep's office location>. I'd be pretty surprised if you couldn't find someone that wouldn't put you in contact with their supervisor at that point. If they start asking why, just say that you've been unhappy with <rep>'s handling of your case.

Once you contact the supervisor, you can forward them the email trail demonstrating the difficulty you've been having with them and their refusals to try to find other help and refusal to provide contact info for their supervisor.

1

First of all, it is you who started from 2 assumptions:

  • escalating will make anything better
  • it's REP's duty to escalate

From your historical experience it may look like so, but both of those may be not necessarily true. REP's duty is to solve your problem. You can't force them into solving your problem in a particular way, but you can and should force them into solving your problem at all. If they continue to refuse to solve your problem, then ask for an official statement that the problem won't be solved. Ask for permission to record the call and ask them to state their name, position, current date and that they officially refuse to solve the issue X. If you have a lawyer, or some other scary figure, ask them to witness REP refusing to solve issue X. Ask them to send you this in writing. Basically force them into a position where there either take the blame on themselves or escalate it to blame someone else. (Well, by obstructing they already are in taking-the-blame position, you just don't have evidence to prove it when it hits the fan.)

1

I use two tactics to handle this:

  • Be the dream customer

They've been yelled at on the phone from 8AM until you call. Leverage this: act super-friendly, be extra nice, you have all the documents on hand, you're very understanding, every time they say "wait a sec" reply "no problem", etc.

Like the last time I walked into the local tax office to solve a problem. I complimented this woman for her efficiency at solving my problem, then I saw her smirk, so I adked, "Am I the first guy not to yell at you today?"

And she was like "well, actually, yeah."

This made me kinda sad, because she'd been nice and friendly and competent at solving my problem.

However, when dealing with monopolies, like the Gov't, sometimes they will make extra sure to turn your life into hell.

  • No mercy

I had talked about the issue with my lawyer beforehand.

I had a complete list of all the legal blunders they had done, on a paper in front of my eyes, when I called.

So, after she told me she couldn't do anything, I was like "Hmm, you told me your name was [redacted] when you picked up the phone, right? Anyway. According to my legal department..." (doesn't matter if you're self-employed, tell you have a legal department) "you're guilty of X and X and X, sounds like I could win between ... and ... (lots of money) as punitive damages. Unless you want to settle, of course."

After a moment of silence, I added "Don't worry about your career, [redacted], I'll make sure to mention it wasn't your fault..."

This issue which had been the bane of my existence for months was solved in a few days.

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