The Art of Vendor Escalation Management

The unavoidable truth of life in a market economy is that sometimes the service or product that you purchase from a vendor completely and utterly fails. From something as basic as a botched order from your local diner, to something as complex as the total failure of the core networking infrastructure that you spent tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to implement… things just go sideways, sometimes.

pushing your way up the vendor slope

More often than not, a simple conversation with your vendor will result in a fix for the problem, and thank [insert deity here] that this is so, because… when it doesn’t… you’re in for a real treat. You’re now traveling through another dimension. Not just one of phone calls and emails, but one of madness and suffering. You’ve just unwittingly stepped into… The Helpdesk Zone. [queue troubling music]

Throughout my career, I have either been a part of, or personally run, organizations that deal with this kind of situation with greater frequency than many others. It is through these years of trials and tribulations that I have unknowingly developed a robust process for handling them. And, in dealing with one recently, someone on my team pointed out that it might be the kind of thing that people would appreciate learning about.

Now I’m all about sharing and helping others in ways that make their lives - and the lives of those around them - better. It’s kinda the core of what I do. So, in that light, I will attempt to share this information with you.

Fair warning, dear readers: I’m an author in my spare time, and my primary focus is writing novels, so this means that everything I put down in words winds up being more long-form than blog-ish. I do my best, but what can I say? I’m verbose. And this is a huge topic, so rather than write one giant blog, what I’m going to do is structure this topic into little tasty morsels for you to read over the course of a few (ok, perhaps several) lunch breaks.

Also, note that in this series I will occasionally refer to a support incident (vortex) that we experienced (fell into) with one very large vendor. I think it’s a great example of the process I’m trying to illustrate. The events I describe will be real, but I’ll change the name to protect the “innocent”. (cough) The vortex in question was a multi-month reduction in functionality of a critical and core infrastructure component. The vendor in question is an employer of well over 50,000 people with well over $40B in annual revenue, and the company I was working for at the time was about 1/6000th the size. A bit of a David and Goliath issue. For purposes of this series, we’ll call this company Valueflow Industries, which is a direct call back to an old marketing joke between me and a graphic designer friend… “We’re all about value! We’re all about flow! VALUEFLOW!” Yes, we were idiots, but man that was funny at the time.

So enough of my meandering nonsense. Let’s get to it!

So you’ve opened that door and stepped into the vortex of pain that is “trying to get this @#)$(@#$ thing fixed”. You pick up the phone, your shaking and angry features reaching for the buttons on the phone, and… wait

Before you even dial that number, it’s important to understand that there are some bedrock aspects to handling this situation properly. We’ll cover the first in this post, and the rest in my later posts, but the list of them are as follows, in order of importance:

Throughout my career, I’ve been in a situation of having to order priorities in one way or another, and often I find myself surprised to see a particular thing rise to the top. When originally ordering this list, I kind of expected Documentation to be rise to the top, but here we are with Empathy at the summit.

And why would this be so? Well, when you think about it, any situation where you are dealing with “something gone horribly wrong” is going to be one where you are interacting with people to try to get it to “go wonderfully right”. And each person that you interact with is… well… a person. People have lives just like you. There’s a good chance that this person has a botched diner order in their future, just like you. And odds are good that these people react to the same situations, burnt pancakes or otherwise, in a manner very like your own.

So, stop for a minute and to think a bit about the reality of the day to day life of the person you are first speaking to on the phone when you call in an issue. Let’s try to empathize.

Who is this person you are about to talk to when you call for help? What is their reality? Statistically speaking, I can tell you that if the person is on the front lines, they are likely inexperienced, living in the thankless world that is being called and complained at for eight hours a day, five days a week, possibly on nights and weekends. One call literally immediately after another, with only two breaks a day for the bathroom, and one for lunch. And, depending on what country they are in, possibly not even that. This is likely a person that has been trained only to follow script and has a limited - if any- understanding of the product in question, and no real influence on its quality or integrity. This person is likely orbited by supervisors with harsh expectations and may well be listening in on these calls to monitor how well the front-line person is performing. And if the call goes badly, guess what happens?

So… kinda awful, really. I can’t even imagine. I wouldn’t last a week in a role like that. And, guess what? Many don’t. The turnover in a role like this is extremely high because anyone who does well will tend to be promoted quickly, and most other people burn out and quit. So, the person you’re speaking with has likely not even been on the job all that long.

Now imagine yourself in that person’s chair, in an endless field of cubicles, surrounded by forever-ringing telephones, headset clamped upon your skull. And that person gets your call. And then has to sit there and patiently listen to you yelling at him.

That sounds less than ideal, right? How would you react? A big sigh, rolling your eyes, “Here we go again. When can I get off this call with this jerk? When is my shift over? Do I really have to do this again tomorrow? And the next day? And the next?”

Does this person want to help you? No. This person wants nothing more than to do whatever they can to get off the phone with you. Ever been “put on hold” and then accidentally dropped? Or heard “let me get someone on the phone who can help you” and then put back into the queue, only to have someone else who is equally unable to help pick up the line? Or worse? Guess what? That’s how these people survive calls like this. And as much as it galls me, I can’t really blame them.

Now what happens if you call this same support person and you say something like, “Hey. Thanks so much for taking my call. Look, I know there is only so much you can personally do to fix this situation, but I’m in a really tight spot here and would really appreciate anything you could do to help me.”

How would you react?

I don’t know about you, but I’d pretty much fall over myself trying to do whatever I could to help a person who started off a call like that. For people in these roles, this is like the skies parting and sunshine pouring down from above. And sometimes this is all you need to get your problem addressed with the very first call, and, therefore, why Empathy tops our list of priorities.

It would be impractical to go through every situation for every person you’re likely to interact with in this exciting journey upon which you are now about to embark, but understand that they all have differing, but similar, realties. In one way or another, they’re all dealing with irate customers who paid for some service that went sideways. And since this is going to be “one of those situations”, you’re likely going to need to talk to a lot of people… Level 2 support, possibly a sales or support engineer, maybe a developer, likely an account representative and maybe even his direct manager. Maybe even Mel, the owner of your favorite diner, little silly white hat atop his balding head. You just never know. (And yes, that is a reference to an old TV show. I do that.)

Sometimes it goes even higher. I had to work my way up to a Senior Director of the support organization of ValueFlow Industries (our example company, if you will recall). Let me tell you that trying that while working at a company that is basically a gnat under the shoe of a company that large, even getting a person of that credential on the phone requires an enormous application of empathy.

So, think carefully about your approach to people you interact with. Remember that they are, in fact, people. Be sensitive, be reasonable, be respectful. Be demanding, certainly, as you are their customer, but you can be demanding while still being kind. As my grandmother used to say, “You attract more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Granted, I have no idea why my Grandma was excited about attracting flies, but the spirit of the argument is definitely worth considering.

For our next post, we’ll discuss communication because when empathy fails, sometimes it means you must develop empathy in others. And Communication is how you get there.

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