Your service level agreement (SLA) is an integral part of your IT business and an essential element of your service level management strategy (SLM). Your SLA gives both you and your customers a solid basis for communicating efficiently and handling problems effectively, which makes it a valuable tool. One that both you and your clients can use to manage each other’s expectations. For this reason, finding ways to improve the “agreement” part of your SLA can be important.
It’s helpful to think of the SLA mostly as an agreement of what you, the service provider will do, not what you can avoid doing for your customers. Careful definition of terms will go a long way toward resolving disputes over matters including prioritization and time until resolution. Done right, your SLA will help you measure productivity and differentiate your company from your competitors.
Where use of SLA can go awry
When service providers and customers talk, customers often want providers to do something that can’t be done. Almost always, the providers would like to be able to meet the client demands. But when that can’t happen, a customer can feel personally let down.
That’s the case, for example, when company email goes down, and you aren’t able to restore it in a matter of minutes. Angry words fly, and precious times gets wasted. In a worst-case outcome, when a customer “goes off” on IT staff, its members can just brandish the SLA and maintain, “That’s not my job.”
But your SLA shouldn’t be a device that maintains a distance between your organization and its customers. If you craft the agreement is thoughtfully and with your end goals in mind, it will allow you and your customers to enjoy win-win scenarios and lasting relationships.
Types of Service Level Agreements
There are three types of service level agreements: Service SLA, Customer SLA, and Enterprise SLA. The Service SLA is an agreement between the service provider and the customers of a specific service the enterprise offers. The Customer SLA is an agreed between the service provider and a particular customer or customer segment, and the Enterprise SLA is an agreement between the service provider and all of the enterprise’s customers. Whichever form of service level agreement your company works with, here are some pointers about what your SLA should be and what you never want it to be.
What an SLA is:
- An open line of communication. Your agreement should build communication, not just between your service department and outside customers, but also between your internal staff and other relevant departments and employees.
- A living document. A good SLA can help everyone know who’s working on and what they’re working on at the moment and can evolve over time to meet the needs of customer and business.
- A way to keep it real. The agreement will let everyone involved know what your firm can do and the timeframe in which your employees can do it.
- A model of clarity. When everything is set down in precise language, no one has to guess who should take responsibility to meet the terms of the provider-client relationship.
What an SLA is not:
- A “deal or no-deal” negotiation where one or both parties walk away from the discussion.
- A complaint-stopping mechanism that gets stamped “Approved,” then stored in a drawer, only to be unearthed when a customer starts making demands.
- A one-sided “CYA” agreement crafted by the service-provider side, with the understanding that the customer can “like it or lump it.”
Your SLA is a reflection on your business and your integrity. Treat it as a living document and go back and look it over to make sure it serves as an accurate representation of the services you provide to your customers. As you review your service level agreements keep these tips in mind:
One: Make sure you have buy-in from all parties when creating and using an SLA. Nobody should be bossing the whole process, and there’s no single model for making an agreement that’s effective.
Two: Once the agreement is in place, schedule focused training for all the staff and cross-functional teams involved. You can’t “set it and forget it.” Everyone who’s touched by the agreement should know in advance who will be on deck to do specific jobs. Providers and customers should also be familiar with the metrics that will record what was done and how well it was performed.
Three: Make sure that all the terms of the agreement are crystal clear. If the parties don’t know what’s supposed to come under the SLA, organize information with the questions that journalists use: Who? What? Where? When? Why? How?
Four: Be forthright. Honesty should be the only policy, with yourself and your customers. There’s no point in trying to please people by promising service that you can’t possibly deliver. A much better approach is to promise less and deliver more.
Five: Create a contingency plan on which both sides agree. Because events can overtake organizations, on occasion, you may need to be able to step up your efforts, or “escalate” to handle a problem covered by your SLA.
Six: Put customers’ needs and time parameters at the top of your list. To be clear, SLAs can apply either to dealings with internal customers, such as departments that rely on IT help from “down the hall,” or to outside buyers who deal with the organization as a whole.
Seven: If a situation calls for it, make changes. Avoid the assumption that your way is the best or only way. When a situation calls for a change in “the way we’ve always done it,” make creative use of it.
Eight: Once your SLA is up and running, build on it. It should contain tools so you can audit the way things are being done and see areas for improvement.
Again, let’s stay real: Creating a service level agreement isn’t a sunny day at the beach. It often involves hard work that requires buy-in from lots of people. There’s also the job of checking the plan, numerous times, with the key staff and leadership within your company, as well as with outside customers.
However, all that pays off when the agreement you craft creates a positive framework for your business relationships, as well as focus on quality work for your organization. Concentrating on the “A” for agreement in an SLA will result in real benefits for both your company and your customers.
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