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Tear up your IT support SLAs

Time to tear up the SLAs

Your Customers don’t care

Best practices are hard to give up. Once a practice earns the ‘best’ prefix, we adopt them unthinkingly, as an act of faith. The latest best practice being demoted from ‘best’ to ‘worst’ is the dreaded annual performance review. Organizations like Accenture and GE are leading the charge and replacing annual reviews with more frequent feedback.

IT service management has a few best practices that deserve similar demotion. Like Support Service Level Agreements. They should be torn up and thrown away.

In the world of service management, there is only one true measure of service quality, and that is customer satisfaction. It is customer satisfaction that determines whether your customer trusts you or bypasses you, increases your budgets or squeezes them, keeps you as their service provider or outsources you.

IT support service levels are typically measured by having target response and resolution timeframes set for each incident priority. Service level agreements are then defined as the minimum percentage of incidents that will meet those targets, e.g. we’ll respond to 90% of Priority 3 incidents within 4 hours. Performance against those service levels is typically reported as the actual percentage of incidents that met those targets.

1Should this customer be satisfied or dissatisfied with the service they are getting?

But these service level agreements do more harm than good.

They ignore the customer experience

Service level agreements don’t take the customer experience into account.

Perhaps incidents and requests are being resolved on time, but support staff are condescending or hard to understand. Or perhaps things are a little slower than described in the SLA, but customers are happy anyway because communication is excellent and their expectations are well managed.


What does customer support success look like?

And because support SLAs only measure what percentage of incidents were late, not how late, what incentive is there to resolve an incident that has missed its target?

They can give a false sense of security

Performance against response and resolution support agreements don’t tell you if you’re failing, meeting or exceeding your customer’s expectations.

How do you know if your SLAs are good enough, or too good?

When your SLA performance reporting shows everything as ‘all green’, it can give you a false sense of security, leading you to believe that the customer must be happy. I like to call this the Watermelon Effect – green on the outside (green traffic lights), red on the inside (angry customers).


Beware the Watermelon Effect

This is probably why 80% of organisations think they deliver a superior customer experience but only 8% of their customers agree (‘Customer Experience Index’, Forrester 2012).

Conversely, if you’ve got lots of red traffic lights, you’re in danger of investing resources into making changes that might not be required because the customer is happy anyway.

They ignore perceptions

When it comes to service, perception is everything. Concepts such as quality, value, timeliness, responsiveness, friendliness are all about perceptions. Perceptions of those at the receiving end of the service.

No amount of facts about how quickly you were served will change your mind about the restaurant you just went to. And no amount of facts about ticket resolution speed will change how your customer feels about you.

And when you use objective measures to infer perceptions you may fall foul of the phenomena predicted by the Kano Model – a customer’s service level expectations increase over time. Even when objective measures stay the same, the customer perceives that service is getting worse.


If things aren’t getting better, your customer may feel things are getting worse

Having target timeframes for each incident priority is good. Targets can be used to manage customer expectations. And measuring individual support team performance against those timeframes can help determine resourcing levels. They are well suited for internal use.

But let’s not call them Service Level Agreements. Don’t ask your customers to agree to matrices full of percentage targets. Do you ever wonder why it’s difficult to engage customers in defining support SLAs in the first place? They don’t care.

And don’t wave green traffic light reports under their noses as proof that they should be happy when they say they are not. When it comes to IT support there is only one service level you should be focused on – customer satisfaction.

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