Your eyes meet across the room. Ten minutes later you're sitting in a darkened corner laughing together. Six months down the line, will you be driving each other up the wall or embarking on your happily ever after?
In business, just like in romance, when two parties come together, it could be the start of something beautiful. It could also be the start of an unmitigated nightmare. Anticipating which one it will be might make the difference between success and failure for your business.
Nightmare scenarios are often the result of a gap between expectations and reality, so it’s critical to be clear on what to expect from a relationship – and then ensure those expectations are met.
And that’s where customer service SLAs come in.
A service level agreement (SLA) is a documented agreement between a service provider and another party clearly laying out the services to be provided as well as the expected level of those services.
SLAs help you:
There are three types of SLA you might commonly come across.
An SLA is absolutely fundamental in customer service because it crystallizes promises into contractually agreed upon terms of service. It also formalizes the process on how to respond when these promises are broken, giving customers a way to hold service providers to account. If the agreed upon conditions aren’t met by the service provider, the customer can claim compensation to help soften any potential negative impact — financial losses, for example.
Service standards provide metrics within SLAs to specifically define what customers can expect from a service – in terms of timeliness and accuracy, for example. Just like setting any other goals, service standards need to be SMART, which means:
An example of a service standard in customer service using the SMART methodology might be:
'We will respond to your live chat request at any time of day or day of week within one minute, 98% of the time'.
Remember, achieving something 100 percent of the time simply isn’t possible, so never guarantee you can do it. Far better to include a more realistic target for how often the desired standard can be achieved.
To make sure your team is hitting this standard, you would need to check against the relevant KPI — in this case, the Time to Response metric.
Note: it's always a good idea to double check with customers that your standards of service are acceptable.
It’s important to avoid any confusion when it comes to SLAs. So, when creating one, remember to follow these two vital rules:
Although SLAs shouldn’t be complex, they should definitely be comprehensive. That means making sure you:
Bear in mind that SLAs are 'living' documents and require regular reviewing to stay up to date.
Service standards give you a yardstick against which to measure your performance. Ensuring these standards are upheld requires management through careful monitoring and analysis.
That means making use of a number of different strategies:
Service level agreements are usually based around very specific time frames, so time tracking is critical.
Monitoring software — usually included as part of help desk software — provides the accuracy you need to track SLA countdowns. Color-coding is a good way to go. In other words, green = good, red = bad! This makes SLA deadlines difficult to miss.
Whilst countdowns and timers make it easier to stay on top of SLAs, SLA breaches can, and will, happen.
Warning notifications before breaches occur can help mitigate this to some degree. For example, if you guarantee a live chat response in five minutes, software should automatically notify you at four minutes thirty seconds.
When SLA breaches do occur, make sure all relevant parties are aware. Automated messages of acknowledgement could be sent with next steps according to the SLA laid out, e.g. applying or some sort of compensation.
Knowing how many SLAs were met (or indeed missed), is vital information to improve your compliance rate and offer your customers a better service. But if you’re working with a mess of spreadsheets, accurate tracking may prove tricky.
Using service level agreement monitoring and reporting software that records each and every instance — you can even get free versions such as Paessler PRTG — ensures accurate reporting and analytics. SLA reports provide insight into what could have been done differently, as well as measure your SLA compliance rate for accountability.
Monitoring software should be customizable to your own unique needs. For example, you need a way to assign different SLAs to different situations. Not all circumstances require the same SLA. In fact, some may not require an SLA at all.
Segmentation means a system can assign SLAs appropriately and automatically. For example, only customer queries marked ‘Emergency’, or just queries from customers in certain payment plans. This ensures SLAs won’t require labor-intensive manual checks.
Most service level agreements are time-based, so any system should measure the start of something and its completion action, as well as the time in between. There are a few particular service standards to look out for:
It’s possible SLA monitoring software will have SLA metrics hardcoded into them and you can’t just create your own. This is not ideal. If they don’t have what you need, look for a more comprehensive software.
SLAs provide peace of mind for companies and customers alike. They also minimize time-wasting caused by any unnecessary finger pointing or back-and-forth playing the blame game. Entering into business relationships with no idea what to expect and no protection against poor service is a risk no one should have to take. We can all agree to that.
What do you think? Does an SLA help you better manage your working relationships? Let us know in the comments.
Benedict Clark is a psychologist and writer, having previously spent 8 years in the digital marketing industry. With a master's degree in Business and Occupational Psychology from Kingston University, he writes about the interplay between customer experience and psychology for Acquire.