Service Level Agreements Fulfilled. Customer Unhappy.
Have you ever come across the situation where the IT Service Level Reports always show “green”, but in reality the delivered services did not match the customer expectation at all? If yes, please read this blog and you might find out that you either have the wrong SLA’s defined or focus too much on them without considering the most important factor: Service culture.
Below Dilbert cartoon (thanks to Scott Adams) very well indicates such a situation. You can imagine that although the incident of the enduser has been solved in a very fast way, he is probably not satisfied at all:
Before thinking about what went wrong, let’s go back one step and recap the process which is mainly responsible for making sure that the delivered service levels meet the expectations of the business and the customers: Service Level Management.
Service Level Management – put the focus on the customers expectations
Within the Service Level Management process, Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) are negotiated and agreed together with the customer in a first step, based on his expectations to the IT Services. This should result in clearly measurable KPI targets. For example there might be the expectation from the customer that certain critical IT services are highly available, one possible resulting KPI target is an minimum average availability level of 99.9% of this IT Service during business hours. Once these targets are agreed within the SLA document and signed off, the actual service performance is continuously monitored against the SLA targets, resulting in a periodic service level report, showing how ‘good’ the IT Service provider is doing his job. In above example it might either turn out that the IT service was sufficiently available, therefore meeting the targets (equal or above 99.9% ->’green’) or below the expectation agreed in the SLA (->’orange’ or ‘red’). If this is the case, corrective actions need to be taken (e.g. as a part of a Service Improvement Plan) to bring the IT Service to the level it should be – or alternatively the KPI targets needs to be redefined in agreement with the customer.
If you are familiar with the principles of the Deming Cycle, you see how the in itself closed control loop is nicely adapted: Plan (setting the SLA), Do (delivering the IT Service), Check (measuring what has been delivered against targets) and Act (taking corrective actions if there is a gap). If you ever worked as an IT Service Manager you know the importance of Service Level Management and what the benefits are: A consistent interface is provided to the business for all service-related issues and discussions around service quality are brought from a subjective to an objective level (based on facts). Last but not least it is a good platform to meet regularly with your customer and strengthen the relationship.
Going back to the situation in which a Service Level Management process is implemented (as described above), SLA’s are agreed with the customer and the SLA targets are regularly met – but you still face an unhappy customer. There can be two reasons for that:
- Either the agreed Service Level targets are not reflecting what the customer actually wants/needs
- Or there exist other factors, which contribute to the satisfaction of the customer and cannot be measured through Service Level Management
Regarding the first point, in which the SLA’s obviously need to be revised, there are some important points to be considered:
- There is always a price tag behind each service level (this is also true if the IT services are provided internally) and higher service level usually also means higher cost, which the customer maybe is not willing to pay. This mechanism you need to make transparent to your customer when negotiating SLA’s. The message should be: “I can deliver you whatever service level you want, but be aware of the price tag behind it
- Sometimes the customer doesn’t know what service levels he actually wants,
especially if an SLA is initially negotiated. One possibility is to consult other processes like Availability or Incident Management to determine what the current service levels are and gain feedback from the customer how satisfied he currently is with that. Multiple iterations might be needed until you end up with the final picture
- SLA targets should support the expectations of the customer to the service and it is therefore important to choose a balanced set of KPI’s, which finally measure the value contribution to the strategy.
- Please keep in mind that the customer is usually living in a changing environment and therefore his IT Service needs can change over time. This is one additional reason
why SLA’s need to be revised from time to time.
The importance of Service Culture and other ‘Soft Factors’
There are a number of ‘soft’ factors, which positively influence customer satisfaction (or negatively if absent) and which are difficult to be defined as part of an SLA and cannot be monitored by mechanistic or procedural means. For example, incidents always might be solved in a quickly manner and IT services highly available (-> meeting the targets in the SLA), however if the Service Desk agents have an unprofessional and unfriendly way in communicating with their customer, this ends up in a low overall customer satisfaction. Although service level targets are missed sometimes, the customer might be highly satisfied, because he sees that appropriate actions are taken to improve things and the provider has an ‘Always at your service’ – mentality. This especially refers to the so-called ‘excitement factors’ (Kano customer satisfaction model).
These soft factors can be best summarized as “Service Culture”, which indicates that, for everyone in the provider organization, customer satisfaction is the top priority and that IT Service provider activities demonstrably contribute to the business objectives of the customer.
Another interesting aspect is the fact that the human being tends to achieve his targets as efficient as possible (meaning with the minimal effort to achieve the goal). Especially in an outsourced IT environment, this can lead to a situation where your outsourcing partner starts ‘cheating’ to meet his targets. Below some of these common tricks, which you probably already faced if you once worked in an outsourced IT environment:
- Incident Management: Not meeting the expected reaction- or resolution times? As an IT service provider just put the ticket more often into the status ‘on hold’ or ‘waiting for xyz’, this is usually the time when the SLA watch stops and this way you can gain significant time. Another possibility: Agree with the enduser to make 2 or 3 tickets out of 1 (closing the initial one and open a second one), each one meeting the SLA target and addressing one aspect of the same incident….
- Availability Management: High Availability of IT Services is probably the most important service level target for the customer. At a first glance Service availability is something easy to measure (an IT service either being available or not) and this is often also how it is defined in the SLA, however if it comes into practice, there is endless room for interpretation for the IT service provider: What if only a part of the service is not available? Was the unavailability maybe caused by somebody else than the IT service provider (if yes, it might not be counted as unavailability in the report). And so on…
Have a look at the blog ‚The SLA Cheat Sheet‚ for a more in-depth view to the common tricks in achieving SLA’s
Above list can be of course expanded by other interesting examples. You might argue that avoiding above behaviors is just a question of integrating appropriate rules into the service level agreement. I doubt that this is possible to close all these gaps and you might end up with a document that is not practically usable. Also considering the fact that the IT service provider is misusing these gaps (and you ending up micro-managing your outsourcing partner to close the gaps) shows that this cannot be the right solution. You would have been better off with a service provider demonstrating true Service culture.
Listen to your customers!
Finally the question is how do you find out if you are on the right path if the SLA only gives you limited confidence? One suggestion to find out if the delivered IT Service levels meet the expectations of the customer is to perform a customer satisfaction survey. By doing do, you look at the real perception of the customer. If you identify a mismatch between customer perception and service level reports, this might reveal problems in the area of service culture, which need to be addressed. Customer Satisfaction Surveys should be performed on a regular base (e.g. once a year) and one important point is that they should be seen as an instrument to improve the IT service quality. This is also why the customer satisfaction survey not only should contain rating scales for the different aspects of the IT service, but also some free text form, where the customers can indicate what they don’t like, why and what they suggest. Make sure that these inputs are analyzed and consolidated into a Service Improvement Plan, resulting in concrete actions to improve the IT Services. This shows your customer that you have a true ‘service culture’.
“The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
― Mahatma Gandhi