SLAs – More Than a Service Level Agreement?


Service level agreements, or SLAs, are integral to any service-based industry. Most customer support teams have to adhere to SLAs, which are contractual agreements to provide service within an agreed time frame.

These could be as fundamental as making sure that groceries turn up within the delivery window, or as complex as getting the network back up and running after a failure within a certain time period.

In this post, I’m going to talk you through what else SLAs can be used for other than ensuring things are completed within stipulated time frames. When it comes to customer service, SLAs can mean so much more.

Why do we use SLAs anyway?

For customer support teams, SLAs are primarily used to set agreed levels of service between the support team and the customer, and to measure company performance against industry standards.

But that does not mean that’s all SLAs are limited to. They are also helpful for setting the right expectations of your support team’s performance. You can set your own SLAs for your support team members.

There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to SLAs – you can’t measure all your team members’ performance against one rigid SLA. These guidelines must take into account different types of requests that come in.

For example, it would be impractical to enforce an SLA that calls for agents to respond to every request within four hours, as for some cases this would be far too much time, while for others it would not be enough.

Agents who had quicker requests to deal with would be able to meet this SLA with minimal effort, while those agents who got stuck with the more complex issues would feel under a great deal of pressure to complete them within the time frame.

How can you decide on SLAs for your support team?

One of our customers shared a best practice about deciding on SLAs:

“Set SLAs not by what you “think” they should be, but how they work within your organization, and what “length” of time you are realistically happy with it taking to reply and resolve issues.”

The point is, you can’t use best judgement to set your SLAs – you need to base these standards on data that is relevant to your industry, your customers, and your team. Follow these steps to figure out what levels to set them at:

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1. Look at industry standards

You should start by looking at industry standards, then conduct your own research by asking your customers their expectations and requirements.

2. Talk to your customers

You have to work with your customers to decide what works best for both of you.

3. Look at your team’s capacity

Look at your support team’s capabilities and output. What can your team realistically achieve? Don’t agree to service levels unless you know your team will be able to reach them. Remember – always under promise and over deliver.

4. Consider the different types of SLAs

There are two different types of SLAs that you need to consider:

  • Service-based – As the name suggests, this type of SLA applies to a particular service that you could be offering to all your users.
  • Customer-based – With the introduction of concepts like personalised service, sometimes customers demand quick turnaround time even if that comes at some extra cost. You can set a special SLA plan for a particular set of users.

These two SLAs will require different standards, so if you offer both, make sure you go through the above steps for both service-based and customer-based SLAs.

How do you know your SLAs are right?

SLAs can and should always be refined over time and adjusted to fit with internal processes. The typical workflow for setting team SLAs should be something like this:

Decide an SLA -> Measure it over time -> Analyse the data -> Refine it accordingly

Once you have set up your SLAs, the next big thing to do is use this data to help you in your decision-making.

Delving into metrics will show you how well your team is meeting their SLAs. With these metrics, you’ll be able to see whether SLAs are helping your team achieve more, and whether or not your SLAs are effective and need changing.

  • Look at the correlation between missing or sticking to SLAs and customer satisfaction
  • Analyse the financial impact of downtimes. Let’s say an SLA was missed when servers went down. You can link all the incidents that occurred during that downtime and round-up the overall impact.
  • Identify the type of tickets that frequently miss SLAs and look at why and how to solve it. Could you rethink processes, alter the SLA, or coach your team?
  • If SLAs are consistently being missed, consider whether you’ve got enough team members to handle the load.
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Something that can help you to solve some of these issues is to make sure you’ve got an adequate escalation process in place.

What do escalations have to do with SLAs?

Escalations and SLAs go hand-in-hand. Escalations are usually used to assign tickets to more senior team members when SLAs have been missed but they can also be used to get help from a technical expert to solve an issue within a stipulated SLA.

These are the two categories of escalations:

  • Skills-based – Useful when an agent does not have the skills to solve an issue that requires deep technical diagnosis.
  • Hierarchy-based – For when an agent doesn’t hold seniority required to make a decision, for instance offering discounts or dealing with serious complaints.

If you are able to escalate a ticket before it misses its SLA, this will do wonders for customer satisfaction. You can use your help desk or CRM to automatically escalate tickets that are coming close to missing their SLAs.

How do SLAs help support teams?

Setting clear SLAs help set customer expectations and allow support teams the time to tackle their issue.

For example, a customer who does not know to expect a response to their query within four hours might follow up on the request after a couple of hours thinking that their ticket has been missed.

Whereas if they’ve received an autoresponder email letting them know to expect a response within four hours, they would be reassured that their message had been received and would be dealt within in the given time frame.

The key thing is making sure that you have the right set of SLAs for the type of requests you’re often dealing with. You don’t want to be sending out autoresponders promising four hour SLAs for a simple “how to” question. This might leave a bad impression of your customer service.

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Instead, by setting realistic expectations, SLAs reassure customers that their issue will be responded to in reasonable time, and give support teams the space to deal with an issue without having to respond to a customer’s follow-up messages. It’s a win-win!

One of our customers explains that having the right SLAs in places helps save them up to 10 minutes per ticket, which works out as a week’s worth of work saved every month. This is all because they can now focus on resolving issues rather than responding to additional follow-up tickets on each case.

The takeaway

SLAs are so much more than just a contractual agreement between business and customer. They allow you to manage your customers’ expectations and meet them at the same time.

Having SLAs in place prevents confusion in your support team and allows you to see where the gaps in your team are. It holds you and your team accountable and allows you to measure performance, but also helps to reduce friction between customers and the support team.

They can even help you streamline your business processes, improve efficiencies and cut costs. All this clearly shows that SLAs are definitely more than a ‘Service Level Agreement’ with the customer.

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