Whilst SLAs, with defined delivery criteria, attempt to drive improvements in suppliers' performance by providing an effective measurement function, there is growing evidence that they actually reduce the level of the service being delivered. This is because they can remove the ability of suppliers to flex SLAs to meet the customer's real business needs. In many cases, fixed SLAs mean suppliers spend more time and effort avoiding penalties or service credits - rather than focusing on delivering a service around the business needs and practices of the customer.
The very strict adherence to SLA targets can result in customers receiving a service that is 100 per cent in-line with SLAs but will still be deeply dissatisfied with their supplier. A service provider that focuses strictly on compliance, ahead of satisfaction, will usually send an unsuitable engineer to a customer site just to meet the response time and avoid penalties. Although the SLA is met, the contribution to improved business performance is zero. In contrast, with a truly partnership-based, more flexible, approach to service delivery, virtually every service level may be breached - but the customer remains very satisfied.
To illustrate this point, I have highlighted two real-life service scenarios - one SLA driven, the other taken a more flexible approach:
At 11am, a customer logs a fault call, with a four-hour call to fix service level, for a tape drive that is attached to a server. Do they really want an engineer to arrive, take the system out of service and replace the tape drive within four hours? Or, would they prefer to arrange a time that fits into their daily usage schedule and have the tape drive replaced - with minimal disruption.
A home-working user has a problem with a laptop that is on a four-hour site response SLA, but they have a series of important client meetings scheduled that cannot be rearranged. Rather than respond within the SLA, a better option would be to arrange a suitable time for repair that's not disruptive to the user's schedule. Although the SLA is breached - the customer is happy.
The key must be co-operation between a customer and service provider, obviously there is middle ground in these scenarios. There are of course occasions when a major problem strikes, then there can be no compromise, the Service Partner must deliver to full SLA - without hesitation or delay.
The best service delivery approach involves understanding the customer's business and wrapping a highly flexible service provision around their business functions and processes. The focus should be on supporting the business and end user activity - to drive reliability and functionality within IT provision. There are other benefits too; by enhancing the IT user's experience it improves the reputation of the customer's IT department.
To ensure service delivery is maintained, try conducting surveys on customer satisfaction. The survey can also be tailored for each customer to cover two areas: Satisfaction with the handling of an incident and the professionalism of the team managing the call. The results of the survey can then be used to provide a clear picture of the supplier's performance - with follow up issues identified and corrective steps agreed.
Service delivery at its best should involve a partnership between the IT department and the service provider that is mutually perceived as fit for purpose. To achieve this takes understanding, co-operation and flexibility - all supported, rather than undermined, by measurable SLAs.
Dave Brierley is group major accounts manager at Maindec
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