I was involved in a discussion about SLAs on Twitter recently.
Some people felt very strongly that if you can’t measure something then it should not be included in a service level agreement (SLA), even if the customer says that this is the most important thing that they want from the service. I disagreed because I think the most important thing to put in an SLA is a description of what your customer wants, even if you can’t measure it.
How can we resolve this, so that we provide SLAs with measureable targets that still address the unmeasureable things that customers have asked for?
The worst possible approach is to insist on an IT-centric view of services, where everything is defined in strictly measureable terms. I have been involved in a number of escalations where the IT service provider has met all of their targets, but the customer has not been happy. This has almost always been due to the customer having signed up to an SLA that didn’t really describe what they wanted, because the outcomes they cared about could not be easily measured.
One way of dealing with this issue was described in a blog by David Cannon (@ITILSO) recently. David’s suggestion is that you should start by defining the desired outcome (what the customer wants). Then identify the factors that will make that outcome possible, then define what is needed for those factors to be achieved, and keep going till you have a list of factors that you can measure and control. This approach is certainly better than ignoring the required outcome and just defining measureable IT metrics, but (as David notes) “You will discover some factors that cannot be controlled due to physical or business limitations” and also you will discover some factors that can’t be easily broken down into the exact conditions required to achieve them.
When I was thinking about this issue recently, I remembered similar situations from when I was bringing up my children. I expected them to behave properly, but I could not possibly list every single thing that I expected of them – even if I spent many hours on this they were quite capable of coming up with some new and unexpected behavior that I hadn’t thought to ban! This didn’t mean that they could do anything they wanted so long as they met the measureable criteria that I had defined. I told them that they had to behave properly and then gave them examples of the kinds of evidence that would demonstrate this. When we came to discuss their behavior we could look at the evidence, but the thing we had to agree about was the overall behavior, not the specific things that I had, or had not, told them to do. I never told my kids that they weren’t allowed to set fire to their beds, but that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a requirement!
This same approach can be used to define service levels.
- Ask the customer what they want and write that down. For example “IT failures will not have a significant impact on the business” or “Responses to requests for new service features will be flexible and try to meet our changing needs”. These may not be measureable, but if the customer agrees that you have achieved them then they will be satisfied with the service.
- Think about what you can measure that could be used as evidence that you achieved the things the customer cares about. For example “Priority 1 incidents will be resolved within 4 hours” or “Requests for new service features will be responded to within 5 working days with an approximate price”. Discuss these targets with the customer and make sure that they agree that if you achieve the measureable targets they would find this acceptable. Your SLA now has two different types of statement: the things the customer really wants, that you can’t measure, and for each one of these a set of things you can measure that will provide evidence that you have delivered what was agreed. So far this is quite similar to David Cannon’s approach.
- Measure the agreed targets and provide data for use in customer reviews. These reviews typically take place once a month. Present the data about your achievements against measureable targets and ASK the customer “are you satisfied that we delivered the outcome for which this is the agreed evidence”. In other words you should be discussing the customer outcome, and using the measureable data as evidence to show what you achieved. The key point is that it is achievement of the outcome that matters; the measured data is just evidence. Sometimes the customer may be dissatisfied with the service even if you achieved all the targets. As a service provider you should use this as an opportunity to understand why the customer is not satisfied, and whether the targets (and the service) need to be improved. On other occasions the customer may be satisfied even though the numeric targets were not met. This is also an opportunity to improve the targets. The important points are:
- Spend most of the time in customer review meetings talking about the agreed outcomes, not about the measureable targets.
- If you failed to meet customer expectations for an outcome then accept this and work with the customer to understand how you can meet their expectations in future. Don’t hide behind the data and tell the customer they are wrong!
There has been a big change in IT Service Management over the last few years. It is no longer acceptable to take an IT-centric view of services. We must all understand how our services create value for our customers, and how everything we do contributes to that value. Based on that understanding we can make sure that we keep satisfied customers by delivering the services that they really want, not just the services that we know how to measure.
Don’t think that this doesn’t apply to you because of the type of services you offer, or the type of service provider you are. It applies equally to everyone. I have heard people working for outsourcing organizations say that they should never deliver more than they have specified in the measurable targets, and that to do so would undermine negotiations for upgrades and renewals. I think that this is exactly the wrong way to think about it. If you want your customers to renew their contracts, if you want them to recommend your services to others, if you want to win more of their business, then you absolutely must focus on customer outcomes, and not on measureable targets. I’m not saying that you should always agree to deliver more and better service for the same price, but that you should worry more about the customer outcomes than about the numbers that you can use as evidence that you met these.
I would like to measure how effective this blog is, so rather than counting page views and reply counts I am going to count the number of replies where people say that they have read this blog and it will influence how they define or measure their services – please reply to this blog if it has made a difference to your thinking about SLAs.
Learn more about HP Consulting Services and how HP can help you shift your focus from operation to innovation.
If you want ideas about how to start thinking strategically, then read some of my other blogs:
- IT strategy: 4 things you can learn from the U.S. government (yes, the U.S. government)
- IT Strategy: 3 more things you can learn from the U.S. Government
- 3 Steps an IT manager should take to earn their seat on the board
- Prioritizing time to get started on strategic planning
- Don’t mistake continual service improvement for a mature IT strategy
- 6 steps to plan and prioritize IT investments
- When is it good to talk about technology with the CEO?
- Service strategy survey shows that many organizations have a long way to go
- The Five Cs of Change Management
- 6 steps to get started with knowledge management
- 3 Things That Will Help You Become a Learning Organization
- Is SaaS going to replace on-site software?
- Don’t Disrespect Santa Claus and Don’t Ditch ITIL
For more info about me and what I can do for your organization, see my profile on our Technology Services Experts page.