Are SLAs really the key to great IT support?

If you’re looking to enlist help with IT from external consultants for your SME, the chances are you will be familiar with the term ‘Service Level Agreement’ (SLA). These are commonly used to define how service providers respond to a client’s issues and requests.

In essence, SLAs form a promise to deal with problems and challenges in a given way, within a specific timescale.

The document should reflect the reliability, efficiency and confidence that a company can expect in the support they are paying for. The terms involved will depend on how much cover you receive – and what has been agreed about evenings, weekends and public holidays – as well as the priority level of the job that needs to be done.

Establishing priorities

Usually, the consultant will assess the request and its priority level based on how serious the issue is and what its impact could be.

IT support companies have more detailed assessment processes but, in short, a problem that has the potential to lose or leak valuable data would need to be solved as quickly as possible. A request to rethink the configuration of a web page, on the other hand, could perhaps wait a few days.

The priority level, of course, is always subject to negotiation with the customer – there are any number of reasons why that seemingly minor web page might need looking at today.

As the client, you will know the timescale that your IT experts should respond within, and the time that they will aim to resolve the issue within. Hopefully, they are worst-case timings and you will get the intervention you need much more quickly than that.

However, it’s also important to be aware that your speed and effectiveness with answering your provider’s questions – or giving approval for work where needed – will influence how things progress. To allow for an occasional instance where targets just cannot be met – despite everyone’s best efforts – SLAs usually state that, for example, 95% of requirements should be met within set times.

How well the provider is doing is usually measured by Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) – a system of metrics chosen to gauge how well promises are being kept.

Agreement challenges

All this sounds straightforward, but SLAs can run into problems and there’s a lot of talk in IT circles about why they should be scrapped altogether. The tech support world changes fast, so SLAs can feel old-fashioned and out-of-date very quickly – and there are sometimes difficult questions about honouring a historic understanding.

In some instances, agreements can seem too rigid. The consultant might not have met the timescale target but there may be a justifiable reason that was outside of their control. Will the KPI report reflect that?

Finally, keeping track of jobs done and requests met can be tricky and time-consuming, meaning it can be hard to gather the right, reliable data needed to see the bigger picture.

In short, SLAs are great if they do what they are supposed to. If they don’t, they can be meaningless or even misleading.

How to create super SLAs

Forming an effective SLA is a two-way process between the IT expert and the client.

A first step is to look at what you already have. How well does it work, from your point of view as the customer? Do the KPI figures reflect what you know to be true?

It’s the provider’s job to ensure your agreement aligns to their business objectives as well as yours, otherwise there will always be a disconnect – and together, you should get management buy-in from all sides.

Are there services listed that are not needed? Could you work together to swap them for something more useful?

Are the goals the right ones for you, established at the optimum level of complexity? Too simplistic won’t give a clear picture of how things are going, too detailed will make them hard to measure.

You and your provider will want to set different goals for different types of services and it goes without saying that the document should be consulted often and reviewed as necessary. When redrafting SLAs or starting from scratch, there are plenty of online templates to help.

Finally, make sure the language used is as clear and simple as possible, so that people who don’t know much about IT can understand it as well as the techies.

Once SLAs and KPIs are set, it is your provider’s responsibility to log the right data, which will enable them to report back regularly and – crucially – ensure that the services they offer are working well for everyone concerned.

Why not get in touch today to talk to Q2Q about SLAs or anything else IT related?

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