ITSM 101: 8 SLA tips for better operations

InvGate July 27, 2017
- 6 min read

Service level agreements, commonly known as SLAs, are – or should be – critical assets for your IT department as they set out, and agree, the basis for managing the contractual and working relationship between themselves, the service provider, and the customer – the business as a whole, discrete lines of business, or maybe even individual teams. Individual SLAs should describe what has been agreed between both parties for the service across delivery, management, measurement, and improvement. Importantly, SLAs cover accountabilities and responsibilities on both sides of the arrangement, not just those of the service provider.

In other words, SLAs are there to keep both sides “honest” by ensuring that the service provider understands what they are supposed to deliver, and the customer knows what to expect, and vice versa. And both parties can see what’s been agreed using a standard, and hopefully mutually-accepted, format. For me, SLAs are key to effective IT service management (ITSM) – and, without them, IT is only ever managed “emotionally” by customers and other business colleagues, as there’s nothing tangible to refer to when assessing performance and the meeting of commitments.

If you’re unhappy with where your SLAs are right now, or if you don’t really have them in play, this blog offers up eight tips for getting them right.

Start from the Beginning

Create a solid baseline for new SLAs, and service level management as a whole, by looking at the SLAs you already have in place and how you’re performing against them. Look at what you offer service-wise, maybe comparing SLAs to your service catalog, so you can see if you’ve everything covered for at least critical services.

If you don’t have a service catalog, then talk to your IT service desk and your customers. Both will be able to give you a steer on what’s truly important.  With the service desk a great sense check in understanding what’s truly critical – IT-wise – to the business in the day-to-day delivery against corporate objectives.

Talk to Your Customers

It a good idea to ask how you’re doing, because sometimes the SLA doesn’t tell the whole story. For instance, have you heard of the “watermelon SLA”? It’s red (failing) everywhere apart from the front line (which the customer sees via dashboards and monthly reporting), which is always green. You can understand why it’s a watermelon SLA now.

By talking directly to your customers and asking for any feedback, you can identify any gaps with SLAs, and service level targets, and then ensure that they’re addressed.

Get Buy In

Get support from both your management team, and the support teams covered by your SLAs, so that everyone knows where they stand. Why both I hear you ask? Well, in order to be successful, SLAs need the support and involvement of both parties:

  • Management buy in is needed to ensure that your SLAs will not only be supported but are also enforced and have a clearly-defined escalation point.
  • You will need to work with the support teams responsible for day-to-day service delivery to ensure that what’s documented in your SLA is actually possible to deliver, makes sense, and can be clearly demonstrated to the customer. Nothing is worse to a support team then being told they need to deliver service levels that just aren’t realistic because “the SLA says so.” So, involve them in the beginning such that you can be confident that what you’ve included in the SLA will work in the real world.

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Make Sure You’re Measuring the Right Things

Your SLAs should map directly to business objectives. If they don’t, well as the saying goes – then “Houston we have a problem.”

For an SLA to be fit for purpose, it must deliver a tangible service that adds value, otherwise we’re just reporting for the sake of it. And who wants that? So, ensure that your SLAs are in sync with the rest of the business by going out and talking to your customers. Ask them what their keys goals are for the coming year and tailor your SLAs accordingly.

Watch Your Language!

As a service provider, an SLA (oh, the irony of using a 3LA here) should be a plain-language agreement between you and your customer (whether internal or external) that defines the services you will deliver, the responsiveness they can expect, and how performance will be measured.

So, in creating an SLA, ensure that you've clearly defined all the key terms and wherever possible used business language. There’s nothing more frustrating to a customer during a major incident, say, when escalations need to be made and the SLA is either unclear, missing information, or full of technical jargon.

Keep It Simple

Keep your SLAs customer-centric and to the point. If your SLA runs to pages and pages of technical content, not only will you alienate your business partners, no one will ever know to refer to your SLA and it will add very little value.

If your organization has any standard templates for documentation then use them in your SLAs so that they have a look and feel that is consistent with the rest of the documentation the business refers to and is easy to navigate.

Core contents for your SLAs should include:

  •      Introduction including an outline the service, who uses it, and who the customers are
  •      Agreed service hours including any maintenance windows
  •      Service quality criteria and targets for availability, capacity, security, and service continuity
  •      How the service will be managed and reported on
  •      Signatories

Agree Performance Criteria

Don’t forget to include agreed service performance monitoring criteria within the SLA – the important word being “agreed” – so that both sides understand what’s acceptable regarding levels of availability and performance. If penalties such as fines or service credits are to be invoked, in the case of service targets not being met, then ensure that they have the appropriate level of management sign off to avoid any nasty surprises further down the line.

Plan for Updates

Build in a regular review to ensure that SLAs are fit for purpose. Both businesses and technology can change rapidly, so make sure that you have provision to keep your SLAs up to date.

An annual review should be scheduled as part of the SLA agreement process but it’s also a good idea to have regular meetings, for example monthly service review meetings, to ensure that everything is running as it should be. Having monthly catch ups with your customers also means that if there are issues, or the threat of issues, they can be dealt with quickly rather than left with the potential to spiral out of control.

Service review meetings are also a great time to check in with your business partners, to talk through any big projects that are coming up, and to get a preview of anything that might challenge any existing SLAs such that any tweaks, or extensions for things like maintenance windows, can be agreed well ahead of time.

So, that’s my eight SLA tips. What would you add based on your ITSM practitioner experiences?

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