What is an SLA?
SLAs are service level agreements. Typically used to define minimum levels of service, they can include expectations such as the uptime of software, delivery dates for upgrades, and customer support response times. In this case, we’re talking about the latter — contractual support services agreements.
Things to consider before you start defining SLAs
Before you put pen to paper, we recommend you consider the following factors.
The maturity of your company
What you can offer customers in terms of support depends a lot on how your company is set up and what phase you’re in. Are you a new scrappy startup with a small team or a more mature company with an entire department of support staff? What you can safely agree to is completely different if you have one person providing support versus a team of on-call agents.
What you choose to support also changes as your company grows. When you’re small, it can be worth it to go above and beyond what’s expected for your first few large customers. But that level of support might not be sustainable when you have thousands of large customers. In that case, you probably need to standardize your support offerings.
What you can truly handle
Be realistic about the level of service you can provide. While most SLAs come with financial penalties if you don’t meet the agreed terms, you also don’t want your team to be unduly stressed. It’s better to under-promise and over-deliver.
Think about the best and worst-case scenarios. What if your support team is located in the path of a hurricane at the same time a customer needs help with something? Sure it’s unlikely, but what would you do? Extreme situations are rare, but they do happen.
What your competitors offer
This is the one time when it makes sense to follow the crowd. Do some research. What can you learn about the agreements offered by your competitors or similar-sized companies? A more aggressive SLA is rarely a competitive advantage. It generally makes the most sense to meet the same terms as other companies.
What your customers want
The need to agree to SLAs is typically something driven by your customers. Ask your sales team for the details of what’s being requested. If multiple prospects want a 48-hour response time, there’s no reason to offer responses in 24 hours.
How to figure out what’s feasible, and what you can do later
Take the information you’ve gathered already and talk with your team and others in your company. Decide on the bare minimum you could offer to meet the requirements of customers and one that’s equivalent to what your competitors are offering (also known as a minimum viable product or MVP). You might choose to offer:
- Reliability agreements
- Acknowledgment of request times
- Response times
- Resolution times
Remember, as your capacity grows, you can always extend the terms of your SLAs. It’s more difficult to pull back on what you’re offering without disappointing your existing customers.
Making a plan for meeting your SLA commitments
Next, you need to consider how you’ll maintain this level of service. Do you have 24x7 support? Will you prioritize tickets based on agreements? Do you need to send separate alerts with incoming requests or as they age? What will you do on holidays?
Start with your overall schedule
If you already have 24x7 coverage you’re golden. If you’re earlier in your company journey, you might not have a big enough team for that. Figure out if you need a separate on-call rotation for covering priority requests outside your standard business hours or ensure your SLA includes provisions for work hours vs off-hours — perhaps offer a slower response time during off-hours. You want to make sure someone is watching for time-sensitive requests so you can be sure to respond within your defined timeframes.
Look at your support platform’s features
Depending on the customer support software you’re using, there might be built-in SLA settings or features you can use. While we can’t describe what’s possible on every platform, here are a few things to look for:
- Platform settings. For example, some Zendesk tiers include built-in SLA policies. Freshdesk does too. If you’re not sure if your platform offers something, try searching the company’s help center for “SLA.”
- Automations. Can you set up ticket priorities based on plan types or specific customers? Can you send additional notifications if you hear from a specific customer? Even if your platform doesn’t offer specific SLA features, you might still be able to piece something together. For example, in Help Scout you can use the Workflows feature and set up notifications or additional tagging based on how long a ticket is waiting. Dixa allows you to set up queue alerts, so you could send SLA-dependent tickets to a specific queue and set up alerts based on time waiting.
Look for other useful tools
In some cases, tools other than your customer support platform could be a useful addition. For example, if you want to give a customer with an SLA a specific email or phone number that pages your agents based on their schedule, you might find that PagerDuty or Squadcast could help.
If you’re really small you might give customers the direct phone number of your CEO. That probably horrifies some of you, but it’s pretty typical for startups in the beginning phases. Also, it can be a great way to meet agreements and give customers a personal connection to your company.
Why you should review your SLAs periodically
Nothing is permanent, and your SLAs should definitely not be set in stone. There will be renewals in the future and plenty of opportunities to change your terms and what you offer.
- Monthly. When you first agree to an SLA with a client, you’ll want to keep checking in with your team every month. Are you holding to agreements? Has the amount of effort been manageable? Have you had any customer complaints or praise? Check your metrics — are you barely meeting requirements or well exceeding them?
- Annually. We recommend you review all your SLAs at least once a year. It’s important to stay up-to-date with the competitive landscape and how things have been going for your team, the business, and your customers.
As your company grows you’ll gain a better understanding of what you should and should not guarantee. You might be able to provide a lower level of service or your customers might expect more. It’s also likely that you will want to offer different SLAs to different customers. Some customers might only need a 24-hour response time while others need a response within an hour.
Start planning today!
Creating an SLA can be daunting because it’s a legal agreement between your company and your customer. You’re promising a minimum service level, so it needs to be something you can realistically achieve.