How MSPs Achieve Great Service Level Agreements

If you are a mature Managed IT Service Provider (MSP) a Service Level Agreement (SLA) is a key metric to measure.

Why? An SLA commits your business to an acceptable level of service to your clients.

Few things drive a client crazier than submitting a ticket and having it disappear into a black hole. Non-responsive or ad hoc support are short roads to dissatisfied clients. Agreed upon SLAs helps frame expectations and communication helps manage these expectations.

Once you have SLAs in place you are also in a position to work towards consistently exceeding them in order to wow your clients with world class service!

Why are SLAs important to your customers?

An SLA is typically written into the contract, and in some cases, the contract may have a cost claw back.

In the IT service space, this is often not the case because of the general unpredictable and limited control that the service provider has in dealing with another company's infrastructure. Regardless, the SLA is a contractual obligation and repeated breach of this agreement is cause for termination of the agreement.

The importance of having an SLA is to have the client and provider agree on what the expected turnaround times for support should be.

Typically this is:

  • 8hrs for most support issues
  • 4hrs for urgent issues
  • 1hr for emergency issues

Once defined it is important that the SLAs are communicated to the primary client contacts as well as the users. This leveling of expectations can curb issues where someone submits a ticket and 1 hour later goes storming off to their boss's office when it hasn't been fixed yet.

Never make your customer wait!

As an IT provider, managed or not, you are a service organization first and a technology company second!

How long a person waits for service is a very tangible measure of the quality of service a person receives. Think of all the places that are notorious for poor services, the DMV, Call-Centers, food service. "We've waited 15 minutes and no one has come to the table." "I'm number 214. They are currently seeing number 167." "We are experiencing higher than normal call volumes." I have a question, when are they not experiencing higher than normal call volumes? The theme is the same, people hate waiting. People especially hate waiting when they have no feedback to manage their expectations.

Communication is critical to effectively managing expectations around SLAs. If you are a ConnectWise user, Brightgauge has a great visual guide on setting up SLAs, and provides a great monitor of SLA performance.

Always work to overachieve on your SLAs

World-class IT service companies achieve SLA >90% of the time.

Average SLA achievement is 75%.

Underperforming companies are around 50% and below.

With this as a reference, let's explore strategies to help you overachieve in the eyes of the client!

1. Manage the psychological contract

If a user is upset about how long something took to get fixed, NEVER dismiss their concern saying, "This was completed within the SLA." The SLA is only ever useful before a problem exists or in an after-action review.

Communication is the key to managing the psychological contract with the user. Acknowledging a support request with an auto-responder does little to dampen the client’s concern, it only acknowledges that an email or ticket submission was received. Auto-responders should not be used as a measure of response time.

Direct contact is a far better measure. It may look something like this, "Hi Jane, I understand from your ticket that you're having trouble opening an attachment. I've scheduled a tech to review your request and you should hear back from them in 2 hours." You've now acknowledged the issue and scheduled time for follow-up. This allows the user to expect when they will hear from someone.

The trick to this is maintaining that expectation and following through with the communication. Regular updates will buy you grace from the user, but not indefinitely. One of the best ways to manage this accountability to tickets is a dispatcher. Someone that can focus on juggling support requests, who those requests get delegated to and assisting with client communication.

2. Repeatable process

First call resolution is the best way to streamline your techs time and your clients time. The most powerful way to manage this is with well-structured documentation and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

Most of the issues that techs face are not some rare event that no one has ever seen before. In fact, most support issues are recurrences of a previous issue. Having a clean and easy to navigate documentation system like IT Glue™ drastically reduces the burden on techs of searching for the information.

SOPs act as a script for resolving typical issues or executing procedures. So rather than each tech re-inventing the wheel for each problem, a repository of information exists for them to reference. This is especially important in:

  • system builds (server/laptop/desktop)
  • application installation
  • user creation/decommission

These procedures get done a lot and have detailed requirements. Just allowing staff to wing it on each one will inevitably lead to error, which increases the time required through re-work or escalation. Missing details from a SOP can also create a poor perception with a client. "You guys have done this dozens of times. How come you get it wrong so often?"

Distill the knowledge from your team's experience into SOPs. This will reduce the time spent looking for a solution and therefore the resolve that issue.

3. Escalation path

A defined escalation process is important to ensure someone doesn't end up burning a bunch of time on an issue that might be out of their capability. Staff should know how long they should spend on an issue before asking for help or passing the issue up to the next support tier.

Great team members will often hold a high degree of personal accountability for the issues that they are given. They truly want to be able to solve the problem and help the client.

The dispatcher also plays a support role in keeping the team accountable to the escalation times and ensuring communication to the client. The service manager should be reviewing the tickets that miss the SLA and determine if there is an opportunity to update or create a SOP that would make that type of ticket easier in the future.

4. Low costs, high value

Some issues will require escalation, but a focused effort on reducing the number of escalations is important to drive up your “first call resolution” numbers. This strategy will facilitate hiring more entry-level (tier 1) technicians.

Here are the costs to demonstrate why this is important:

Tier 3s cost $75,000 - $80,000 a year. They tend to deal with complex issues and thus close fewer tickets in a day, say 5-8 tickets.

Tier 1s cost $35,000 - $40,000 a year. They should be closing 15-20 tickets a day.

Therefore: 2 x Tier 1 techs who cost no more than $80,000 = 40 Tickets per day!

This means the tier 1 approach is guaranteed to drive better results and help achieve your SLA goals.

Clean and logical documentation is critical to ensure the tier 1 technicians are being set up for success. It starts with team member onboarding. One of the reasons more seasoned technicians can resolve issues is that they know where to look. A good documentation system will ensure techs have a clear view of the client environment, assets, dependencies and other related information. There are a number of options available such as Dropbox, Google Drive, using your RMM or PSA, or IT Glue.

The on-ramp time for new people that have access to the collective knowledge of the team will also be dramatically higher. This is preferable to new folks having to rely on a steady drip of experience with each environment.

Finally, since the team knowledge is captured,  the tier 1s are more likely to be able to close issues on the first call. These quick closes mean SLAs are exceeded, clients are happy that they don’t have to wait and high-performance team members feel the success of blasting through issues while getting high-quality feedback scores on their work.

This post orginally appeared as a guest blog on the IT Glue website.