Build a Better SLA: It's Easier Than You Think

Posted by Erika Flora on Sep 5, 2017 8:58:00 AM

In ITIL, service level agreements

One of your most powerful tools for aligning IT and business needs is a well crafted Service Level Agreement (SLA). Done right, it can get everyone on the same page, and go a long way toward mutual understanding and positive perception. Done wrong, well, it can't.


Here, I’ll go through what makes the SLA so critical to success, how to go about drafting or revamping yours, and common pitfalls to avoid when doing so. Who’s excited?

Why SLAs are Crucial

Your clients are judging you. Internal or external, they’re measuring the quality of the services your team provides based on the parameters documented in the SLA. It’s not an exaggeration to say the Service Level agreement can make or break the relationship between IT and the business.

“Well, that’s an easy fix. I just won’t document them. I WILL NOT BE JUDGED.”

While I admire your creativity and, um, conviction, I see a few flaws in your plan up there.

Whether your SLAs are documented or not, clients will always have expectations with respect to service. That will never go away. The thing is this: if you don’t have a documented SLA, those expectations will inevitably become “everything all the time for free.” When that impossible level of service is inevitably not met, you’re set up to be seen as a frequent source of frustration for your clients.

Documented SLAs also help IT staff understand which incidents, problems, and requests to resolve first, and allow IT leadership and clients have productive, data-driven discussions around where to spend money. Not every IT service can be available 24/7 (there’s a lot of cost to that), so having a discussion around SLAs can help the organization spend its money on the most important services.

I could go on for ages about the importance of strong SLAs but I’ll stop here for now and assume you are convinced that you either need to revamp your existing SLAs or put new ones in place. (If you’re not, let me know. I’m happy to keep going.) Here are three steps to help you get started and sidestep common pitfalls later on.

Involve Your Client

Do not revise or create SLAs without involving your client. Period. If you don’t, I promise you will always miss the mark. Here’s an example:

A client of mine was designing a new IT service for their finance department. They assumed the new service needed to be available 24/7 and architected it accordingly. It wasn’t until they had a conversation with their client that they found out the finance department had back-up, manual processes they could rely on for up to THREE DAYS.  This revelation saved the company tens of thousands of dollars.

ProTip: If your customers have never been involved in creating SLAs with IT, help them out. Bring an SLA template with some basic options to the discussion.  Otherwise, they won’t know where to start or truly understand the cost implications behind what they are asking for. If you have historical information/benchmark data from other customers or some common packages and cost information, that can be really helpful during the discussion.

On the other hand, never agree to an SLA with customers before checking with IT to confirm what’s being requested is reasonable. Everything has a cost, and you don’t want to get into a situation where you are over promising and under delivering. The goal of Service Level Management is to make sure you have agreed, ACHIEVABLE targets in place.

Make SLAs Measurable and Easy to Understand

Never, ever, ever put anything that cannot be measured in an SLA. Claiming a service will be “fast” or “great” isn’t going to do the trick here. How exactly do you measure “great”? Stick with specific timeframes for ticket resolution, availability, etc. – you’re looking for anything that can be referenced and clearly reported upon.

Second, unless this is a legally binding contract with another legal entity, make your SLAs easy to read and understand. Do not include wording like keep the ‘shalls’ and ‘shalts’ out of it – along with any other legalese. Make it perfectly clear for the non-IT reader.

Communicate SLAs to Everyone

Contrary to what a client once told me, the “S” in SLA does not stand for SECRET. Don’t create Secret Level Agreements! Get them out there and make sure everyone is working to meet them.

All the communication in the world doesn’t help if your SLAs aren’t current, though. Be sure to update them annually at a minimum. It doesn’t make sense to work toward meeting an SLA from, say, five years ago. Undoubtedly your organization’s needs – and those of your clients – have undoubtedly changed significantly in that time. I keep an annual reminder in Outlook to remind myself – haven’t missed a year yet.

Questions about revamping your SLAs? We’re here for you.