SLAs Drive Mediocre Services, Not Customer Delight!

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SLAs (Service Level Agreements) are great way to manage contractual obligations. They bring meaning to the definition of the service quality as a tool for agreement between the service providers and their clients (note, no end-customer here). So, that’s what they are – a measure of how often is the service provider meeting the “agreed” levels of services.

One would hope that SLAs would bring the much-needed quality of service in business, but that’s unfortunately not the case.  They are just not geared for “customer happiness”, They are designed, and used in a way, to keep the management from frowning!

How are the following for service quality? (we’re speaking customer experience here)

  • Your wireless network goes down in the middle of an important email (Murphy never takes a break, remember!). You retry incessantly for five minutes, & then call up the customer service. You mention that this email needed to go out in the next five minutes, while you’d have already wasted 15 mins reaching them. The most polite (they are trained to be so!) voice says that the complaint is being “logged” and you could expect a response in the next 2 hours! And, the resolution could take “up to” 24 hours. You regret having called them and spending the last fifteen minutes bothering them instead of running to an internet kiosk!
  • They implement a fantastic automated service management application, that is to help you from having to call someone and wait on hold etc. AC goes down, you log a call, an automated email response tells you that you would receive “the response” in the next 2 hours from some humans, and that this particular category has an SLA of 6 hours. Don’t hold your breath! Wait, you can’t scream because there are no phone numbers – the system is automated, you see!
  • Your mobile service suddenly stops working. No dial tone. You call them. First up there’s a problem getting to the right menu because the phone you’re using is not registered with them and doesn’t belong there. When you get to the right person/menu, complaint is logged. You wait for the resolution. When you can’t hold any longer, you call again, go through the same trouble, but when you actually get to speak to someone, you’re told that the complaint was auto-closed at 4 hours SLA because they were not able to “reach” you. Well, there was no dial tone, and that WAS the complaint! How stupid can services get?

And these stories have become so common place that any freak resolution, exactly when I need it, makes me mighty delighted.

SLAs hurt customer service more than they really please the customers –

  • If you have a 2 hour resolution time for an urgent service request, with a penalty and management attention for every violation thereof, most urgent requests “will” actually get attended to for completion within 2 hours. Not on As-soon-as-possible basis.
  • Most SLAs now have multiple stacks and categories for application of the thresholds. It’s common to have first Response time SLA, resolution time SLA, Call closure SLA. It seldom seems to matter as how well the response was provided, whether the resolution really attended to the actual problem or whether the call was closed with the customer being “happy” with the service.
  • The feedback channels for the “Bad Services” are mostly shut out of the systems. Most times you get to the feedback upon satisfactory closure of the service. It’s also startling to see that the “direct” escalation channels for a particularly bad service just don’t exist in most places. One hits the same customer service rep time and again.
  • The whole concept runs on statistics. Higher the volumes, more robotic and mediocre the servicing behavior becomes.
  • The mechanisms for getting the customer what they really want (in order to be mighty pleased) are minimal to non-existent in the SLA driven world.

Looks like, everybody is just happy serving their customers at their levels of agreement, and don’t work to please their customers. Are they training us to not expect good services and please us with one once in a while, who knows! As far as I know, SLAs (or with a benefit of doubt, badly designed ones) are the root cause of mediocre services.


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  1. #1 by Max J. Pucher on May 25, 2010 - 9:54 pm

    Ashish, I have made exactly the same observation on service quality and wrote about it albeit on my German blog. I am really glad you describe it so well.

    In a more abstract sense I wrote about the ‘MEASURE TO MANAGE FALLACY’ — If you focus on numbers, that’s all you get.

    It reminds me of the way that planned economies of the Eastern Bloc (USSR, et. al.) used to work. If they had planned to produce one million shoes, then those shoes were produced even if they had no leather for the soles. They simply made the soles from thick cardboard, which meant they shoes would fall apart when wet. But the plan said nothing about shoes for the wet, just that the number had to be fulfilled.

    I thus likened BPM to communism and SixSigm to the Stasi, the secret police. 😉

    • #2 by Ashish Bhagwat on May 26, 2010 - 1:28 pm


      Max, I like the shoe example – there are such goofs aplenty in the economies around the world, in the garb of complicated decision making. Sometimes the objective-strategy-goals-actions linkage is so long-drawn that the metrics end up measuring the results of actions in long term and start working against the long term objectives… Very Common!

      But businesses need to realize how much it’s hurting them – the problem is that leadership is floating in air while the feedback mechanisms are shut out for them…

      I’d have loved to read your post – but I don’t know German! 🙂

  2. #3 by Gaizabonts on May 26, 2010 - 2:16 pm

    Excellent point and pretty timely too.

    I wonder if the customer is to blame to an extent here? The moment you ask for an SLA – that is what you get. I have yet to see an SLA that I really understood – it is written in legalese and speaks more of what will not be done than what will be – which does not often tell me what’s going to happen, when I have a problem.

    Contrast an SLA with a service that someone provides without an SLA. Take WordPress, for example. One reason I prefer sticking to WP is exactly that. They don’t have an SLA (as such) but the quality, speed, response and content of their service is amazing. Perhaps it is because they are not defending their service – but trying to create a better customer experience. It’s personal, in a way. And the passion with which they provide support and service shines through.

    As regards the escalation, I have lost count of the number of times I have requested for an escalation. The reason, why I think, it works well in WP, is that whoever takes your ticket, is empowered *and* trained to service your ticket.

    Newbie thoughts 🙂

    ~ Atul

    PS: the link is to my personal blog, you know me better on Twitter as @atulsabnis

    • #4 by Ashish Bhagwat on May 26, 2010 - 2:41 pm


      Great Points. Management practices on control & governance need to align with the customer expectations. Or they should just not overdo that…

      Customer doesn’t really ask for SLAs. Customer needs service. SLA is more of a contracting and management tool… I’m sure there are businesses that understand this. They are more agile, and more customer focused.

      I experienced this at a restaurant yesterday when the server actually deducted a bread off the bill just because I happened to mention that I would have preferred it hot and steaming. I never asked for it to be deducted! I was so impressed I added the amount to the tip… that’s customer delight!

      And as you rightly mentioned it’s about empowering the front-line rather than controlling them with SLAs.

  3. #5 by Andrew Kinsella on May 27, 2010 - 2:02 pm


    The key weaknesses of many SLA’s are based on who is the author. In my experience, where SLA’s work properly, there are detailed ‘Service Description Documents’ behind each SLA. These are written by the vendor responsible for the delivery of the specific SLA. This is particularly important wher the service vendor is a consortium of suppliers collaborating as one vendor to the client – such as delivery of a full suite of ICT services.
    By ensuring the Service Description Documents are authored by the vendor and approved by the client, there should be no ‘wriggle room’ for the vendor to slip through….. thus creating a delightful customer experience (and contract renewal for the vendor!).

  4. #6 by Max J. Pucher on May 27, 2010 - 2:19 pm

    Andrew, well observed. The outsourcing madness is another reason for a hidden drop in customer perceived quality to drive down costs. SLA are in this case not driven by the customer need but by the haggling over the contractual terms of the outsourcing contract. Also here IT makes a grave mistake by trying to copy the approach from manufacturing. Supply chains in a service process are a nightmare in themselves. SLAs are in this case purely agreed upon to increase profits on both sides but not better service quality. The last thing they are is agile or adaptive. Max

  5. #7 by Vikas on June 2, 2010 - 8:34 am

    Hi ashish,

    very well explained. Lot of us just think the greatest and biggest benefit we can bring to table by BPM adoption is SLA based services and as you rightly said its a tool and not the ultimate tool for customer delight 🙂

  6. #8 by Rahul Chodha on July 30, 2010 - 1:08 pm

    Hi Ashish,

    Well articulated examples from industry with multiple outsourcing vendors. This actually triggers the role of the service provider in maintaining synergy between multi vendor SLAs who at times work in silos and being considerate only for their share of numbers.
    Moreover there is trade off between the customers and cosumers in which the latter is not so fortunate.

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