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A common theme among those organizations that hold strategic prominence in their organizations is that they have implemented Service Level Management (SLM).  Without Service Level Management in place, you are effectively telling your customers that you will provide support to them, at any time, under any conditions, without any limitations to the systems and services they have.  After all, you cannot possibly ever meet your customer’s service expectations, if they have no definition.

It is odd that the one process that can clearly improve the overall company perception of Support Centres or Help Desks, and make a dramatic contribution to overall technology performance and usage, is currently in place, at so few organizations.

What better way to improve overall levels of service and minimizes service disruptions, than to focus on service level performance?  With a service level orientation, you become cognizant of what the cost of technology disruptions can be.  This information can be extremely valuable to many divisions within your company, as well as being key to directing and influencing plans and activities.

The Service Level Management (SLM) process provides a methodology for introducing and implementing reasonable expectations between you and the customers you support.  They establish a two-way accountability for service, which is negotiated and mutually agreed upon.  Service Level Management can go far to building credibility for your service organization, because they are a measure of how serious you are about providing support. Service Level Management can be the basis for evaluation and improving service levels on an on-going basis, and they become the standard for communicating service expectations, throughout your organization.

Now that I’ve established why they are so important, here are a few thoughts on how to begin this process.  First, your company or organization must have a customer service culture before your Service Level Management (SLM)process can be effective.  Companies that have customer service cultures are those that truly place the customers' needs first.  One indication of a service culture is a thorough understanding of customer needs as well as customer perceptions.

If you have made the shift to a customer service culture, you know this is easier said than done.  In addition, IT organizations that have focused on presenting and developing technical specialties in addition to solving customer computer support problems may have a difficult time undergoing this cultural metamorphosis.  But make no mistake; a service culture must prevail.  You can't "talk the talk" and not "walk the walk."  It’s important to move from a technology centric focus to a customer centric focus.  In this environment, there should be no reference to “Users”.  You should refer to your customers as clients or customers, whatever language fits better in your company.  My experience has taught me that if you treat your customers like customers, they act like customers.

Secondly, do not underestimate the time and commitment involved in this process.  Your entire organization needs to be committed to implementing Service Level Management, because once you start this process, you are clearly defining your service commitment to the customers you service.  That effectively means, that it is no longer acceptable to miss deadlines, and not follow up on outstanding issues.  It is no longer acceptable for any part of the IT organization to not honor the responsiveness and resolution criteria you have established.

Your company's vision and mission statements must define the customer and business initiatives; these statements provide the focus for all IT activities, including Service Level Agreements.

A vision statement serves a strategic role in an organization.  It is the litmus test by which we measure our subsequent activities.  The Vision statement is helpful in asking the following questions while planning a new support initiative:

·        Is this activity valuable?

·        Is it aligned with our vision?

·        Will it help us achieve our vision?

The vision also helps the organization's entire staff understand the reason the company exists and rally toward a common goal.  IT organizations that have a clear understanding of their contribution to the entire company’s success are high performing IT organizations.

Next, get familiar with your customers daily operations, processes, and business initiatives.  Take time to develop a list of all services and products that require Service Level Management.  Now, identify all stakeholders that should participate in this process.  This includes your customers, as well as any other internal/external organizations that assist you in providing support to your customers.  Be sure to include the decision-makers.  If you choose to send people to take notes for the decision-makers, you will substantially elongate the entire development process.  The process of negotiating Service Level Agreements is a strong tool to building cross-departmental teams. 

Next, conduct meetings with the team that will determine the SLA content, identify the standards and performance metrics you will be measuring for the Service Level process, identify the data requirements that will be necessary to capture the performance measurement information in your tools and technology.  Finally, review all report outputs and reporting processes as well as define the frequency that they will be run. During the initial 6 months of rollout, consider a push strategy for reporting, once the organization behavior is solidified, consider a pull strategy for reporting.

It might be helpful for me to give you some insight on why Service Level Management fails.  Hopefully, this will prevent you from experiencing these mistakes as you begin implementing a Service Level Management strategy in your company.

One of the most common pitfalls is that the SLA documents are too complex.  These documents should be short in length, while very precise in defining the services you provide and the level of service you and your customers agree on.  They should not be epic novels, defining every little element in the IT enterprise.  If they are longer than 3-5 pages, you are doing it wrong!  Resist the desire to want to include policies, procedures, company standards and anything else about the IT enterprise.  Some of these may be appropriate for addendum’s, but be careful here as well.  Remember that your Service Level Agreement should be a referential document.  It should always be handy, and at a quick glance your or your customers should be able to identify what the service goals and deliverables are.  If your are an external service provider, I understand your need to have contracts with your customers.  These protect both your companies legally, however, take the information in the contracts and reduce them to clear Service Level documents that your all understand.

Another common pitfall is that the technology and tool sets cannot track and report the timed service events by responsiveness and resolution, and by priority/severity classification.  Nor can they provide current state baseline information on system availability, response time, or network performance, as well as monitor established service metrics.  Good sound reporting is paramount to ensuring that the Service Level Management process is institutionalized.  Without a continuous feed back process, the loop is incomplete, and the Service Level Agreements become documents and nothing more.  So take inventory of your systems.  Does your service tracking system have the functionality to report timed service events?  Does it have the ability to monitor discrete time units per service event?  Can your Enterprise tools monitor system availability, application and network response times?  If not, it’s time to go shopping.  But first, identify the business functionality and requirements before you begin dialog with any vendors.  Remember, new technology implemented without well thought out business processes, simply automate bad processes.

Management frequently does not acknowledge the amount of time needed to implement Service Level Management, and therefore they do not staff it adequately.  This function requires the recognition from management that it must be staffed full-time.  Unfortunately, this is not filler work someone can do in his or her spare time.  There are a significant number of responsibilities that need to be assigned to this function to do it successfully.  Don’t under estimate what it takes to manage effective Service Level Agreements.

Another frequent point of failure is unrealistic objectives and goals have been set by IT Management and their Customers.  This commonly happens to organizations that have not taken the time to baseline their system’s performance as well as their service support performance, prior to beginning to negotiate the Service Level Management with the customers.  One of the primary reasons we baseline is to understand our ability to provide service within the current limitations of staffing and technology available, as well as the economic impact of the existing state.  So when a customer asks for more, we are able to quantify the incremental impact in terms of resources and/or cost.

There is not total alignment and buy in at all levels of management.  It is important that all levels within the organization understand the value of implementing a Service Level Management culture.  Without this commitment throughout the organization, it will be difficult for the line staff to understand it, and want to participate in it.  Steps must be taken to educate the entire organization prior to roll out.

Some organizations believe they can implement customer Service Level Agreements without first having established their own internal IT support Service Level Agreements.  This can be uncomfortable for all participants if the entire IT organization is not closely aligned PRIOR to beginning the process with your customers.  In fact, it can be down right embarrassing!  Take the time to establish functional Service level Agreements internally before you approach your customer groups.

Finally, an organization implementing Service Level Management must understand that this is a company wide initiative.  It will have impacts to staffing, technology, and the company’s culture.  This is NOT a project assigned to the Support Centre!  This is a new way of viewing how you will work within the IT organization and with your customers on a permanent basis.

As we move into the Service Level Management environment, you must have a business practice of logging 100% of all incoming service events.  Many organizations feel that it is not necessary to log all calls.  Your Support Centre and all Service Partners must participate in this practice.  This is to ensure you are compiling all vital information about the use of technology effectiveness in our company.  Realistically, every service event not logged did not happen, and if it did not happen, how can you prevent it from happening again?

One last thought, along with developing your Service Level Agreements, it’s very important that you develop a process to establish new product or service/change requirements.  Now is the time to understand all the ways new products and services get introduced into production in your company, and formalizing your involvement in those processes.  Specifically, you need to take the time to clearly identify all the steps necessary for your Support Centre to provide support to any new or changed product or service, and institutionalizing them in all your system development and change process methodologies.

There are many advantages to formalizing this process, let’s look at it from your customer’s perspective:

·        There is a better first impression of new systems when something breaks.  It demonstrates to the customer that the entire process from development to on-going support, was planned for.  Too many times, well-planned projects fail at implementation, because the Support Centre was never part of the project process.

·        The actual service disruption time should be minimized due to the technology transfer or training activities to the Support Centre, i.e. higher 1st level resolution.

·        You are immediately formalizing the new or changed product/project into the support arena, so your customer doesn’t have special support services the first few days/weeks, and then later get turned over to the Support Centre.  

All of these steps should be formalized into a task plan identifying how much time in advance you need to be involved.  These task plans should then be embedded into your system development methodology and your change management methodology.

In the extremely technically complex world we work in, implementing Service Level Management and Service Level Agreements can go a long way to bringing about corporate awareness of the Support Centre or Help Desk can act as a strategic contributor within your company!