If you’ve contacted the support team of an organization you have, at some point, felt like you’re talking at a wall – never knowing when you’ll get a response, let alone a resolution. If you’re in charge of a support team, then that situation is precisely what you’re trying to avoid. This is where Service Level Agreements (SLAs) come in. SLAs play a very important role in the customer support process of a company. An SLA is an official commitment that a service provider makes to a client, defining what can be expected by the client of the provider. And in customer support, SLAs appear as time frames within which a customer can expect replies or solutions from a support agent.
Why are SLAs important?
At first glance, SLAs might seem pretty standard and not servient of larger objectives like streamlining the support process. When you take a closer look, however, SLAs can actually help you evaluate and assess the operation of your entire helpdesk.
Managing customer expectations
SLAs are the simplest and most direct way of setting the right expectations with your customers. In most cases of customer frustration, the reason can likely be traced back to a simple misstep in the communication of timelines. But with well-defined SLAs, customers will know exactly what they can expect from you in terms of an initial response or a final resolution to their issue.
Setting agent expectations
In addition to letting your customers know what they can expect from you, SLAs also let you be clear on what you expect from the agents in your support team. These agreements give them clear goals to work toward and will constantly advise how they can prioritize their work.
By outlining your agent expectations, SLAs essentially form the basis for the framework you use to measure their performance. While customer satisfaction ratings gauge the quality of their work, how an agent meets their SLAs will tell you how capable they are at managing their workload. In an industry as time-sensitive as customer support, keeping to deadlines is invaluable – and SLAs help you do just that.
One of the biggest challenges that any support team will face at one point or the other is scaling the team; which can be particularly hard if you’ve got nothing to guide your growth. This is where SLAs can simplify matters – they help you calculate the relationship between the volume of support requests coming in and the workload that your current team can actually manage.
Making the customer experience consistent
When defining your standards for quality, it would serve you well to remember that a customer’s favourite response is a quick one. That said, it doesn’t mean compromising on the quality of support either; it’s all about striking the balance. Without guidelines to dictate how you respond to customer queries, you run the risk of becoming erratic in the way you support. But when you set down clear targets with respect to the time your support team takes with queries in general, you can make sure you give your customers a unified, straightforward support experience.
Guidelines for setting meaningful SLAs
Support teams often set SLAs arbitrarily, without much thought having gone into them. This usually results in targets that are either too unrealistic or too lax. Not giving SLAs the careful consideration they require can have adverse consequences for both your agents and your customers.
So what are the factors you need to be mindful of when structuring SLAs?
Irrespective of the expectations you want to set with customers, customers will have their own intrinsic expectations. This gives way to one of the oldest support questions of all: how do you prioritize when everything is a priority? Prioritization usually boils down to how important and how urgent any given issue is. You can quickly determine the importance and urgency of issues based on a couple of factors.
i) The type of issue being reported will tell you what its impact is, how widespread its effects are, and how swiftly it needs to be fixed.
For example, if it’s an isolated bug that doesn’t really affect the operation of your service, you shouldn’t necessarily drop everything else to rush to fix it. On the other hand, an outage suffered by multiple customers demands your immediate and complete attention.
ii) The channel used influences the required speed of response.
You can take a little time to respond to an email, for instance, whereas queries on social media warrant quicker replies. Twitter isn’t a place for rambling, heartfelt conversations, after all. And on channels like phone or live chat, people are looking for answers instantly.
A quick look at a few metrics – such as the average response times, average number of tickets resolved per agents, and trends of tickets on a daily basis – can tell you the average level of performance that an agent in your team will be able to sustain over time. Accurately estimating the amount of work your agents can manage comfortably is crucial to preventing them from burning out. Once you have that estimate, you’ll be able to map your SLAs according to the size of your support team.
The volume of customer queries that your team receives on a given day is the final piece in the SLA puzzle. When you look at your ticket sources, you’ll be able to figure out which channels are seeing the most traffic and what the busiest times of day are. This will help you best allocate your resources and get the most out of your support team’s efforts.
Looking at all of these factors side by side and settling on the perfect SLAs to balance out all these spheres is a crucial responsibility. It structures your support process, controls how effective your support team is, influences how the team grows, and so much more.
When the numbers stop adding up, when the balance skews towards agents being taxed more and more, that means it’s a good time to start hiring. When the time comes for you to expand your support team (and it will), if you make sure you don’t lose sight of these factors, scaling will be a walk in the park.
When hiring for customer support, your new agents might need a little guidance to hit the ground running. Check out The Agent’s Starter Kit to Efficient Customer Support that we put together to help agents on their way to mastery of the craft.
Tell us how you set your SLAs and what you think should go into setting them. Leave us a comment below, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org