The Death of the SLA

CT logoWhat you measure you manage…

Why is it that we derive such comfort from SERVICE LEVEL AGREEMENTS throughout airports when there is often no measurement of what they are intended for? In my experience, Service Level Agreements [SLA’s] are passive documents that provide a false sense of security…

In a real time customer push environment such as an airport, a passenger’s experience is dependent upon the collaboration of a multitude of services delivered across the entire value chain by diverse teams, each responsible for their part in the passenger journey.

I have always favored the school of thought that says there is a “line of visibility” within any service environment. This is a simple concept that distinguishes between that what is seen ABOVE the line and what is MANAGED below the line. Given that real time customer engagement is becoming more critical to sustain repeat business and loyalty, what companies do below the line can inhibit or enhance the customer experience.

It can be said that most passengers view the airport eco-system through a single lens, failing to distinguish between functionality and “seeing” diverse teams from different organizations but expect a seamless interaction and engagement as they journey through the service delivery chain. For example, cleaners and security personnel should always be knowledgeable of the environment within which they serve, as they become an important source of information for “way finding”. Another example is measuring the “flow” or waiting time of queues with “cold” metrics but failing to consider the perception of how long it takes on the part of the passenger. In a real time environment that is particularly unforgiving, what is experienced above the line of visibility is directly dependent on the management systems, processes and practices in place below the line of visibility. This is where SLA’s play a critical role in setting performance expectations for service teams, all of which are contributing to the passenger travel experience in their own unique and specialized way.

SLA’s can be considered to be the outcome of the implementation of Standard Operating Procedures and as a result it can be assumed that good SOP’s should lead to effective SLA’s. However, this becomes irrelevant if Service Level Agreements are not aligned to the value proposition of the organization and do not necessarily provide best practice across multiple silos. For example…what is considered clean on landside should have the same definition in the terminal.

Whilst many SLA’s exist, in my experience they have become passive documents of comfort that are redundant in this world of real time customer engagement.

A strong statement to make but lets consider THREE themes before discussing the merits of how to revive SLA’s and improve above the line engagement.

  1. REAL TIME is REAL TIME…. it is unforgiving, brutal in its feedback through social media platforms and immediate in response to a perceived failure. There is no pause button for teams to reset in a real time environment. I recently checked into a hotel that was experiencing an error with the booking system and instead of solving the problem the host became defensive thereby escalating a trivial matter into something major…I became frustrated just wanting to get to my room and settle in, after all I was there waiting to be looked after as the customer and engaged meaningfully? I paused and then asked the host a simple but very loaded question…. DO YOU KNOW THAT THIS IS YOUR MOMENT OF TRUTH? How you engage me at this point in time sets the tone for my experience? He failed to seek to understand or empathize with me as the customer resulting in the Manger having to solve the problem…. the Manager did assist but my experience was tainted and defined the rest of my stay. I had at my disposal a number of social media platforms to engage on whilst this was happening, a nightmare for any management team trying to now deal with a complex matter AFTER THE FACT…. simply put, real time is during the fact and as a result makes every customer touch point a moment of truth and renders responsiveness critical.
  2. PLANNING PREPARES YOU…it is well known that some things don’t go according to plan especially when you include managing a team of “fallible human beings“. However, the more you plan below the line of visibility, the more prepared you are above the line of visibility and the more responsive you become. Planning is revealed in the relevancy of your SLA and SOP’s and the performance metrics that occupy it.
  3. WHAT YOU MEASURE YOU MANAGE…This critical but rudimental cliché has significant impact in a real time environment. It raises questions, such as, what do we measure and how often? How do we respond and what service do we expect at touch points? Many organizations are immersed in information management and the comfort this brings. Only to discover that information without action renders it unintelligent. Measurement should become the premise upon which management functions – defining performance metrics based on strategies and value propositions including customer engagement expectations and service delivery chains, and when actively measured, enables continual improvement and responsiveness. We like to say “metrics before minutes” in our business….

TIME plays a critical role in measurement and there is a direct correlation between WHEN you measure and how well you respond. We believe that the longer you take to measure, the more distance [time] you place between yourself and the problem, the less responsive you will be. In other words, the longer you take to respond the higher the risk you face of losing the opportunity of engaging meaningfully with the customer and the less likely you are to impact the customer experience.

If I have provoked your thought and you have possibly questioned the relevancy or “life” of your Service Level Agreements, how would you go about reviving them? My initial suggestions are as follows;

  1. Ensure that SLA’s are aligned to the value proposition and Customer engagement strategy of the organization, in order to establish a single version of the truth [best practice] across the silos.
  2. Define your service delivery metrics, we recommend a simple check when designing a service standard metric. It must be measurable [SPECIFIC, ATTAINABLE, REALISTIC] and incorporate;
    1. QUALITY
    3. TIME
    4. COST
  3. Establish the habit of measurement below the line without waiting for customer feedback above the line. We recommend looking at your methodology, source and frequency of measurement in your SLA but the simple truth is to ask the hard questions with your team and ask them frequently. Keep marking your own homework so to speak!
  4. ACT immediately on what is seen as non-performance and respond during the fact at source. This requires flexibility and an appetite to empower teams to act IN THE MOMENT and provide feedback that takes a hard look at the truth.
  5. What you can’t fix immediately, create workflows that enable you to track the responsiveness of other departments you depend on, for example, IT or engineering, and create accountability for support.
  6. Review your performance real time and keep checking t he relevancy of your SLA against your performance through dashboards and continual dynamic feedback.
  7. Always be aware of your capacity constraints especially when considering infrastructure that is limiting in design. If you are operating at close to 100% capacity and or more, levels of service will naturally drop but keep measuring to see where improvement can be achieved in the future.

Service Level Agreements are valuable and provide a basis upon which to continually improve your service and customer engagement; not as passive documents that remain hidden in agreements but rather as active metrics measured real time and continually assessed.

Warren Swart