What is an SLA?

A Service Level Agreement is a contract between an end-user and company that outlines minimum expected service requirements including quality, availability, and timeliness. They are used to set expectations and keep companies accountable for delivering on their promises. SLAs are often used in customer support to ensure timely support to customers by setting deadlines across different types of inquiries and customer segments.

SLA in Customer Support

SLAs in customer support are time-based deadlines agreed upon by the customer and outlined in contracts or in the terms of service. They outline the specific amount of time the company has to respond and resolve different types of incoming inquiries from customers. There are three types of SLAs:

Response SLAs

Incoming messages from customers are assigned a response SLA setting a deadline for an agent to reply to the customer. Response SLAs ensure that customers aren’t left waiting around for a reply or an update. The time to first reply is an especially important SLA because it also serves as an acknowledgement of their inquiry. Once customers know that a human agent is looking into the problem, they are much happier waiting for a resolution.

Resolution SLAs

Each unique issue or report is also assigned a resolution SLA which sets a deadline for when the ticket needs to be closed or resolved. Resolution SLAs ensure that the customer is actually getting their issue resolved with quality responses and action, not just quick responses.

Issue-based SLAs

Some specific issues might require more urgent responses or resolutions, such as outages or service issues. Issue-based SLAs assign specific deadlines to specific types of tickets.

Why are SLAs important?

SLAs are important for both your customers and your company. They ensure a better customer experience because they set customer expectations and hold agents accountable for their own performance. Plus, customers consistently rate the speed of replies as one of the most important aspects of service. Setting and adhering to SLAs can help improve customer satisfaction and customer loyalty.

Build customer trust

Setting explicit expectations on service quality helps customers trust that they will be taken care of. SLAs deliver assurance to customers that they won’t be left without a response when they need it most. If you include SLAs in contracts, customers know that there are consequences for poor service and they can trust your team will do everything possible to meet the agreed upon SLAs.

Track performance of support agents

In order to measure the performance of your customer support team, you need to have a benchmark or goal for them to measure up against. Setting SLAs helps teams to understand how quickly they need to get back to customers, and sets expectations around what tickets should be prioritized. SLA reporting can also show which agents aren’t getting back to customers quickly enough, and might require some additional training.

Multiple SLAs

As you grow your team, setting multiple SLA policies becomes more important to keep different types of customers satisfied. Not all issues are equally urgent. Multiple SLA policies can help teams prioritize incoming inquiries. A few common types of different policies are:

Different regions

Define business hours across time zones and regions depending on your agents’ availability and where your customers are located.

Different plan types

Set higher priority SLAs for your VIP customers to make sure they get the quickest support.

Different issues

Prioritize urgent issues with stricter SLA policies to make sure agents are dealing with incoming inquiries in the right order.

OLA vs SLA

An OLA (Operational Level Agreement) is the agreement between functional groups or teams within an organization. This agreement supports the delivery of the overall SLA to the customer. For example, if an organization offers a 24-hour resolution SLA to their customers, the functional groups might have several OLAs to ensure that can happen including a 4-hour triage OLA by engineering and an 8-hour resolution time by system administrators. Delivering on SLAs requires collaboration across internal teams and OLAs can help maintain accountability through the process.

A Guide to Setting SLAs for Customer Support Teams

Determining the right amount of time to commit to for SLAs is a balancing act. As much as we might want to promise instant responses, it’s not a practical promise to make to customers. If we over-promise on response times and don’t deliver, customers will be disappointed and there might be serious contractual consequences such as fines, usage credits or early contract termination.

On the other hand, SLAs should help the customer feel assured that they will get timely responses if and when they need assistance. Set the goal post too far away and customers will be disappointed with slow responses. Instead, find a balance between over-promising but still meeting the needs of customers - often by personalizing SLA policies by customer segment. Here are six things to think about when designing your SLA team policies.

Should your SLAs be the same as support team goals?

SLAs are promises that you make to your customers. If you’re a smaller company that doesn’t offer contracts or legally binding SLAs, your SLAs might be similar to the internal goals your customer support team sets for response and resolution times.

However, if you’ve outlined your SLAs in your terms of service or in a legal contract, there are serious repercussions for breaches. Your customer support team goals shouldn’t be to meet the bare minimum level of service. In this case, you’d want to set your goals much more ambitiously than simply avoiding SLA breaches.

Plus, setting your external SLAs the same as your internal goals doesn’t give you much room for error. Ideally, you should aim to resolve inquiries well within SLAs. SLAs should be the longest acceptable time for a customer to wait, but they shouldn’t be your measurement for quality.

The best practice is to set your customer support team response and resolution goals well below your SLAs so that you’re consistently working to exceed customer expectations.

Understand customer segments

When determining your SLA policy, it’s important to consider if all customers fall into the same bucket, or if some customers require unique policies. Understanding the needs of your customers based on their plan type, or contract requirements can help provide more personalized experiences. Two ways you can segment customer groups are:

Tiering customers by plan type

High value customers might get priority over a lower or free pricing plan. While it doesn’t always make sense to set an SLA for free users, setting SLAs for enterprise customers is expected, and often required in contract negotiations.

Personalizing SLAs for VIP customers

High value contracts will often require personalized SLA conditions. With multiple SLA policies, you can set a unique deadline for each customer and for each situation you might encounter.

Categorize common support problems

While every customer concern is important, not all of them are equally urgent. By categorizing common support problems by priority and setting separate SLAs for each type of question, your team can better prioritize the needs of your customers. For example, an outage SLA time might be a lot shorter than a request to update a billing address. Using multiple SLA policies allow your team to get as granular as you’d like to serve each type of customer uniquely.

Listen to customers

When setting SLA policies, take customer feedback into account. If customers are complaining about slow responses, or leaving negative customer satisfaction responses, it’s time to revisit your SLAs to ensure you’re meeting the needs of all your customers.

Understanding why customers need specific response times is important too. Critical software or products like banking apps or point-of-sale systems might require faster SLAs because any wait time will seem unbearable. Other products, like ecommerce or entertainment apps, might not require as quick of responses - meaning that you can dedicate resources to other priorities.

Set staffing levels to meet SLAs

It might be tempting to optimize SLA policies based on agent availability - but this is the wrong approach to take. Instead, base your SLA policies on the customer experience as a first priority and then staff your team to meet those requirements. If you can’t meet your customer’s expectations and are experiencing SLA breaches, you’ll need to hire more agents to handle incoming inquiries.

Define OLA to support SLAs

Operational Level Agreements are critical to consistently meeting SLAs when there are internal dependencies to resolve an inquiry. As mentioned above, OLAs are agreements between internal teams that help prevent bottlenecks. When an SLA isn’t met, customers don’t care who’s fault it is - engineering, support or system administrators - they only care that their agreement wasn’t honored. OLAs help teams work together to meet their commitments to the customer.

Business Hour or Calendar Hour SLAs

If you don’t offer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, it’s possible to set SLAs that only take into account your operating hours. For example, if you have a 24 hour Response Time SLA, but only have agents working during the weekdays, customers who send in an email Friday afternoon shouldn’t expect a response until Monday. Setting your SLAs to Business Hours instead of Calendar Hours will only keep the timer running while agents are scheduled to be working.

However, while using business hours might make your reporting look better, customers are still waiting over the entire weekend (or night) for a response. They might not care that you don’t have agents working - they only know that they aren’t getting help. If you choose to only report on business hour SLAs, it’s still important to keep in mind the customer experience for customers that live in different time zones or are trying to contact you after-hours.

How do Help Desks manage SLAs?

Once you’ve decided what your SLAs are and communicated them to customers, it’s critical to manage your time and track them correctly to make sure your team consistently meets their deadlines. Managing SLAs manually is almost impossible as it would require watching the clock on every customer contact at all times. It’s a much better plan to hand over the reins to a help desk to track, prioritize, automate and report on SLAs. Here’s how a help desk can help your team stay on top of your SLA obligations for a better customer experience:

Tracking

When you’ve set up SLA policies in Freshdesk, every incoming customer inquiry is assigned an SLA based on the customer type, product issue or whatever criteria you’ve developed. As the ticket waits for an agent to reply, the help desk keeps track of passing time automatically.

  • View and act on imminent SLA breaches directly from the inbox
  • Pause SLA counters when you’re waiting on a customer by using specific ticket statuses
  • Keep deadlines top of mind by displaying elapsed time on each ticket’s SLA policy
Prioritization

Agents have a lot to think about when supporting customers. Which ticket they work on next shouldn’t be their biggest decision. When you use a help desk to manage SLAs, tickets are automatically routed to the best person and can be prioritized by how close they are to breaching their SLA - whether the reply SLA or resolution SLA.

  • Work smarter, not harder by prioritizing the tickets that need a quicker response
  • Take the guesswork of what to work on next away from agents to increase productivity
  • Move beyond First in, First Out principles to prioritize tickets by urgency not just their place in line
Reminders

For agents that aren’t only responsible for working through the inbox, it’s easy to lose track of time and accidentally let a ticket breach an SLA deadline. Or maybe they didn’t even realize that a customer replied back or that a new ticket had been opened. This is where setting up SLA reminders can help. Help desks can automatically email team members a set amount of time before an SLA breach might occur. That way, someone can divert from their current task and jump in to make sure the customer gets the answer they need. Think of it as a little nudge in the right direction from your friendly help desk.

  • Set up alerts and reminders to specific team members when SLA deadlines approach
  • Notify the owner of a ticket, or other agents that action is needed
  • Keep on top of incoming responses to not let anything slip through the cracks.
Escalation

When a ticket has breached it’s SLA, action is required immediately. A help desk can automatically escalate tickets and assign them to a superior for follow up and investigation into what happened. If that escalation doesn’t resolve the issue, tickets can be escalated up the management hierarchy to make sure that it’s taken care of.

  • Create an escalation path so that customers get the resolution they need
  • Automatically notify leads and managers of SLA breaches
  • Show customers that you take SLA breaches seriously by escalating to a manager
Report

Understanding how often and when your team is missing SLA deadlines is critical to improving your customer experience. Use your help desk’s reporting feature to dive into breaches, uncover the reasons and trends behind them and to identify where gaps need to be closed. For example, if you see that most SLA breaches happen on Monday morning, it might be time to look into weekend support or increase the number of agents available first thing Monday. Some enterprise contracts will also require reports on SLA breaches as part of their contract, so ensure that your help desk can pull client specific SLA reports as well.

  • Filter by ticket property to dig down into the root cause of excessive SLA breaches
  • Discover what types of tickets are consistently overdue
  • Identify common trends of when SLA breaches occur to update staffing needs

How to manage an SLA breach

Even if you’ve taken steps to ensure your team is consistently meeting SLAs, a breach is inevitable. Things happen, tasks get dropped or roadblocked and all of a sudden you’re looking at an overdue reply to a customer. But the good news is that, as long as you aren’t consistently breaching SLAs, customers care more about how a breach is handled than the actual breach. Here’s four strategies to manage SLA breaches and keep customers on your side the whole way through.

Keep the customer informed

Bad news delivered now is better than bad news much delayed. As soon as you foresee an SLA breach coming your way, it’s time to get in touch with the customer to let them know.

When communicating an expected SLA breach, be as transparent as possible. Let the customer know what happened, what the next steps are, and apologize for not meeting your obligations. As the issue progresses, be proactive with updates and keep on top of other potential SLA breaches.

Revisit your reminders and escalation set-up

Use automations and escalations to ensure SLA breaches are dealt with quickly and effectively. Ensure that reminders are sent to the right person with the ability to action them, and that they are sent soon enough to be helpful. Double-check that escalation paths involve the right people and progress up the management chain as SLA breaches occur.

Involve legal team with contracts

If you work with customers that have SLAs outlined in their contracts, get in touch with your legal team as soon as possible before promising anything to the customer. They will have specific requirements for reporting breaches and will help with managing customer expectations in order to reduce potential penalties.

Escalations can also help with notifying legal teams proactively and automatically to keep everyone in the loop on missed SLA deadlines.

Review processes to ensure it doesn’t happen again

If you’re seeing frequent SLA breaches, you’ll need to dig in and do a post mortem on why it happened. Is it because your team is overwhelmed? Do you need to put in OLAs to prevent internal bottlenecks from getting in the way? Understanding why SLA breaches occur is critical to continually improving your customer experience.

Use Freshdesk for SLA Management to Keep Customers Happy

Freshdesk offers advanced SLA management features like multiple SLA policies, business hours or calendar hours settings, easy to set up escalations and automatic reminders.

Using SLAs to ensure your customers are receiving timely responses, and that issues are resolved quickly will keep customers happy with your support. Whether or not your clients require SLAs in your terms of service, offering guarantees to your customers will provide a much better experience overall.

A help desk makes it much easier for your team to handle SLA workflows by automating time tracking, prioritizing incoming customer inquiries and reminding agents of upcoming deadlines. Once you’ve set up your SLA policies in Freshdesk, everything runs smoothly.

Keep customers happy

Sign up for Freshdesk today

Start your 21-day free trial. No credit card required. No strings attached.