Do Service Level Agreements Guarantee Service Quality?

My first instinct is to say “no” – and to do so with quite a heavy emphasis.  In my experience of transformation programmes and outsourced services (on both sides of the fence), the service level agreement seems to me to be more about giving both sides a stick with which to beat each other and has little to do with the user experience.  I have been involved with contracts where service levels have been met and yet the user community has been not only unhappy but positively litigious, and this cannot be good for our industry, not to mention our blood pressure.

So what to do? What if we had a means of measuring service quality? I don’t mean availability because that’s easy.  I mean a scientific measure of end-user perception of the quality of service.  Would that not be a good thing? At least from the customer perspective? I can think of many objections from the suppliers’ perspective but choose to discount them as self-interest.  As a user of many services, both physical and online, my sole interest is in making the use of these services as easy and pain-free as possible from my own point of view.  I believe that most users of corporate or government services feel the same.

It may be difficult to assess the quality of a service that is delivered in person except by asking the user – though how difficult is it really? I have worked for a number of service providers with very different attitudes to this issue…  some refused to countenance asking those questions because they genuinely did not want to know the answers.  Others have embraced the concept and as a result grew their businesses by taking their customer feedback on board.

So, looking at the world as it is, rather than as it was a decade or so ago…  social media have taken off in a way that only a few visionaries would have imagined, and they are now all unimaginably wealthy as a result.  Should we perhaps stop to think about why that is? They have given us all the ability to talk to each other in non-intrusive and global ways that previously involved either inter-personal email or long-distance telephone calls…  and not only can we do so for free but we can talk to many people at once.  So when we start to talk about our experiences of service providers, services or systems, there is a good chance that not only will many people hear us, but they will share our thoughts with many, many others.  If your service is fabulous, that’s a great thing.  If it is less than fabulous, then you might have problems.  After all, service quality is all about perception, is it not.

Would it not be marvellous if we could have a means of measuring the quality of an online service in real-time so that we could identify issues in the technical delivery supply chain – even in the elements we don’t directly control – so as to act before issues become problems?

I for one do not wish to be told that my service is meeting its service level agreements if my customers are unhappy.  I want to know what is making them unhappy with my service, regardless of who is responsible for that link in the chain.  I want to deliver excellence in all of my company’s services and I will only be able to guarantee that if I can measure the end-user experience.

My second reason for opening this debate is that I am in the consultancy business and it is a business which has more than its fair share of problems in terms of customer perception.  My belief is that when a customer engages a consultant they should not only get good, sound and experience-based advice but they should be able to measure the improvement to their business of taking that advice.  For that to be possible (and the IT industry has been wrestling with this issue for decades) it must be possible to establish a baseline against which improvements can be measured.  The customer should then be able to use the same measurements to determine whether the implementation of the consultant’s advice has made matters better or worse.  Now, would that not be a game-changer if rewards were based not on effort expended but improvements delivered?

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