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Everything you need to know about the SLA (+ 3 free templates)

How and why you should create service-level agreements.

By Patrick Grieve

Published June 5, 2017
Last updated September 14, 2020

Ever ordered from a pizza place because they guaranteed your food would be delivered in 30 minutes or less? Then you already understand the appeal of a strong service-level agreement.

Sure, most service-level agreements (SLAs) are printed on contracts rather than takeout menus. But the basic premise remains the same—it’s a promise to provide a baseline level of service. You don’t know exactly how soon your pizza will arrive, but it’s guaranteed to get here before the game starts.

Your customer support team probably shouldn’t be promising people a free pizza if their call isn’t resolved in under thirty minutes, but making other types of guarantees could really pay off. The best SLAs help define your team’s service goals and establish your company’s reputation for fantastic support. Because once you’ve outlined specific objectives, it’s easier to keep your support team honest and your customers happy.

What is an SLA?

An SLA, or Service Level Agreement, is a written agreement that defines standards for support—in short, a customer service guarantee.

That agreement could refer to the quality, availability, or timeliness of the service being provided. An SLA is usually part of a larger contract.

Generally speaking, there are three types of SLAs, including:

  1. Customer-based SLA: An agreement a business makes with an individual client or group that sets a specific standard for support. For example, a telecommunications company might put a clause in their biggest customer’s contract that guarantees a specific uptime.
  2. Service-based SLA: A specific standard for support that’s guaranteed to all customers using a specific service or product. If the telecom company promised a specific uptime to all users or offered a free routine service to every customer, those would be service-based SLAs.
  3. Multilevel SLA: A multipart agreement that’s split into different levels, each addressing different sets of customers for the same services. A multilevel SLA might have a corporate-level component that applies to all customers, as well as a separate agreement that covers a specific customer group.

It’s also not uncommon to have internal SLAs that define how your company operates. An internal SLA could be an agreement between multiple departments within your organization—for example, the marketing team promising to deliver a certain number of qualified leads to the sales team each quarter.

Or, internal SLAs could just be customer service standards that you set as goals for your support team but don’t formally guarantee to clients. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to privately test out all proposed SLAs before taking them public. For example, you might set a company goal for initial reply or resolution times. If your team hits the target, then you can start promising customers a specific speedy response rate.

What is the purpose of an SLA?

An SLA gives support agents something they can work toward and customers something they can rely on.

SLAs establish clear objectives for your customer support team. They codify policies regarding how quickly agents must respond to and resolve issues. And by holding agents accountable to specific standards, you’ll see those standards met, because what gets measured gets done.

Obviously, that’s a win for your customers. Aiming for a shorter response time or wait time will likely translate to more satisfied callers, even if the SLAs are internal.

Once you’re confident that you can provide a consistent level of service, woo customers with official guarantees. Sometimes the mere existence of an SLA in a contract will put a client’s mind at ease. To attract prospects, your marketing team could also advertise in campaigns how fast your service window is.

How do you write an SLA?

Crafting an SLA begins with recognizing what objectives matter most to your company and your customers.

Start by considering these key performance indicators (KPIs) that often appear in SLAs:

  • Full resolution time: how long it takes for the issue to be resolved once the ticket is opened.
  • One-touch resolutions: the number of tickets that are resolved by the first responding agent, within the first interaction.
  • First response time: how long it took to initially respond after the first ticket was created.
  • Hold time: how long customers wait in the phone or chat support queue before an agent can assist them.
  • Customer satisfaction (CSAT): a measure of how satisfied customers are with individual support interactions.

When choosing which metrics you’d like to focus on, consider your industry and the unique pain points your brand faces. For example, a rapidly growing B2B company that wants to scale its support might build an SLA based on ticket deflection ratio. Meanwhile, a retailer that knows it must provide quick support during the holiday season might create an SLA that focuses on a maximum first-reply time for new tickets.

Once you’ve decided on the purpose of your SLA, it’s time to ink the agreement. Because SLAs usually involve a fair amount of legalese, it’s often easier to write one based on a template.

  1. PandaDoc offers a standard SLA template that should work for most industries. It also includes a chart that you can use to outline the details.

    PandaDoc SLA example

  2. The free Rocket Lawyer template includes a section on payment details and covers possibilities such as default and dispute resolution. This template is especially useful for new financial agreements.

    Rocket Lawyer SLA example

  3. Template.net offers a simple but fairly comprehensive SLA. The pre-filled form is easy to edit and features a section that covers common customer support metrics like resolution rate, call handling time, and client satisfaction rate.

    Template.net SLA example

  4. All of the above templates are free to download and use. Be sure to have a lawyer review the SLA before you or the customer signs on the dotted lines.

    How do you manage SLAs in your support software?

    Manage SLA goals in the same software you use for all support needs. Your software is already tracking your support team’s activity, so it’s a handy resource for SLA monitoring.

    Zendesk Support has an SLA feature that is designed to make it as convenient as possible for agents to meet service agreements.

    Set SLA conditions

    To start, an administrator defines an SLA policy in Zendesk. Then, they can set up triggers that will alert agents about a time-sensitive SLA and automatically escalate priority tickets to the top of the queue.

    Triggers will also sound the alarms if an SLA is violated, informing the team and managers that a breach has occurred.

    How do you deal with an SLA breach?

    Now that you’ve made the SLA part of your workflow, you need to prepare for when things don’t work out—i.e., breaches. The term refers to the violation of a service-level agreement, as in “breach of contract.”

    Build a process for dealing with breaches. First, set automatic alerts in your support software for when SLAs are not met. They should notify supervisors who can assess the severity of breaches and decide what kind of response is required.

    Next, figure out what needs to be done to avoid future breaches:

    • Is a single agent not able to meet the time threshold on an SLA before that ticket is escalated? That agent might need more training.
    • Is ticket deflection too low? It might be time to revisit your company’s self-service strategy. Giving customers more ways to solve noncritical issues on their own will free up agents to focus on the tough requests.
    • Or is this something larger? Maybe an SLA focused on hold times isn’t being met because of an enormous surge in calls at the same time. This could point to a major problem, such as unscheduled downtime.

    Breaches are bound to happen, but they shouldn’t be a common occurrence. If you’re regularly experiencing them, it may be time to rethink your SLAs or reexamine your support system.

    Raise your level of service with SLAs

    Providing great customer service is about meeting customer expectations. SLAs are a way to formally set those expectations—and provide your support team with a road map for achieving them.

    With software like Zendesk Support, you can easily make SLAs part of your workflow. Alert agents and supervisors when one is in danger of being breached, and track KPIs that reveal even more about your team’s performance. See for yourself with a free trial.