Don’t Abandon Your Service Level Agreement (SLA). Sharpen IT!

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I recently read Joe Panettieri's Channel E2E article which questioned if MSPs should abandon their service level agreements (SLAs). He cites a thesis from TruMethods Owner Gary Pica and CTO Bob Penland, which argues that MSPs should focus less on their SLA guarantees to customers and more on their proactive support and care. The two argue that SLAs are often used to prove how good MSPs are "in reactive mode," which isn't good enough.

Now, I will concede that the principle behind this theory is one I agree with. By offering threat detection and monitoring services, I'm able to reduce the number of tickets that a customer generates, thus avoiding costly downtime and demonstrating that I'm able to expertly prevent problems from developing into huge issues. Also, by maintaining the health of client endpoints, servers and networks, my team is able to deliver faster resolution times that keep clients happy, all while driving our own business costs down.

But my customers still need to know how quickly my team and I will respond when an issue does occur and be reassured of how effectively we'll serve them. The same applies for you and your MSP business. 

I still discuss our SLA candidly with customers when I know it's an important issue to them. But HOW I talk about it is different than just spouting pithy promises to make a customer feel better about doing business with Southern Data Solutions' managed services team.

I would argue that you still need to keep an SLA, but that you should shift the paradigm. During the sales process, be ready and willing to discuss your SLA and describe its value for your customers. But consider re-framing how you discuss it.


It's NOT about Guarantees...It's about Expectations

Tommy Boy is a hilarious movie that showcases examples of both the good and bad of salesmanship. In one of Tommy's better moments, he lets his prospect know (in a rather indelicate manner) that a box marked "guarantee" isn't worth very much if what's inside is "garbage." Tommy convinces the customer that seeing is believing and sometimes a guarantee is just a smoke screen for a rather crummy product.

As an MSP, your SLA could act as a smoke screen for poor service, even if you're meeting the guaranteed response times upon every request.

When you present your SLA to customers, you communicate the levels of support you guarantee, but if your SLA is just policy designed to make them feel better about doing business with you, it isn't worth very much.

Instead, your SLA should be used to set proper EXPECTATIONS for what it will be like to work with you.

Here's where the paradigm shift comes in:

Rather than say:

"John, if you submit a ticket to us, according to our SLA, we promise someone will get back to you no later than 2 hours after the time you send it in." 

Instead, your SLA conversation should sound more like this: 

"John, as a customer, when you submit a ticket you get our utmost attention from the moment we receive your request. Your issue is received by Mary who does a quick triage with you to uncover the severity of the problem. Then, she directly assigns it the best service engineer for the job. You may not always get the first engineer available because sometimes different issues require different types of expertise. Joe is better with email issues and Bob is an expert with server support. However, before you end your call with our help desk, Mary will let you know what time you can expect your issue to be resolved by and who will be contacting you." 

Why This Approach is Better 

In the first scenario, I set the expectation that our clients take a number and then get a response, which unfortunately reminds John of the old Domino's "30 minutes or it's free" slogan. If you establish this type of relationship with your customer, you won't keep them very long. Why? If you break that SLA threshold too often, you'll lose their trust and your credibility. 

In my second example, however, I describe the proactive service that the customer is about to receive from us. I set expectations for what our relationship will look like. I use the names of some of the people John can anticipate talking to so he'll already be familiar with our support team before having even picked up the phone. I speak more about what the client experience will be like, rather than throw meaningless guarantees around and base relationships on the context of a ticking clock alone.


Working with an MSP means creating an ongoing, positive service relationship. It doesn't mean that we don't use hard and fast defined timelines when we speak to our customers about our SLA. But when we talk about those timelines, it should be in terms of how clients will be treated, how exactly they can expect their cases to be handled and what will happen if an extremely urgent situation presents itself, rather than just a simple request. Setting the proper expectation in as much detail as possible is far more important than just saying "I promise." 

MSP Guide to Managed Services SLAs  [white paper]