What if the vendors we use every day were forced to adhere to Service Level Agreements?
I have long been the recipient of onerous Service Level Agreements imposed by my customers in exchange for the pittance of money and mountains of grief they give me to provide them services. Commonly called an SLA, I add an additional letter to the acronym as "SLAG", which I think more accurately illustrates how the customer and service provider interact for the duration of the contract.
Traditionally, I've handled these difficulties by vigorously complaining to my manager, co-workers and family who were, to an individual, entirely disinterested. Then it struck me that SLAGs shouldn't be resisted in a customer/vendor relationship, they should be embraced and extended. I'm the customer of many organizations - utilities, telephone companies, retailers and the media - so I've instigated SLAGs with some of my vendors.
KPIs (Kirkham Performance Indices) have been rolled out in the following areas:
Measurement: I no longer accept a supermarket policy of "Lower Prices Every day". I want to know how low! Lower than what? These things must be defined.
Maximum Queue Length: My supermarket must have less than three people waiting per cashier whenever I shop. My petrol station must have one pump available so I can refill without queuing.
Pricing Changes: The number of minutes between when the oil price goes up and the petrol price skyrockets must be greater than the number of days between oil prices and petrol prices going down. (I initially wanted parity, but stood no chance). There is a similar clause with my bank regarding interest rates - I didn't raise the subject of parity for fear of damage to my eardrums from the thunder of laughter.
Availability: All utilities have a 99.9 percent uptime requirement for each of their services. An exception clause relates to the mobile phone provider because, given they have no idea why mobile calls drop out between two stationary callers, they couldn't commit to this level of availability. We had an amusing haggling session "99.9 percent, 50 percent, 99, 50, 95, 50 . . ." before reaching our final figure of 75 percent.
Maximum Path Length: When calling the ironically named Customer Service telephone numbers, there will be a maximum of four touchtone presses before being able to speak to a real human. For automated services, transactions must be completed within 90 seconds. This caused a problem for one service provider whose automated phone system insists on slowly repeating back every button press, account number and credit card number without offering any skip capability. I stood firm on that SLA, for the good of all mankind.
Service Hours: My contact hours are between 9am and 6pm. This means I'm not home when vendor call centres phone me with "exciting new enhancements to my service". I'd like to extend this to all phone calls, but haven't worked out how to apply SLAs to telesales companies of whom I'm not, and am unlikely to become, a customer. I'm still working on this one though (for the good of all mankind).
Service Improvement: The next phase of my KPIs is to go beyond just meeting minimum levels. Australia Post must reduce the number of bills they deliver to me. My commercial TV providers must guarantee the ratio between minutes of interesting, entertaining or intelligent programming and minutes of advertisements is never less than 1:1. I was forced to add an exclusion clause between 6.30pm and 8.30pm as they quite rightly pointed out there is no entertaining television available between these times.
When I think of the time it's taken to negotiate, manage, measure and update my SLAGs, it could be more time efficient, cost effective and just plain easier to tear up the lot of them and just take what I get. But I will persist! Not just to avoid the "I told you so" taunts from those around me, it's for the good of all mankind.
Bruce Kirkham is a veteran IT professional specializing in leading-edge technologies and scepticism, who views the IT industry not so much as "dot com" as "dot comedy"
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