You and your support team have certain norms and expectations that dictate how you work together.
Maybe everybody knows to keep themselves on mute during Zoom meetings. Or perhaps it’s common knowledge that you need to label your food in the break room fridge or it’s fair game.
Battles over lunch leftovers aside, you also have expectations for the service you provide to your customers—whether those promises are shared publicly or not. They keep your whole team accountable and help you make strategic adjustments to provide the best service you can.
But you know the thing about best-laid plans, right? Sometimes you fall short of what you all agreed upon.
Then what? While it’s tempting to bury your head in the sand (or, in the fridge while you peruse those takeout containers), it’s important to take a good, hard look at why you missed your goal—otherwise, you run the risk of missing it again and again. Plus you don’t want to be unprepared for when leaders ask what happened.
Does this matter to you? Keep reading if…
- Your support team is continuously frustrated by missed targets
- Your team struggles to understand why you keep missing those targets
- You’re doubting whether your goals are even realistic in the first place
- You’re receiving questions from stakeholders about why your team is underperforming
What exactly is a service level agreement (SLA)?
Remember how we talked about your team’s shared expectations for how you’ll serve your customers? That’s the gist of what a service level agreement (SLA) is—it’s a service commitment between you and your customers.
That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a signed contract guaranteeing a certain response time. Unlike uptime service guarantees, SLAs aren’t always made visible to customers. Rather, they’re a target that your team uses internally for a couple of reasons:
- To ensure you’re delivering the quality service you know you’re capable of
- To calculate the necessary staffing to handle your workload and meet your goals
In most cases, the most important component of an SLA is response time. It’s a goal for how quickly you’ll handle the first response to a customer, whether it’s picking up the phone or sending the first chat reply.
SLAs give you a metric to shoot for and measure yourself against so that you can keep your customers happy, your stakeholders satisfied, and your entire support team on track.
Setting (realistic) SLA targets: 3 steps to follow
Your SLA targets are what you’re aiming for. For example, maybe you want to answer 80% of phone calls in three minutes or less. This target should be a motivator for your support team—but that only happens if they believe it’s achievable (even if it is ambitious).
Here are three steps to follow to make sure your SLA targets are grounded in reality rather than optimism.
Step #1: Determine what matters most to your customers
Question to ask yourself:
- What service aspects do our customers value most?
Your targets shouldn’t just light a fire under your team—they should lead to better experiences for your customers. With that in mind, it’s important to understand what holds the most value for them.
Do they care more about the speed of responses? Or are they okay waiting for a little bit longer if it means they get a more personal touch?
These answers could depend on your industry. Healthcare, as one example, needs to prioritize a personal touch while fintech will focus on immediate replies. It’s helpful to look back at your customer satisfaction scores and see if you can correlate them to waiting times to get a better sense of what matters most.
In short, don’t just pick a target because it sounds good. Invest the time in a little digging and research to confirm that the goals you set actually make a difference for your customers.
Remember that customer and business needs change, so periodically reevaluate your goals and adjust them if needed. The last thing you want to do is spend tons of hours (and money) to meet an aggressive metric that most of your customers don’t care about.
Step #2: Evaluate your channels and queues
Questions to ask yourself:
- Is our service primarily synchronous or asynchronous?
- Do we have priority vs. standard support within our channels?
The targets you set shouldn’t apply across the board—you need to customize them for the different channels you use.
Asynchronous channels like email will usually have longer first response goals (measured in hours) than synchronous channels like phone and chat which will have shorter response goals (measured in seconds or minutes).
You also need to consider if you have primary and standard service levels within the same channel so you can set goals accordingly.
For example, your goal for your standard phone queue might be 80% of calls answered in three minutes or less while the priority phone queue might be 90% of calls answered in 30 seconds or less. The priority queue has a loftier target that’s important to keep in mind as you create your forecasts and staffing plans to ensure that goal is actually attainable.
Step #3: Set (and monitor) your goals
Questions to ask yourself:
- Is the support team consistently reaching our targets or missing them?
- What are our customer satisfaction scores?
You know by now that goals aren’t a “set it and forget it” kind of thing. You need to keep tabs on your team’s progress so that you can learn from your wins and failures and make tweaks from there.
Keep in mind that, while aggressive goals sound motivating, you’ll only see diminishing returns if you strive for perfection. We recommend sticking with SLAs around 80-85% as you’ll spend far more resources (read: dollars) trying to push your SLA goals higher and higher.
It’s the 80/20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle) in action, which states that 80% of your results will come from only 20% of your actions.
So, you missed your SLA target…now what?
Setting realistic goals is the best way to set your team up for success. But, what happens if you still miss an SLA target—especially one you thought was reasonable in the first place?
Put down that paper bag you were about to start breathing into. This is no reason to panic. While it might seem like a big, knotty, intimidating problem on the surface, underneath it’s surprisingly simple.
Missing an SLA target is really just an issue of supply (your staffing) and demand (your workload). You’ll start working your way down the list of possible contributing factors in both categories and note what you find. That’s it—we promise.
So, let’s resist the urge to overcomplicate things and take a closer look at both of these elements.
Let’s talk about your supply…
Start with this simple question: Was your support team actually staffed to your required staffing level?
Put simply, did you have as many support agents on staff as you forecasted you would need? If not, it’s pretty clear why you missed your target: You didn’t have enough people to carry the load.
If you did have enough agents signed on? It’s time to zoom in a little further to look at things like:
- Adherence: Did agents work the schedule they were supposed to?
- Conformance: Did the hours worked match the times they were needed?
- Shrinkage: How much “away from the queue” time did agents have?
Maybe you notice that, while you had enough agents, they didn’t stick to the schedule they were assigned. That would have a big impact on your ability to meet your SLA targets.
All you’re really doing here is grabbing your detective hat and looking at individual pieces to see if you can find where things fell apart. It’s like a treasure hunt—but instead of a chest of gold, you find an answer.
Now let’s look at your demand…
If taking a close look at your staffing didn’t answer your question (or only answered part of your question), it’s time to look at the flipside of the coin: the demand.
Your demand is your workload. Did how much work did your support team have to do to match what you had forecasted? Demand can be broken into its main parts:
- Volume: Did the number of incoming contacts and tickets match what you estimated?
- Handle time: Did agents spend as long on each contact as you had expected?
After all, if way more contacts came in than you had estimated or interactions took way longer than what you thought, it makes sense why your target was missed—your team had way too much to do.
Don’t forget your magnifying glass
For both supply and demand, it might not be enough to take a broad perspective. You might need to look all the way down at an interval level.
After all, sometimes a single bad day can ruin your SLA for the week. Or a few hours can prevent you from meeting your target for the whole day. Those are answers and outliers you’ll miss if you stick with a zoomed-out approach.
Understanding SLA misses: An example
Nothing adds some clarity like an example, so let’s work through this together.
Imagine that you forecasted that you’d meet your phone SLAs for the week every single day at 80%. But, unfortunately, the week underperformed—and you need to figure out why.
You’d start by checking your supply levels (which, remember, is your staffing). You’d also check adherence, conformance, and shrinkage levels at an hourly interval over the entire week for phones. Here’s what you see for Monday morning:
Take note of anything that stands out to you and then turn your attention to your demand levels, which is your workload. Here’s what you see for those same times on Monday morning:
Once you’ve gone through your data with a fine-tooth comb, keep in mind that numbers only do so much. It’s your job to pull out what those digits actually mean. Here’s an example:
- Supply: Shrinkage sharply increased while adherence to schedule dipped.
- Demand: Volume increased well above plan while handle times stayed within bounds.
- Summary: SLA was largely missed due to the high increase in shrinkage coupled with poor schedule adherence and volume above expectations.
That’s far more compelling and helpful than a bunch of charts and figures, isn’t it?
How to (calmly and confidently) explain your missed target to stakeholders
You figured out why you fell short of your target. Now comes the really anxiety-inducing part: Letting other people know why you missed your SLA.
We have some tips to get you through this with your nerves and confidence intact. Summon your courage and let’s do this.
1. Gather all of the data you need
Talking through your SLA misses isn’t the time for ambiguity. You need to be prepared to openly and honestly answer questions like:
- What drove the SLA miss?
- Is this a pattern or a one-time thing? Why or why not?
- Did large outliers take down the entire day or week? What were they?
If there were any large outliers, it’s helpful to run your data without those to show their magnitude—and also drive home the point that your support team is doing well otherwise.
2. Explain mitigations and impact
You don’t just need to talk about what happened—you need to explain what you did and what this means moving forward. How did you respond to lessen the impact of the SLA miss? What will those impacts be?
Make sure that you also look at downstream impacts like:
- Was overtime used?
- Did cross-skilling impact other queues (for example, did you pull agents from your tech support queue to help with the general account care queue)?
- Will this drive churn?
This all backs up the point that your role isn’t only to share data—it’s to create the larger narrative about the missed target.
3. Plan to prevent another miss
SLA misses are disheartening, but they’re also an opportunity for improvement. Wrap up by sharing what you and the team have learned from this experience and how you’ll use that information moving forward.
Revisiting our example from above, you might say: “Going forward, we’re going to spread shrinkage out to not go above 25% per interval. We’re also going to make adherence a higher priority when measuring agent performance.”
That moves the spotlight away from your failure and instead shines it on your future.
As you figure out how you can improve, don’t only look at your missed SLAs to figure out what you did wrong. Evaluate the times that you met your SLAs so that you can learn what you did right. It’s revealing (and, you know, a little more encouraging).
Understand, optimize, and hit your targets
Nobody wants to miss an SLA target, but it happens. Yep, even on the best of support teams.
While it might seem like the best time to cover your eyes and ignore the fact that you fell short, this is actually a great opportunity to learn and improve—provided you can figure out what happened.
Rest assured, you don’t need a crystal ball to do that. It’s really as simple as understanding your supply and demand. Do that and you’re well on your way to understanding your missed targets—and, even more importantly, hitting them next time.