Trust is the solution

It is a common practice to measure incident resolution times and have SLA limits for different priorities. For example, a typical SLA can state that 90% of priority level 2 incidents must be resolved within 8 business hours. One complication is that sometimes resolution must wait for some information or third party act. Usually this waiting time is subtracted from the resolution time which means that the actual resolution time can be anything but be still within the SLA limit.

Another problem is the priority. It is hard to define the right priority and sometimes there is a need to change the priority as there is more information available concerning the nature of the incident. There was recently a discussion on the subject of changing priority where I commented that I consider the whole concept to be a bad ITIL practice. A few commentators disagreed. One person wrote:

… I very much disagree regarding ”bad practice”. Without a measurement for timing – and logically, the timing to resolve something more damaging would be shorter – one has only chaos and is at the mercy of whoever decides timing was not what it should have been.

 In this article, I will explain the reasons why I consider it as a bad ITIL practice and what would be a better practice. The above comment is basically right; it makes sense to measure timing and it is true that important matters should be resolved faster. I disagree that it leads to chaos if customers can decide what is the right timing. But this is not the real problem, the core problem lies in the SLA connection. When resolution times are set as a SLA target the timing easily becomes dominant and it will override common sense and customer value.

Any metric can be harmful if it used incorrectly. Usually management wants to have numbers and easily defined targets but metrics can be toxic.

Road side speed measurements do not show high speeds, if they did, some drivers would try to get record numbers and the safety measure would become a source of danger.

Firstly, the measurements are very easy to manipulate. If you haven’t seen cases where all SLA’s are met but customers are quite dissatisfied, you do not know much about real life in ITSM. It is far too easy to play with the measurements as so many things are hard to define. Here are some techniques:

  • ask difficult questions from the customer and stop the clock while they try to answer the questions
  • give low priority to difficult cases, or change the priority if the deadline approaches
  • classify more automatically generated events as incidents and solve them fast

All these tricks will help to fulfill the SLA promise without providing any value to the customer.

The second major problem is the setting of priorities. It is difficult and usually there are simple rules, which give a ticket a priority based on the affected service. The given priorities do not necessarily reflect the true business value related to the case. One thing is sure, any mechanical, automatic priority system will fail.

Here is an example, I’m sure many have seen similar cases:

IT service provider ITSP has a culture of fast responses and close cooperation with their customers. They know when they need to drop everything and jump to prevent a potential failure. They have processes and use a ticketing system to make sure that things are not forgotten, but they are not orthodox about it and do not always create tickets. They have no SLA’s.

 One day ITSP management decides to implement best practices. All incidents need to be handled following SLA requirements and it is a severe error to let SLA times slip.

 So, when next time there’s a potential failure, the IT staff concentrate on following orders and refrain from jumping to prevent the failure. The staff closes a group of minor tickets which are close to breaching the SLA limit before they start working on the major failure and resolve it just within the SLA.

 Everything is ok, there has been no SLA breaches but the customer is mad because they could see that the IT people were closing insignificant tickets while their business ground to halt due to a major IT failure which was waiting.

The solution to the priority and SLA problem is simple; trust. If you can trust your service provider, you do not need to set SLA penalties. If you can trust your staff to make good decisions, you do not need rigid prioritization.

This far from easy, trust needs to be earned and it is easy to lose it. On the other hand, it is very rewarding and it is good for business.


You don’t improve service with mistakes.

The customer wanted to return a tire. Never mind that the Nordstrom department-store chain sells upscale clothing, not automotive parts. According to company lore, the clerk accepted the tire because that’s what the customer wanted. Newsweek 1989

I heard the Nordstrom story years ago (it is probably just a legend, there are many variations about it). Consultant have been telling stories of great service recoveries. At some point the consultants made the next conclusion: If you are perfect, customers don’t notice you. If you make basic mistakes and recover well, they can be delighted! Stuart Rance said this in his presentation few days ago and I commented that I disagree with the idea and this blog is an explanation for my comment.

Of course a good recovery is nice and may lead to short term satisfaction but solid, reliable good service is better.  I specifically disagree with the first part of the sentence and the implied idea that a faulty but well recovered service might be better. Reliability or service warranty is really important and I doubt if people stop appreciating it.

I have worked from home for almost ten years. During that time, I don’t remember a single internet service outage which would have prevented me from working. I may have needed to use my phone as a WLAN provider for a short while once or twice during these years but that backup comes from the same telco. Reading about the difficulties other people have helps me to appreciate this reliability and I definitely don’t wish any basic mistakes to happen with the service.

Some people (including me) have argued that it is not possible to delight customers with ordinary, basic services; that delighting belongs to luxury services. I disagree with my earlier opinions. An ordinary service experience can be delightful if it is well done. As always, the customer expectations are important.

We moved recently and we hired a moving company to do most of the work. I went to pick up extra 20 boxes early so that we would have time pack difficult and time consuming items like fragile glassware. The transaction went like this. I reported at their office that I had arrived to pick up the boxes. They checked the order and printed out a document for their warehouse. Then I drove to the loading bay. The guy was there already waiting with my boxes, then he came down and looked at my car and figured out how to fit the boxes. Then he loaded them in the car and I just watched. It was a smooth operation and the service clearly exceeded my expectations. I had expected to need to wait for the delivery and that I would have to pack the boxes myself.

A simple, well operated, efficient, and seamless service operation is beautiful, just like good design in an object. Of course not all customers appreciate beauty and good design as sometimes it is a matter of taste; but most people do appreciate good service even if they do not understand the hard work behind it.

So, what if nobody appreciates your beautiful service. One reason could be that your service is not as perfect as you think. There might be some elements which are not so well planned. Remember that the service provider’s view of the service is different from the customer’s. You need to consider the customer experience. (Here you need to understand that the people who use your service are your real customers, it is not relevant who pays for the service. If the customers don’t like your service and they walk away, the money will follow.) You need to study the customer journey to your service from the beginning to the end. Details are important. The ITIL Practitioner gives good advice on this: Data is not a substitute for direct observation, page 20.

There is one important element in the Nordstrom story and it is the right to make decisions at the customer interface. It was the clerk who decided to refund the tires. Don’t make recovery a management decision, give your 1st line staff to right to choose the right compensation.


















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