Service with a smile?

They should, in theory, provide an open and understandable framework for service delivery. So why, asks Mike Hardwidge - in his...

They should, in theory, provide an open and understandable framework for service delivery. So why, asks Mike Hardwidge - in his idiosynchratic way - do SLAs still cause so many arguments.

Tektronix now has an SLA with High Wycombe based Allied Worldwide, where md Richard Skellett maintains his company is different. He would, wouldn't he; but Roger Bille at Tektronix is clearly no slouch when it comes to identifying weaknesses, and clearly entertains a similar view: 'Allied', he said, 'did sensible things like giving us one pan European cost centre which, compared to our previous suppliers, just saved a lot of financial pain'.

'There is', concluded Bille, 'no point in having an agreement of this nature where one party stitches up the other - this is ongoing, it's not a one-off like a used car deal, and the whole thing needs to be set out with precision and fairness.'

Allied's Richard Skellett said SLA often stands for 'Stupid Lousy Agreement' and reasonably pointed out that, when his company started as an outsourcing specialist in 1992, it went out with the less than comprising statement 'innovative ideas are created by people who seek daring new ways to do things and who challenge established methods. Allied', said Mr S, 'has succeeded by responding to its customers' requirements and needs - this is not an organisation which would manufacture several million cars and then try to find several million people to buy them.'

So, an SLA needs to be seen to be fair to both parties, it needs to be realistic, and it needs to specify everything in excruciating detail. What happens when - rather than if - something goes wrong? Paul Witten is business development director at online auctioneers eBay whose claims to fame include the day in June 1999 when the whole box and dice died for a day, disenchanted punters were unable to purchase the Scalextric on which their hearts had been set, and the eBay share price dropped like Oscar Bonavena when Muhammad Ali finally clobbered him.

Things have changed at eBay. 'We were,' said Witten, 'very good about not slinging mud outdoors', although he admits 'a fair bit got thrown indoors,' and different SLAs are in place. The point, however, is that eBay itself has changed. 'Yes, we're eBay, we're a great reference site, we're probably more demanding than many, but bullying suppliers into conditions any fool can see they can't possibly meet just isn't on. It's not just immoral, it's stupid too.'

eBay's infrastructure has become more 'compartmentalised' - if one bit fails then it doesn't automatically drag down the rest. Not unlike the theory behind the Titanic? 'Yes, I suppose you could put it like that but, if you've been there, you do your very best to make sure it doesn't happen again. In the real world there's no such thing as twenty four seven and yes, there'll always be people who try to cheat, so there's no shame in being sufficiently alert to try to spot it at the earliest opportunity.'

Nextra is owned by Norwegian telecoms outfit Telenor, bills itself as 'a pan-European communications service provider', and business marketing manager Maria Goggin is keen to comment. 'There are', she said, 'the usual cliches - everything needs definition, everything needs to be measurable, and so forth - but what you also need to define is what happens when something goes wrong. There is not', Ms G remarked sanguinely, 'a lot of point in sending the head of eBay a box of chocolates and a credit note for 12 hours.'

Penalty clauses would seem to be the order of the day and Digica technical director Nick Goss has firm views upon them. 'Yes, they're fine in principle but, in practice, they're never going to work, and any provider saying it'll stand up for consequential loss needs its marbles counted. Avoid them like the plague they so closely resemble.' Mr Goss takes the view that a proper deal is one which is slightly painful to both parties. 'Whatever the retribution when it all falls over, it needs to hurt a bit.'

Business decision
Russell Luke is sales and marketing director at Precise UK and agree. 'It is', he said, 'a business decision. You can carry on about the four or five nines until the Gobi desert freezes over but what you really need to define is what's most likely to go wrong, how it will hurt your business, what the damage is most likely to be, and what everyone involved is going to do about it.'

Arriving on a television chat show, and having received the mandatory compliment on her apparel, the actress Joan Sims said: 'At my age, dear, you chuck it all into a bag and let it sort itself out.' This does tend to be the British way, and one wonders if those further afield than the heart of Empire have traditionally approached SLAs with more precision.

Oscar Jager is director of e-service delivery at ClarITeam which, as it happens, is one of the 21 French companies to have acquired government backing this year. Not many people know that. Mr Jager endured a half hour interview in German before remarking patiently that he is Dutch, which at least meant football could be discussed. Mr J fluently endorsed everything everyone else said: yes, you need to define it properly, yes, of course you need to set targets which are measurable by performance rather than effort, and 'if you've got a call centre then there's a lot more point saying 'every problem will be dealt with within five minutes' rather than 'we'll stick in five people for ten hours a day'.'

Oscar Jager made the additional point that national barriers are subsiding, English is more or less accepted as the common business language, and that precision is no longer a German stronghold. What he meant, of course, was that, given a bit of practice, the English might almost be as good as the Dutch; but he was far too polite so to say.

The wolf and lamb
The book of Isaiah in the King James version of the Old Testament remarks that 'the wolf and the lamb shall feed together'; from which the clear implication is that Mr Wolf will behave like a good chap and will proffer nothing more sinister than the maintenance of witty table conversation, whilst getting stuck into his muesli. Nowhere, however, does it actually say that Mr Wolf will at all times refine his breakfast menu in such a way that the terminal detriment of Mr Lamb is excluded.

Such lack of specification has long been the bane of service contracts which are now called Service Level Agreements; or SLAs for short. SLAs are very much like personal relationships; should both sides operate in an atmosphere of openness, decency and honesty, then there is little to fear. The logic, which is rather like saying if there weren't any thieves then you wouldn't need policemen, is irrefutable. There are, however, those - the sort of cynics who mention negotiation with Essex car dealers and other psychopaths - who would argue that life ain't always like that.

Roger Bille is European infrastructure manager with Oregon based Tektronix who became known for knocking out seriously fancy VDUs during the 1970's time sharing explosion but have, in fact, been around for over 50 years, and produce more than 1,400 products which the company's pr describes as 'a broad range of instruments for virtually every measurement application ... including solutions for wireless, photonics and access networks, as well as sophisticated oscilloscopes, logic analysers, spectrum analysers, cable testers, stimulus devices, and communications test.'

Rog is Swedish, knows about measurements, and is firmly of the opinion that SLAs are a candidate for their rigorous application. 'Tektronix', he said, 'had SLA problems. We probably wanted too much, and the suppliers we were using just said 'yeah, we can do that'. They couldn't; we had six years' unbrilliant history, but then we found a supplier, although to be strictly accurate they found us, who said 'look, we can do this, we can't guarantee that, you get what you pay for, but you pay for what you get'. You could say we liked their attitude.

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