Anyone who's ever worked in a client-facing role knows that contrary to the adage, silence is not golden. Client relationships — especially contractual obligations and expectations for deliverables — require healthy and effective communication.
Because ultimately, whether you want to consider it one, this is a relationship. And as a business owner and service vendor, your goal is to build and maintain a relationship that translates into a long-term client contract.
Poor communication can lead to mistakes, misconceptions, and general dissatisfaction for you as the service provider and your clients. And primarily because IT client projects rely on a mutually agreed upon SLA and clear lines of communication, this is a reality that should be avoided at all costs.
Understanding the importance of an SLA
Service level agreements (SLA) are contracts that set the structure for the vendor-client relationship. While they can be used for any industry, they're ubiquitous for IT service providers. The SLA defines both client and vendor expectations and explains potential penalties such as failure to meet predetermined contractual obligations or misconduct resulting in financial damages for the client. Most SLAs will include:
Scope of work (SOW)
Emergency response expectations
Confirmation of core client and vendor stakeholders
Projected contract timeline
Metrics used to define contract success
While the vendor drafts most SLAs, more seasoned clients might also have an SLA template. The critical takeaway for SLAs is that they leave no room for misconceptions or confusion regarding the roles of both parties, expectations for deliverables, or definitions of success. But for this to be an effective tool that holds both sides accountable, communication is critical.
Communication Matters Throughout the Client Relationship
One of IT vendors' biggest takeaways is that poor communication can undermine SLA success. And while much of that conversation centers around relations between the vendor and client, don't forget about internal communications. Everything from communication breakdowns during emergency alerts to failing to engage in after-action reviews can ultimately harm the client relationship.
Client Negotiations: Get All Expectations in Writing
One of the critical areas where SLAs go awry is when either party fails to specify expectations. Your SLA is your opportunity to spell out the full SOW. Does your client expect you to provide emergency response support, or do they want you to fix aging IT systems and processes and provide emergency response solutions? Can you give a team on standby for emergencies, or are you only willing to offer a general response window? Likewise, if you're eager to provide full-service support, is that an additional fee for emergency response scenarios that trigger employee overtime?
All of the above are valid questions that should be answered. Assuming incorrectly can lead to poor brand reputation and frequent client conflicts. Be explicit on what your company can and can't support, and don't be afraid to push for client clarification if your SLA still contains gray areas.
You Can't Fix What You Don't Have Access To
If your firm is brought in to fix aging IT infrastructure, then more than likely, you'll need someone who represents the client side to walk your team through the current state of affairs. Similarly, you'll need access to critical systems to make necessary changes. Along with outlining these needs in the SLA, be sure that during the onboarding process, the client works to provide those assets. And, if the client fails to do so, the project should not officially kick off until you've been granted access.
Establish Emergency Response Protocols
While many conversations around SLA communications tend to focus on the client-vendor relationship, it's also essential to pay attention to internal lines of communication. Confusion and inefficient redundancies can plague an SLA, leading to customer dissatisfaction and a snowball effect of problems. Before you enter into an SLA with a prospective client, take the time to review your current processes — especially regarding emergency response alerts.
Are you streamlining the alert system so that all outgoing messages are routed through one seamless platform, or are you using a patchwork approach? Is there a direct command line so only vital actors are looped into initial alerts? Or are you solely relying on one outreach approach (i.e., company pagers) to send alerts? If so, this means if employees forget their pager, they aren't aware that an emergency is happening.
Similarly, if instead everyone in your organization is getting emergency alerts, there's a good chance that some team members are desensitized to responding to them. This can translate to slower response times, confusion over who is the designated first responder, who else should be ready to be deployed for the next steps, or who is the primary point of contact for escalation events.
Switch to a system like HipLink that allows for a holistic approach to emergency alerts. This means you can easily customize outreach so that the relevant parties are notified about events. Likewise, you can ensure that only people who are actively on duty or listed as on-call receive notifications and even escalate notices through designated staff if the initial round of contacts fails to respond within a specific time frame.
And Don't Forget the Client Component
Just as important as ensuring that internal communications are appropriately managed, don't forget that your client also deserves to be kept in the loop. After all, it's their business and bottom line at stake. While you might not want them directly interfacing with the emergency response team during an active crisis, they still need to be kept apprised of the situation. More importantly, if you need client approval to take specific steps that might be out of the norm, you'll want to have an authorized member from the client side that can respond quickly.
Take Advantage of After-Action Reporting
Especially if your firm is contracted to fix inefficient infrastructure, you need to leverage after-action reporting. This critical review goes much further than a basic postmortem by getting a recap of the emergency events and pushing for an urgent review to identify vulnerabilities, determine if the emergency was avoidable, and what preventative actions (if any) can be taken to avoid repeat scenarios.
But for this process to work, you need to ensure that internal communication is adequately established at your firm. This means that not only are you holding these reviews but that you're not allowing bureaucracy such as seniority to silence constructive criticism that would otherwise provide quality insights that might prevent future emergencies.
A Solid SLA Requires Open Communication
An SLA should be viewed as an idealized framework for a client-vendor relationship. It offers the potential of what a healthy project can be. But its ultimate success is dependent upon clear internal and external communication. HipLink is an emergency management and communication software as a service (SaaS) solution that supports IT, and service providers, by offering robust communication and emergency response platform that allows for flexibility when you need it most. Learn how HipLink can improve your business by streamlining emergency alerts and reducing response times.