The Real Measure of Great End-User Services

Escaping the SLA trap.

Not too long ago I was in a meeting with the CEO of a family-run enterprise. He told me the story of his immigrant grandfather. The grandfather came to the United States through Ellis Island and started what is today a very successful retail and distribution business. The CEO told me how simple it had been for his grandfather to measure the business results each week. In the original store, his grandfather kept two cigar boxes. One was for his bills and the other was for the receipts and cash. At the end of each week he would reconcile the receipts with the bills, and if there was money left over it was a good week. The business objective was to have 52 good weeks in a row every year, along with satisfied customers.

Fast forward three generations to our world. We have replaced cigar boxes, carbon paper and receipts with highly integrated business processes, mission-critical technology infrastructures and end-user technology that continues to become more sophisticated to keep up with the employees who use it. Unfortunately, the way companies measure the effectiveness of their technology support is too often exponentially more elaborate yet significantly less meaningful than the method used by my friend’s grandfather.

That’s because most IT departments continue to track how well they provide technology support, not how well that support boosts employee productivity.

Measuring Activities, Not Results

Ironically, many IT departments use inward-focused measures to gauge the effectiveness of their technology support. Even if they outsource support, they rely on internally-focused service level measures to monitor the outsourcing company. They’re not called service level agreements by accident. SLAs largely measure how effectively the outsourcing firm has delivered its services—not the impact of its service on user productivity.

A research study that Unisys conducted last year of 243 North American organizations provides further evidence of the need for CIOs to start measuring their department’s real impact on user productivity. One piece of the evidence: We asked the surveyed organizations what criteria they used to justify investments to improve user support. What was the No. 1 investment criterion that large organizations (at least $1 billion in revenue) cited? Not whether it would help the company to gain a competitive advantage. Not even whether it would boost user productivity. Rather, the primary justification was how much it would cost the IT department to make the enhancement to support services.

Yet our study uncovered a far more important reason today for measuring the impact of technology support on user productivity: Technology has become a key tool for employees who are “closest to revenue.” The salespeople, customer service reps, field technicians and other employees who have daily interactions with customers can determine whether business is gained or lost. If you aren’t measuring whether and how the technology and services you give these employees are making them more productive, how can they become more productive? How do you know if one technology tool is better than another for making the sale or fixing broken equipment? Or how do you know if one of your training programs is better than another for getting customer service reps to respond better to inquiries?

The technology these employees now use plays an outsized role in how well they do their jobs. Someone needs to measure how well it is helping them—both the technology and the support services that boost the benefit of the technology. As the executive suite continues to expect greater productivity from employees, CIOs have a major opportunity to increase their impact on individual and corporate productivity. But that will require a new approach to technology support and new ways to measure it.

Escaping the SLA Trap

Whether an organization provides support internally or outsources it, service level agreements are an important base measure of the effectiveness of support. If employees’ technology problems are not being solved—if their laptops aren’t being repaired when they need them or their questions aren’t being adequately answered, for example—they won’t be able to perform their jobs. But SLAs generally are too limited to transactions between the support staff and users. They don’t encourage support staff to see past the immediate technology problem and look for ways that IT can help users do their jobs better.

Furthermore, SLAs are often out of date a few months after they’re established. For instance, in a company that successfully institutes a customer relationship management system, sales and customer service professionals will see their dependence on technology increase rapidly. Salespeople who become dependent on the system to prepare for each day’s sales calls won’t tolerate the 24-hour response time defined in the SLA if their laptops aren’t working. Other users who become more dependent on their technology will add to the pressure to go beyond what was is stipulated in an SLA. In other words, SLAs are becoming less effective as the only tools for ensuring that user needs are met because technology’s importance to users is accelerating in many organizations (although unevenly from function to function).

In short, while SLAs are necessary to provide a base level of metrics against which the IT support function must perform, sole reliance on SLAs is likely to create unhappy and, at times, unproductive users.

Adopting User Productivity Metrics

While most organizations continue to rely on SLAs, some companies are setting a new course for measuring the value of IT support. We identified a group of companies in our survey as “support leaders”—companies that were providing highly effective IT support. We compared their answers to those of organizations we called “support laggards”—those struggling to address the support challenge. We found that leaders escaped the SLA trap and adopted more business-oriented metrics to gauge their effectiveness.

Leaders were far less likely to rely on SLAs to guide their support operations (although they had them in place). Furthermore, some 82 percent of the leaders—versus only 36 percent of the support laggards—tied their metrics to business-unit goals (see chart below). Those goals could be around whether sales people are making more sales calls and closing more business, customer service reps are handling more calls effectively, or field service technicians are making more service calls and resolving more problems per day.

Support Leaders are Much More Likely Than Support Laggards to Tie Support Measures to Business Unit and User Performance Goals

(Organizations > $1B)

Support Leaders Support Laggards
Are your support operation's performance measures tied to business unit goals and/or end-users performance? (yes or no)

82% Yes

18% No

36% Yes

64% No
Over the next two years, will your support operation increase its use of performance measures tied to business unit goals and/or end-user performance? (yes or no)

82% Yes

18% No

64% Yes

36% No

Such metrics are far different from the typical “the technology is working” measurements. Consider a business unit with a printer problem that required a technician to be dispatched to make a repair. The technician replaced a part on the printer but inadvertently erased all the settings and failed to test the printer to see if it worked after completing the repair. The technician saw the issue as resolved: He replaced the part. Yet after he left, no one could print documents because the printer needed to be reprogrammed. The technician met his SLA. But the users were far from happy, and their productivity was compromised unnecessarily.

The New Service Measure: User Productivity

Our research suggests that many companies’ IT support functions are missing a golden opportunity to provide greater value to the larger enterprise. While a few leading companies have recognized that IT support should be tied explicitly to its impact on user productivity and business-unit performance, many organizations remain caught in the IT support trap perpetuated by misguided SLAs.

To improve the value they provide, IT support functions must go far beyond measuring only a narrow part of the service experience. We believe the time is right for CIOs to shift from measuring IT service performance for its own sake to measuring its effectiveness through real business results, such as user productivity and its impact on company revenue and profitability. If they can do it, they will be able to begin to achieve the goal of measuring and representing the true value that the IT organization and its support services deliver to the business.

As the grandfather of the CEO I mentioned would surely have said, we must continue to collaborate with our business partners to measure if each week was truly “a good week” for our employees and our customers.

Joe Hogan is vice president, Strategic Outsourcing Programs at Unisys Corporation, which provides IT services to businesses and governments worldwide. To reach Joe, email him at joseph.hogan@unisys.com.

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