Being Pushed to Offer Service Level Agreements Too Soon

Illustration by Erik Blad
Illustration by Erik Blad

In Ask Help Scout, long-time customer service professional Mat “Patto” Patterson answers readers’ most challenging customer support delivery, leadership, and career questions.

Dear Patto,

The sales team at my company is working on signing up a big potential customer, and to help land it they want to offer this prospect a Service Level Agreement — they think it will be a deal breaker not to offer one. The problem is my support/success team is only two people, and we just don’t have the capacity to deliver on an SLA.

How can I push back on this request effectively?

Thanks,
Service Level Disagreement

Dear SLD,

A sales team trying to sell something that doesn’t actually exist yet? Unheard of! I jest, of course, and it’s not unreasonable for a sales team to ask about offering SLAs. It’s actually a positive sign that your sales folks see customer service as being of real value.

What would be unreasonable is signing a contract which includes a service that just can’t be delivered on. It sounds like the customer hasn’t demanded an SLA yet, but your team thinks they might require it later in the deal process.

So what to do? First, when your colleagues ask about Service Level Agreements, what are they imagining? There’s a big difference between “I need a 20-minute response time 24/7” and “I want a number for an account manager I can call if things go wrong,” so a good place to start is by being explicit about the expected level of service.

Once you understand the expectations, you can work out what resources would be needed to deliver them and talk them through with the sales team and perhaps your executives. That way you’re saying “Here’s what we would need” instead of “No, we can’t do it.” Now it’s a conversation where you’re both on the same side, lined up against the oncoming forces of budgets and priorities.

It may be that you can work together on some alternate options to achieve your shared goal, which is probably building this potential customer’s confidence that they will be promptly looked after if something goes wrong.

One option might be a VIP support tier that isn’t a strict SLA but more a package of services. These might include a priority support email address, a named account manager, or an emergency escalation number. That could build peace of mind, even if it’s actually close to the support level you offer to all your customers.

Or perhaps your company really wants to go after those big customers and is willing to pay for the support coverage that would be needed — either using internal staff or with the help of an outsourced first-tier service, for example.

Whatever the case, telling your sales team that you can help and you’d like to talk about what that means is a good practice, and it will help you build mutual trust and respect that you may need in later conversations or disagreements.

If all that fails and you’re expected to offer real SLAs with no extra help, then there’s only one option. To slightly mangle that famously abusive sales speech from Glengarry Glen Ross: Always Be Cloning.

Have a question for Patto?

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Mathew Patterson
Mathew Patterson

After running a support team for years, Mat joined the marketing team at Help Scout, where we make excellent customer service achievable for companies of all sizes. Connect with him on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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