Why IT Service Level Management Fails (And How to Fix It)

The unique characteristics of IT services means that IT service quality may only be measured external to the IT organization in the form of satisfaction of the customer with the service after they consume it.

For an SLA to be effective it must address not only the mechanics of the systems performance, features, reliability and so on, but also the perception of quality. This is the root of most SLA failures. In large part, the reason for failures with ITIL, BSM and SLM occur because IT staff and management think “operationally” with regard to the bits and pieces of hardware and software they know comprise an IT service. Customers and users are mostly unaware of these intricate details and simply consider the IT service the means to an end.

IT and customers usually have two very divergent views about how to measure service quality. Arguably, they only view that matters is the one held by the customer, since IT exists solely to accelerate the work of the enterprise. The reason customers outsource IT service delivery to IT in the first place is to reduce risk and improve utility. Customers consume IT services for one and only one reason, and that is to assist in selling, supporting or delivering enterprise products to end-customers.

Thus, the true measure of IT service quality, and therefore what SLM ought to be measuring and reporting to customers, is not the operational characteristics of physical products, but rather the ability of the user to sell, support and deliver enterprise products. As mentioned, customers have specifically paid us to mask them from internal production details so they can sell, support and deliver without distraction.

How to Measure Quality

Measuring these abilities requires a fundamental shift in thinking on the part of IT managers. From behind the IT curtain, IT services are composed of durable products, but that is not how consumers perceive and consume IT services. Instead of the durable product model of Garvin, a better model is SERVQUAL and its five dimensions of service quality: Tangibles, Reliability, Responsiveness, Assurance and Empathy. The research behind SERVQUAL has substantiated these dimensions across many industries. The primary means to obtain the values for these dimensions is a specially constructed survey instrument.

The benefit of this approach is that it does not tell customers how IT is doing, but rather reflects how customers say IT is doing. This is a very import customer-centric change in approach. By its very operation, SERVQUAL requires participation of customers and users on a regular basis. When combined with traditional “speeds and feeds” type metrics used “behind the curtain” SERVQUAL can transform the business IT relationship. Isn’t that the goal of BSM in the first place?

SERVQUAL is a continuous quality improvement tool designed for the service industry and first described in the late 1980’s. It provides a model for improving service delivery that directly addresses the root of poor service quality. SERVQUAL starts with an analysis of customer expectation as the basic formula. It defines service quality (q) as:

service (q)uality = (e)xpectation – (p)erception

Figure 1. Service Quality Formula

Perception is reality with regard to service performance, and “q=e-p” is the “e=mc2” of every service industry except IT. The larger the negative gap between expectation and perception, the poorer the service quality. Higher positive values indicate meeting or exceeding customer requirements. Too high and you have identified an opportunity to cut costs or rebalance resources.

Good as that sounds, right away the average IT manager may start to feel itchy in that SERVQUAL seeks to determine customer needs and wants (expectations) first, and then asks customers to determine how closely the service meets their needs. Many in IT feel very uncomfortable with the idea of measuring their performance based on subjective analysis, and from customers and users of all people! The truth of course is that “it takes a village” to deliver quality service and measuring individual elements can only loosely approximate service quality, and can never measure customer satisfaction.

Now you can see why some individuals in IT think speeds and feeds are the thing to measure. They have some direct control over them. However, it takes a well-managed team to effectively deliver IT services, and this what is so frightening to many in IT an organization notorious for its “gun slinger hero” mentality.

SERVQUAL measures precisely the gaps in team workflow responsible for failing to deliver a quality service. SERVQUAL is a proven model, and even with its inevitable detractors, SERVQUAL remains the de-facto standard for measuring the quality of services.

Quality is precisely what your customers tell you it is, and SERVQUAL lets you know loud and clear what your customers say. SERVQUAL goes beyond describing how to measure quality to include a built-in gap analysis model that shows where the supplier organization induces the poor quality. SERVQUAL defines five (5) gaps and aligns very nicely with ITIL, Six Sigma, CMMI and most quality and customer oriented management frameworks required to succeed with BSM. SERVQUAL includes four (4) internal gaps and one (1) external gap.