Why Should You Be Using XLAs?

Here Roy Atkinson discusses the unintended consequences of SLAs, exceeding expectations, and why you need XLAs.

Why Should You Be Using XLAs

By now, we should all be aware that XLA stands for Experience Level Agreement. In service and support, we've all seen SLAs Service Level Agreements intended to establish minimum requirements and define the measures and metrics for performance against the minimums. If the minimums aren't met, IT is said to be in breach of the SLA. But are minimum requirements enough? 

We can begin to describe the difference between SLAs and XLAs by stating that there is a fairly noticeable difference between what is acceptable and what is desirable. SLAs deal with the former; XLAs describe the latter.  

Writing on ITSM.tools, Hannah Price said, "…imagine a really top-of-the-line restaurant experience. The food is amazing, sure! But what if the music is terrible, and the waiter is snotty? Not an overall good experience, is it?" 

Unintended consequences 

And here's where the naysayers jump in and say, "So doing your work using IT services should be like eating in a high-end restaurant? I don't think that's a good idea." But they miss the point. Experience takes in far more than meeting minimums. I don't think any of us would go to a restaurant that advertised, "Come in. You get food. You pay us." But SLAs are like that: "If it breaks, we fix it in less than 4 hours most of the time. If we don't, we're in breach." There may or may not be penalties involved in breaches, depending on how IT is funded in the organization. 

But there's also a side effect. If a large number of breaches occur under the current SLA, the next time, IT will have the leverage to say that the SLA is too strict and needs adjustment so that fewer breaches occur. Using the previous example, the new SLA may say, "If it breaks, we fix it in less than 5 hours most of the time." That is not the intended consequence; we're supposed to be improving. 

"You can't always get what you want 

But if you try sometimes, well, you might find 

You get what you need."  

– Mick Jagger and Keith Richards 

The measurement of experience is all about expectations. When we went to the high-end restaurant, our expectations were high. We expected great food, excellent service, and a charming atmosphere. We got great food, but not the other things. Our expectations were not met. It's the same within our organizations: IT either meets or fails to meet the expectations of the lines of business that depend on its services. How can you meet those expectations without asking what they are? 

Meeting and exceeding expectations 

Let's be very clear: Not all the expectations will be met. IT's customers and end-users are famous for wanting everything now, and no IT department or service provider I've ever seen is funded, staffed, and equipped to provide immediate response, repair, or restoration of service. That's where the agreement part comes in. The consumers of IT services can lay out their expectations, and then IT can state what it can and cannot do or what it could do with additional funding. The consumers can then decide if the value warrants the cost. Negotiations occur, and the parties arrive at an agreement. 

Theoretically, a similar process occurs with SLAs; in the real world, however, it's not unlikely to find that IT departments decide what they can and will do and present it as a fete accompli to the other lines of business. 

Are we getting rid of SLAs? 

So, should SLAs be abolished? Not at all. (Read more about this topic here.) Businesses and other organizations need to know what they can count on concerning their technology and its support. SLAs clearly state the boundaries, the measurements, and the sanctions, if any, for breaches. But that isn't enough when so much of the world runs on information technology. It's common to say that "every company is a technology company" now, so IT infrastructure, maintenance, and improvement are critical. 

Of course, employees spend much more time using technology than ever before. So their complete employee experience is far more bound up with how that technology performs. In general, employees expect to have fully functional, easy-to-use hardware and software for work and get help rapidly  –  and with low effort  when needed. Those are the kinds of expectations XLAs are meant to elicit and address. 

According to The State of Technical Support in 2023 from HDI, 30% of respondent organizations have a single SLA and 68% have multiple SLAs, and 22% have XLAs. 

Setting Service Expectations

It's certainly worthy of note that, according to that report, only 72% of tickets covered under SLAs are meeting their goals or targets. 66% are meeting XLA goals. (It's tantalizing to speculate what the crosstab is, that is, how many are meeting SLA goals but not XLAs and  –  if any  vice-versa.) 28% of tickets breaching SLA seems to paint a bit of a gloomy picture of the experiences of the consumers of the services. Still, we need to remember that these statistics are based on tickets, and this same report tells us that 52% of tickets result from unplanned interruptions (incidents). This only shows us one aspect of the relationship of IT with the consumers of its services, and that brings us to another reason for putting XLAs in place. 

It's not all about one point of contact 

Let's go back to Hannah Price's analogy of a restaurant. The experience was not solely based on interactions with the waitperson or only on the less-than-acceptable music; those were elements of the experience, but the food was good. The aggregation of various elements of experience makes or breaks it for us. 

If, for example, my laptop won't start up one morning (very bad), but IT provides me with a fully-configured replacement delivered within the hour by courier (very, very good), chances are my expectations have been exceeded. And what about my everyday experiences with all the aspects of my work? Are the applications onerous to use? Is it easy to connect to the business systems from my home office? Is support available off-hours when I'm working around my family's schedule? In short, there's a lot more to IT than the service desk. 

When we consider adding XLAs, we start thinking about questions we must ask our colleagues about their expectations. 

Proactive IT

When we start measuring against their expectations, we get a far better picture of how our information technology is performing. We also get a clearer picture of where to focus our attention for improvement, but only if we measure the experiences. Putting XLAs in place is one crucial piece of the experience puzzle; ITXM™ (the management of IT experience) informs us and helps keep us focused on improving the work life of our colleagues, which is what we are supposed to be doing. 

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