The cornerstone of every successful relationship—business or otherwise—is a clear, mutual set of expectations. In IT, this plays out in the form of service level agreements (SLAs). But really, SLAs are only the first step in the journey to a happy customer relationship. The real key to maintaining happy customers over the long term is SLA management.

Knowing how important SLAs are raises several questions: How do you create one, what should it contain, and how do you manage them? 

In this article we’ll review the basics of SLAs and SLA management, as well as how to follow best practices, so you’ll never have an unhappy customer again. (If only!)

What is an SLA?

A Service Level Agreement (or SLA) is a document that clearly defines what is being provided by a business to its customers (or, in the case of internal IT, to its internal customers.) It is a chance to define roles, obligations, processes, prerequisites, performance standards, and everything else you need for successful deliverables. 

When used between customers and service providers, SLAs are generally legally binding contracts, but it is not unusual to see an internal IT department also create an SLA to set expectations across the organization for their scope as well. When everyone knows exactly what to expect, you greatly reduce the risk of escalations and negative customer sentiment due to assumptions made that you were not aware of. 

Not only is an SLA critical for customer success, it can also be a binding legal document. That means, in the worst case scenario, it can offer some protection from legal action. 

6 key components of an effective SLA

A successful SLA typically spells out the following:

  1. Scope of the service: This functions as an overview of what you are providing. 
  2. Responsibilities: This spells out in specific detail what you will handle and, equally as important, what you won’t. For example, if you are an internal IT staff member, but your organization also has in-house application developers, who supports the application? How does the system route tickets? If you are an MSP, will you handle all devices, or are there some that are not in your scope (for example, a development lab, or personal devices people want to use.) What level of network management will you be responsible for?
  3. Performance metrics: What key numbers will you look at to determine if you are successfully meeting the terms of your SLA? Some common examples for both MSPs and Internal IT are MTTR (mean time to resolution) for help desk tickets, number and length of unscheduled outages, and customer satisfaction surveys.
  4. Penalties: If the customer finds that the outlined performance metrics are not being met, what remediation options are available to them? MSPs often impose financial penalties; meanwhile, internal IT usually addresses this through the organizational hierarchy. For example, support leadership might collaborate with the IT department to prioritize their Helpdesk tickets, ensuring customers do not wait for help during equipment issues. MSPs may want to conduct a comprehensive network assessment to identify any trouble spots before agreeing to penalties for outages. 
  5. Reporting and communication: How often will you communicate and how will you show the metrics? A key component for MSPs is how they will report on these metrics and who will see the reports, as it’s typically only a small team that contracts with the MSP. Internal IT might benefit from making these reports widely available within the company, so other employees can understand IT load and adjust their expectations accordingly. 
  6. Changes and updates: Who can change the SLA, and when can they change it? A key component of an SLA is making sure it continually meets the needs of both the provider and the customer. Both MSPs and Internal IT should work with their stakeholders regularly to make any necessary adjustments.

What is SLA management?

Now that you know what an SLA is, that brings us to SLA management.

At a high level, SLA Management encompasses the continuous oversight of all contracted services to ensure they are meeting the needs and standards outlined in the contract. Practically speaking, it involves ensuring you meet your customer’s needs with the solutions you provide. Treat an SLA as a living document, open to revision or adjustment as the needs of both parties change.

SLA management best practices

Just as details across SLAs differ based on the industry and service provider, so too do the best practices for managing those SLAs.

How do you know you’re meeting your customer’s needs? How do you as a customer ensure your service providers are living up to their end of the deal?

A key differentiator may be whether your customers are internal (Internal IT) or external (MSP).

For MSPs

For MSP SLAs, there are several key aspects to successful management.

Customization: It’s tempting to just use a boilerplate, but that can be a disservice to customers who have unique needs. Create custom SLAs when it’s appropriate as long as you clearly define the scope and responsibilities of your MSP network management.

Flexibility in adjustments: In that same vein, build in the ability to be flexible with adjustments. If your clients have a particularly busy season, for instance, you can scale up response times and then scale down during slower periods, which will help you plan for staffing.

Proactive monitoring: The more proactive you are at monitoring your own performance, the more you will be able to get ahead of any issues. 

Proper tooling: Establishing metrics to report on is so important, but making sure you have the tools to create reports is also crucial. Nothing will kill your team’s productivity (or spirit) faster than having to dig through multiple data sources to update an excel spreadsheet.

Customer feedback: Customer feedback is crucial to ensure you are meeting the needs of the organization. Many help desks send surveys to rate how they handled a ticket after closing it; ensuring these surveys are simple to complete will help you gather valuable feedback.

For Internal IT

Internal IT has many similar challenges to MSPs, but working with internal customers presents some unique challenges.

Flexibility in scope: Your policy might say no personal devices, but if the CEO wants to connect to the corporate WiFi on his new iPhone, you are probably going to want to help. You have to have a good sense of when to draw the line, and when you can’t. 

Change management collaboration: Systems have to go offline sometimes, that’s inevitable, but make sure you’re not timing it during a critical build cycle for development. The benefit of being internal is that you have access to other department leaders, and taking their schedules into account will avoid any disasters.

Vendor management: You probably have some SaaS providers. Make sure you are managing their SLAs effectively as well. You don’t want to take the blame for an outside vendor’s issue.

Documentation: Most helpdesks are not 24/7, and there are probably a lot of repeat calls. Creating robust documentation of common troubleshooting processes can help users self-serve, and help you head off an influx of cases—for example, if you have a document on how to enroll a new device in your MDM, you can send it out right before a new phone release. 

Choose metrics carefully: Obvious case handling metrics like average time to close are important, but what if tickets stay open because the end user doesn’t respond? Make sure you are not penalizing your team for things out of their control. 

Customer feedback: With an internal SLA, feedback can be a little tricky – it’s more difficult to give honest feedback to someone you may have a personal relationship with, and a survey triggered immediately after closing a case is not exactly anonymous. It’s imperative to offer users an anonymous feedback method, perhaps through a general company-wide survey instead of after a specific case closes.

Industry-specific SLA management best practices

Different industries have unique requirements in SLA creation, which adds layers of nuance to effective SLA management. 

Financial Services

When you think of heavily regulated industries, Finance tops the list, and that requires extra attention to all aspects of the business.  SLA management here should take into account varying standards and make sure there is no chance of running afoul of regulators.

Compliance reporting: SOX, DORA, DCGK, Glass-Steagall—finance has no shortage of regulations around the world. Key aspects of SLA management involve defining the compliance standards you adhere to, scheduling audits, and determining the consequences of failing an audit.

Security: The importance of cybersecurity is paramount, especially in finance where financial institutions face the highest targeting. It’s crucial to carry cybersecurity insurance, adopt a zero trust security framework, and establish how to report any security incidents and their timelines.

Incident Response Plans: Ensure you define a procedure well for unforeseen situations—a natural disaster, a data breach, a global pandemic—by clearly detailing who is responsible, accountable, and needs consultation. You don’t want to wait until it happens to have a plan and have customers panicking.


Manufacturing is all about speed. Thanks to the innovations in operational technology, manufacturers are experiencing huge gains in productivity, efficiency, and output, and a well-managed SLA can be an asset.

Realistic targets: Setting customer expectations is crucial here, as their business plan depends on your output. You want to avoid a situation where you’re having to push your employees and systems to maximum effort over a long term just to meet your goals. 

Root cause analysis: In the world of IT, mysteries sometimes remain unsolved when something stops working and then just starts again on its own. However, in manufacturing, even a small delay can cost millions of dollars, so you may want to include a requirement to pursue a root cause analysis of any outages so you can be sure they won’t happen a second time.

Automated monitoring tools: Automation and manufacturing go way back, and monitoring should be no exception. Employees do not have time to learn and configure different software solutions, so monitoring tools need to be seamless, easy to set up, and easy to navigate.

Supply chain visibility: Supply chain breaches have garnered increased visibility in the last few years. Making your supply chain visible and ensuring they are meeting high standards in regard to cybersecurity is imperative to avoid a data breach.


Education plays a pivotal role in shaping the future and empowering individuals with knowledge and critical thinking skills, but it also presents unique challenges and requirements that an SLA should specifically address.

Collaborative reviews: Teachers and administrators need to be able to give input on if and how services are meeting their needs, and their student’s needs. Make sure to gather a wide swath of feedback, not just from the school administrators.

Inclusive and diverse learning environments: Schools must meet the needs of a diverse population with diverse needs, as well as be compliant with standards for accessibility. For example, schools providing tablets to students may need to pre-install apps like Microsoft’s Seeing AI for visually impaired learners, or Tobii, an app that uses vision tracking for those who struggle with a mouse. A comprehensive SLA management strategy should include measuring the success in meeting those needs.

Data security and privacy: In the United States, FERPA sets strict guidelines on sharing student information, specifying when and with whom it can be shared. Europe follows the GDPR for such regulations, and Australia adheres to the Australian Privacy Principles, among other regional policies. Regular reviews to make sure proper compliance with these regulations are critical. 

Clear technology support guidelines: Technology in schools has surpassed the computer lab in the basement. Online learning platforms, devices issued to students, ubiquitous smartphones, and even electric school buses all present challenges. Ensure clear documentation of what is and is not supported to prevent frustration during attempts to seek help.

State and local government:

From the largest state to the smallest village, government agencies provide essential services to the populace.  Transparency is key to fostering trust and accountability with service providers to the government. One reason for that is because cost of goods and services are often made public. 

Technology support and innovation: Government agencies are not known to be early adopters. Still, it is important not to let technology get stale. When device refreshes happen and how they will be rolled out is important to spell out. Cloud-based services may also have specific SLA requirements in regards to government customers.

Accessibility standards: Governments must support a large population with diverse challenges. To ensure these needs are being met, regular accessibility audits should be part of an SLA.

Community engagement: Many agencies have community engagement as part of their mission statement. Working this into the SLA and outlining how it will be done ensures it will remain a top priority. 

Cost transparency: Nothing will stir up the populace faster than government waste. The best way to combat this is with transparency in all financial matters. This includes taxes, fees, and any changes in future costs.

No matter the industry and its specific challenges, crafting a comprehensive service level agreement is more than just a simple contract. A comprehensive service level agreement acts as a framework, aligning the interests of all parties and fostering a mutual understanding of roles, responsibilities, and performance benchmarks. Whether in technology, finance, education, government, or any other sector, creating and managing an SLA not only mitigates risks and resolves potential disputes but also acts as a roadmap for continual improvement and innovation. It becomes a dynamic tool that adapts to changing needs. This helps ensure that partnerships remain resilient and future proof to the evolving demands of the business landscape.

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