What is a Service Level Agreement (SLA)?

By: Dustin Bonn
October 26, 2022

A Service Level Agreement (SLA) is where you can find information about what a vendor promises to provide to you. Depending on the services they’re offering, you might find anything in there from guaranteed uptime, important timeframes, and an outline of provider and client responsibilities. 

These documents are often lengthy, but resist the temptation to skim over them quickly. Almost everything you need to know about how a vendor will take care of you is right there in black and white. 

That’s an SLA in broad strokes. But let’s get more specific…

WHAT IS AN SLA? 

An SLA is a portion of a contract between you and a vendor (or between two departments within a company) that outlines exactly what you can expect, who is responsible for what, and what happens if something goes wrong. 

Typically, a service provider will have a standard SLA, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to accept its terms as-is. Depending on the provider and the nature of the services they offer, you may request some modifications to your agreement with them. 

In any case, you should review any SLA carefully, and ideally, have them reviewed by legal counsel before you sign. 

WHY DO I NEED AN SLA?

The short answer is that an SLA is there to hold both parties accountable, and prevent misinterpretations or abuse. However, I think a story might be the best way to illustrate this point. 

Let’s say that you decide, like many organizations have, that VoIP is the best way for you to save money on your phone bills. You sign on the dotted line, but in the weeks that follow, you find that your phones are frequently down, and your customers can’t reach you reliably, which causes a lot of frustration. 

Without an SLA from your vendor that specifies a certain guaranteed uptime, you may be without recourse. Of course, you can always dump them and find a better vendor, but you’ll still have to pay them for their weeks of unreliable service, and you may have to do some damage control for the customers that couldn’t reach you. 

WHAT ARE THE KEY COMPONENTS OF AN SLA?

A good SLA should include details about the services a vendor offers, and how they will manage those services.

SERVICE DETAILS

While no two SLAs are alike, check to make sure that an SLA has covered the following service details: 

  • What services are included 
  • The guaranteed availability of these services
  • Client and provider responsibilities 
  • Guaranteed response times or issue resolution timeframes
  • Escalation procedures

MANAGEMENT DETAILS

While you never want most of these to come into play, make sure your provider is also clear on their processes and standards, what happens should they fail to live up to their promises: 

  • An explanation of how they measure their services and what they consider to be successful 
  • An overview of their reporting methods
  • How any disputes will be resolved
  • If you are shielded from third-party litigation
  • When and how your SLA can be adjusted

BEST PRACTICES FOR SPECIFIC SLAS

A Managed Print Services (MPS) provider will have different components in their SLAs than a VoIP provider. As Marco provides a variety of services, I’m happy to help break down what to look for in each service category. 

VoIP (CLOUD VOICE) 

First of all, if a VoIP provider doesn’t offer an SLA, that should be a red flag. However, when you’re looking over an SLA for VoIP, pay special attention to what’s known as guaranteed uptime. That’s the percentage of time that a provider guarantees your service will be up and running. A guaranteed uptime of 99.9% means you should predict that your services may be down for .1% of the time. 

That doesn’t seem like a lot, but that adds up to over eight and a half hours per year that your phone systems may not work. And if that’s all your provider is guaranteeing, you will have no recourse for the times you’re without service. A guaranteed uptime of 99.999% cuts downtime to a little over five minutes. 

MANAGED PRINT SERVICES

Printers don’t always receive the same amount of care as laptops and servers, but they should. When printers stop working, productivity can grind to a halt. Furthermore, printer security is a real concern. Not all MPS providers are the same, but their SLA should outline what their responsibility is to ensure the reliability and security of your fleet. 

Check to make sure your SLA spells out exactly what you’re getting: 

  • How available service technicians are
  • Their level of expertise
  • How quickly your provider should respond, and when you should expect services to be completed 
  • The availability of repair parts
  • Your provider’s policy on using genuine repair parts vs. OEM parts
  • Any additional security they provide your fleet. 

Print security is a hot topic in our industry, but one that’s still frequently overlooked by organizations. As printers have software and memory — and they’re connected to your network — they’re vulnerable to hackers and are often an organization’s weakest link in cybersecurity. 

Make sure you know who is responsible for things like resetting default passwords, applying security updates, and erasing any data from decommissioned devices. If it’s not otherwise specified in your SLA, your provider isn’t responsible for these things. You are. At Marco, we include these print security services as part of our regular managed print service offering.

MANAGED IT

Fully managed IT support is designed to be comprehensive — a one-and-done solution to most tech problems. So expect a lengthy SLA that starts with definitions of key terms, and continues to explore all aspects of potential services that you’ll receive, and outlines your relationship in great detail. 

However, make sure you pay special attention to the following: 

  • Response times and what those responses will entail 
  • Where a provider’s staff is located, and if they outsource any of their services 
  • Issue resolution time
  • Your provider’s business hours and what happens if an issue happens outside of normal working hours
  • If they work proactively to address potential issues, or simply react to something once it disrupts workflow

This last detail can go unnoticed quite often, but it’s important. Does your IT provider feel that their job is to keep your technology up and running so that it doesn’t leave you in the lurch, or is their job just to fix what’s broken? 

There’s a huge difference, and your experience will be vastly different depending on the provider you choose. Marco doesn’t rely on a break/fix model of IT, and instead, prioritizes warding off disruptions before they happen. 

OTHER CLUES TO HELP YOU FIND THE RIGHT PROVIDER

You should also pay special attention to how an IT provider charges for their services, as key insights can be found there. For example, at Marco, we have found that pricing per user helps our clients avoid unpleasant surprises, and ensures that our services are in line with our values of being a trusted technology provider that prevents disasters for our clients instead of profiting from them. Furthermore, we have a US-based staff of over 650 certified systems engineers and technician representatives that can keep your systems up and running 24/7. 

We have taken great care to make sure that we’re providing our clients with care that goes above and beyond. However, lots of companies can say they provide “excellent customer service.” Without an SLA, those words don’t mean anything. 

Choosing a managed service provider is a big decision. But fortunately, with a little digging, you can find everything you need in the not-so-fine print. 

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