The term “farm to table” popped up during a recent work discussion. It’s an interesting concept, which I see as a social movement where farmers sell produce to local schools, restaurants and other outlets directly, shortening the procurement cycle and improving food trace-ability. During the discussion, I mentioned I always go to one farm shop for my produce and was asked: “What makes you keep returning to that shop?”

This led to a customer experience debate. Is it the best shop in the area with the widest range of products? No. Is it the cheapest? No. Then why do I return there? Because of the way they make me feel when I shop. I go there because it “feels right”, an emotion built on the fact that the staff develops a relationship with their customers; takes the time to know them; always gives some fruit (or a sweet) to my children; and acts quickly on customer feedback, like moving to plastic-free wrap after a customer suggestion. None of these things can be measured easily, but together they create a superior customer experience.

Recently I was involved in creating a customer experience programme to improve the way my company engages from a service-delivery perspective. The programme was deployed across two major clients and achieved great feedback. What’s different? Most of the people and tools are the same; in many cases SLA performance is similar; and we still have problems to solve together. Yet the customers feel better about us. The answer requires looking beyond the SLA, something that isn’t only important to clients today, but will be critical for survival as we drive the digital agenda forward. Truly digital businesses take a customer-centric approach to the services they provide, ensuring that it’s easy to do business with them. Digital businesses make their customers feel good.

Many IT outsourcing contracts were created in the days when outsourcing was about “your mess for less”. Companies handed over IT because they didn’t see it as integral to their business. The outsourcing suppliers would hope to get enough similar processes to make things repeatable by reusing solutions and leveraging staff across technologies, therefore lowering operational costs. SLAs were born out of the need to stand out in the bidding process and have greater control during delivery.

However, this model is now disrupted. Digitisation is making IT the heart of the business, driving competitive advantage in gaining and retaining customers. Also, an employee’s experience of IT is now a competitive advantage when attracting and retaining talent.

We need to consider looking deeper and watching out for the “Watermelon SLA” — measures that on the outside look green but are red inside — to see whether users’ needs remain unfulfilled and perceptions are unfavourable. Here’s what to look at to determine if you have Watermelon SLAs in your business:

  • Fragmentation. A good example of this is where contracts split the application SLA from infrastructure measures. The end user cares if the system is available and performs well when needed. Contracts often measure the availability of the application and components of the infrastructure separately, sometimes even when the same supplier provides both! Measures should relate back to the user experience. Finding shared measures and documenting accountability clearly will allow segmentation without fragmentation.
  • Dissociation. Many IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) processes (Incident, Problem, Change) can be seen as journeys: how an incident is raised, progress communicated and the issue resolved. Thinking about your measures and how they relate to that journey can help ensure that clients are getting what they need. Take the time to gain a deep understanding of why a problem occurred, find the root cause, take preventive measures and fix the issues permanently. Don’t rush into setting fixed SLAs that can prevent you from finding and solving the problem.
  • Differentiation. Right measure, right channel, right time. Using the wrong channel for getting work done is a major source of waste in any operation. Think of the person waiting in the accident and emergency department (A&E) with an earache who should have really gone to see his or her doctor. The key is to use metrics to drive the right behaviours from both the consumer and supplier.
  • Complexity. The SLA schedule is often meticulously designed by teams from who carefully ensure that they are not giving anything away. Then it’s handed over to the delivery team to manage a toxic relationship, used to either beat suppliers or hide from accountabilities, depending on which side you sit. The measures are often complex mathematical equations that calculate failure levels and have a sliding scale of penalties. But the key question is: Does this drive the right behaviour for our users? Through simplification and automation, everyone can see via online dashboards how the service is actually performing and how the effort previously deployed in SLA control can be re-deployed to improve the customer experience.

Taking a fresh look at how we measure service, using analytics to gain a deeper understanding of “Watermelon SLAs” and creating joint measures across ecosystems lead to better decision-making. In my experience, this creates leaner operations and better investment decisions, while also demonstrating where to effectively apply automation. And people feel better about using the service.