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It's Time for Social Service Level Agreements

Posted by on May 12, 2010

My idea of SSLAs (social service level agreements) would take the concept of the SLA and just apply it to the social web but hopefully in a much simpler way.  I’m not stuck on the term here and perhaps SSLA might not even be the best term for this, maybe Terms of Social Customer Engagement (ToSCE) or Terms of Social Engagement (ToSE) makes more sense.  I don’t want to get into a whole debate around this like we have been with term “Social CRM”.  I realize that SSLA might sound scary and intimidating, managers might be weary of using it and I’m sure legal departments won’t be too thrilled with the term either, but as you will see below whatever you chose to call it is irrelevant.  When reading below feel free to replace SSLA with your own acronym of choice.  However, here is why I think SSLA makes sense:

Service level agreements aren’t new, they’ve been around for quite some time and virtually every company on the planet has it’s own SLA.  According to Wikipedia:

“A service level agreement (frequently abbreviated as SLA) is a part of a service contract where the level of service is formally defined. In practice, the term SLA is sometimes used to refer to the contracted delivery time (of the service) or performance. As an example, internet service providers will commonly include service level agreements within the terms of their contracts with customers to define the level(s) of service being sold in plain language terms.  The SLA records a common understanding about services, priorities, responsibilities, guarantees, and warranties.”

I don’t think everything above is applicable to the SSLA definition, for example being a part of a service contract, but hopefully you understand where I’m trying to go with this.

Simply put a SSLA defines the relationship between a social customer and the company on a specific social channel.  Both the company and the customer need to know, “what’s in it for me?”

Many companies have their own social media guidelines which dictate how customers should interact with the company, oftentimes these guidelines are found buried on the corporate site.  SSLAs are more public facing and exist on every channel where a customer interacts with the company, hopefully in a short and easily understood format.  The goal here is not to get “legal” or to confuse the customer but to help both the customer and the company understand how the relationship will work and evolve.

An SSLA should answer the following questions (at least, but more can be included when/where applicable and as the relationships evolve):

  • What the social customer gets from the interaction, it is support, special offers and discounts, or all of the above (why should the customer be on that channel, what’s in it for them)?
  • When does the company respond to the social customer (think hours of operation)?
  • How long does it take the company to respond to the social customer (does the company respond to all interactions, does it take 30 mins for each response)?
  • What does the company get from participating in that social channel and interacting with the social customer (this may also be just an internal piece)?

  • What the company will and will not tolerate on each social channel (cursing, defamatory remarks, insults)

We know that companies are starting to increase their presence on social sites.  The problem however is that the relationships or the terms of engagement are not defined on the channels that the companies participate on.

Companies can no longer afford to “float” around on various social sites, there needs to be some direction or guidance for both the company and the customer.

I’ll refer to a quote from Gartner which I use in my Social CRM presentations:

“By 2010 more than half of companies that have established an online community will fail to manage it as an agent of change, ultimately eroding customer value.  Rushing into social computing initiatives without clearly defined benefits for both the company and the customer will be the biggest cause of failure.”

I had a major problem with American Airlines not too long ago where I was stuck at an airport.  I was tweeting like a madman to have AA help me but I didn’t receive a single response until the next day.  If I would have known that AA didn’t check their tweets at night or that it takes them at least 48 hours to respond then perhaps I would not have wasted my time tweeting with them to begin with.  As a customer I made the assumption that since AA was participating in a “real-time” platform that their response to me would be…real time.  The SSLA would serve as a way to help define the relationship between the social customer and the company on the specific channel that they are interacting with.  What does a customer get or what should they expect by “liking” your facebook page?  What does a customer get or what should they expect by following (or interacting with) your company on twitter?  We’re not talking about some massive document but something simple that companies can put up on their various social presence’s that will help customers know why the company exists there and what type of service they can (and cannot) expect.   Perhaps twitter serves as the customer service support platform for a company that handles all tweets between the hours of 9-6 and responds to all tweets within 15 mins.  Maybe facebook acts as the Q&A section for longer more complex questions, promotions, and new/future product announcements (or where customers can help each other).  Each platform a company uses needs to have a strategic objective behind it.  It’s no longer good enough to amass fans or followers.  The SSLA can be a part of something such as a twitter background, a profile bio, or a facebook fan page description.

I had a discussion about this with Prem Kumar about this and he made a very good point.  Customers have done an excellent job of ignoring traditional SLAs and the reality is that customers oftentimes just don’t take the time to read and understand SLAs from every company they purchase from.  While I do agree with Prem, I do believe that an SSLA will help define social relationships between customers and companies.  Traditional SLAs are long and intensive, the purpose of an SSLA is to be a very simple and short description of what a customer can expect from a company in any particular social channel and the SSLAs will actually exist where the interactions take place (meaning they will be highly visible).

Do I think SSLAs are going to be perfect?  Of course not, there is no perfect solution but at the end of the day your company has two choices: develop this public facing SSLA which I guarantee many of your customers will see, or don’t do anything and let your customers assume how the relationship will work.  In my opinion the choice is obvious.

Would love to hear your thoughts on this, please share in the comments below.

  • squidlet

    Good ideas here

  • squidlet

    Good ideas here

  • philsimonsystems

    Good post, Jacob. The problem that I envision with a SLA (or whatever term) is that we're really not “customers.” For example, if I buy Oracle software for my company and pay for annual maintenance, then I can expect support. I have a right.

    What rights do I have when I pay nothing?

    I addressed this question a little while ago.


    • Hi Phil,

      Great point and this is a business decision that the company needs to make. At the end of the day though there are also a lot of prospects and other types of valuable relationships that companies can build that extend beyond the immediate customer.

  • Jacob –

    Thanks for your thoughts.

    I agree with you that SLAs are useful for helping the customer and the vendor mutually understand what's expected, and help the customer know “what's in it for me.”

    In a large organization that has taken the time to include an SLA for its paying or non-paying customers, clearly social is a channel that needs to be added and terms clearly set.

    For the smaller organization, the mid-size organization, and “the rest of us”, I suggest the following:

    1) make reasonable assumptions and try to meet them, e.g. post clearly that you'll try to respond ASAP to social inquiries, and build responsiveness and customer focus into the DNA of the organization;

    2) create a listening framework and a feedback mechanism that guarantees that someone in the company will see the inbound request. At Gist, we use a variety of tools for this purpose including Gist (, CoTweet (, Google Alerts, and ZenDesk ( The ultimate goal is that someone catches the inbound customer request, and knows what to do with it.

    3) try hard to delight the customer. This is a fuzzy goal but if you start with assumption that a customer wants to be heard, setting the next steps is relatively easy. It's not always easy to answer a tough question from a customer but it's always easy to take a small part of your day and make sure that each inbound response gets a “hello, we hear you” back at them.


    Greg Meyer
    Customer Experience Manager, Gist

    • Hi Greg,

      Thanks for the comment.

      The problem with assumptions is just that, they are assumptions and there is no accountability around them. I think companies need to do a much better job of letting the social customer know what to expect, we're not talking about iron clad rules here but expectations i.e. “we will respond to inquiries in 30 mins or less.'' The issue is making sure that companies can support what they say they will do.

      Absolutely a listening framework is crucial but it needs to be built around a strategy, tools always come second, but yes, framework and process is a MUST.

      Delighting the customer is also a good point and this also has to do with everyone at the company that has any type of customer interaction. Delighting a customer can be as simple as greeting them with a smile.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  • Customer expectations are based on the experience that they get with other competitors. These fluctuate rapidly, especially in today's interconnected world where experiences are shared in real-time.

    Service formalisation through an ssla would only really be useful to set the base level at the current moment in time. The other issue to consider is what happens where there is a breach of ssla? Does that mean that the customer now has the 'right' to go out and bad-mouth the company in question?

    • Hi Mark,

      First off thanks for the post, always great to hear from you. Customer expectations do fluctuate but the purpose of the SSLA is for companies to manage the expectations of customers, it won't always work but it should help.

      The company needs to make sure that whatever SSLA it puts in place is something that it can support, thus putting the company in check to make sure it delivers on what it says it can. Just like with any other channel when a company can't deliver on what it says it can, then it needs to find ways to fix the situation.

  • catevz

    Some very good points here. As social matures, I expect to see it treated more like just another call center channel (with experts who know how to handle the channel), like email, phone, and chat are handled today.

    Of course the complexity comes because (unlike emails sent to support-at-company-dot-com) not every social media tweet or posting is about a service issue. You need a way to efficiently route “cries for help” to the customer service team, while routing other messages to product development, marketing, sales, legal, etc. Because of the sheer volumes, if managed manually, this can become a massive scalability problem for companies.

  • I had this article open in my browser tab for a week, and am just writing a comment – I guess I need to revisit my own SSLA that I have with myself re: how quickly I comment on fellow bloggers' blogs, heh.

    Jokes aside… I think you are on to something here. I agree that customers, as well as businesses are just floating around with a misaligned set of expectations. If you as a business choose to provide realitme support, you actually need to staff up for it. Otherwise, it will lead to a bad customer experience.

    I think the **key** to something like this succeeding and actually getting adopted is simplicity and brevity. For Twitter, for example, make it part of your Twitter bio as a business. Instead of touting how great you are, just link to your URL where people can read about you. Instead, use the 160 char “bio” to state: “This is the support channel for XYZ corporation. We respond to tweets within 24 hours. Tweets by: @tweeter1 @tweeter2”

  • KateNasser

    Very interesting post and not surprised that the SLA concept has sprung up in the discussions about Social CRM. I do agree that a company should have a plan on using Social CRM and managing it. Beyond that, I have concerns. Companies like to “control” their image. Understandable. When control overtakes dynamic high quality service, the company starts the slow path to extinction.

    Example: Call Centers over the years have become more and more scripted and branded. The result is that the customer service sounds fake, impersonal, and detached. Meanwhile, study after study shows that customers respond the best to being treated like an individual with authentic caring personal sounding service.

    My concerns:

    1)The key to SSLA is “agreement”. You might be able to “force” agreement by including/excluding the customer from participation in your channel. BUT it is a false sense of control because at least here in America a customer can say whatever s/he wants. Wouldn't you rather know what is being said rather than pretending that you can control/stop it?

    2)SSLAs can be very limiting. A company succeeds when they can dynamically respond to changing market and customer conditions. Not when their org. structure directs their operation.

    I was a huge proponent of SLAs for internal customer service (e.g. IT depts. serving other depts of same corp.) But what you are describing (SSLAs) for the external customer service market has some hidden killer components. One is how great the company will feel as it revels in the control of its image while certain % of negatives etc… will not make it to the companies ears.

    The example used in this blog — AA wasn't checking their tweets on the weekend — although good info to know would not change most customer's view or rating of service received and satisfaction.

    Thanks for posting this article. It is loaded with thought-provoking issues that will definitely impact company success.
    Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach
    MA Org. Psychology

  • Not sure if anyone is still following this thread, but I am curious to know if you (jacob) have made any more progress on this or have heard of a company who has created an SSLA?