When a district can hammer out the right service-level agreement with a vendor, the payoff is worth the trouble.
Robert Scidmore, director of technology for the 12,000-student Eau Claire Area School District in Wisconsin, and Patrick Simon, chief technology officer for the 22,000-student Hayward Unified School District in California, have put together SLAs that work for them. The two tech administrators offer 10 strategies for success.
1. Make sure the key people are at the table during SLA development.
Districts don’t want to have only IT people in on the discussion, Scidmore says. At the very least, management-level end users need to be there so they can collaborate with IT to inform them of exactly what they need.
Take the case of Eau Claire’s financial processes. The district uses Bitech products for its accounting system. While the IT department focuses on servers, patches, operating systems and hardware, the end users are accountants, payroll, and personnel. They’re not that interested in how everything works, Scidmore says. They want to know it’s operational—that they can do the payroll run on a given day.
2. Clearly understand what service level to expect, and then understand the cost and practicality issues.
In the case of a server crash, a district might want the vendor onsite within five minutes. That would mean the vendor would need someone there 24/7, which doesn’t make sense, Scidmore says.
Together a district and vendor can come up with practical solutions that don’t break the bank. Eau Claire has 3,500 HP standardized computers for staff and students. In order to meet the district’s uptime requirements, HP provided spare computers, so that a computer can be replaced immediately when necessary.
3. Define the terms.
Hayward has a contract with Xerox for 80 multi-function devices that spells out preventive maintenance and states what happens if equipment fails or doesn’t perform up to expectation. But districts and vendors can define terms differently, Simon points out.
Take the example of downtime. With the Xerox equipment, it’s the number of coverage hours in any calendar month that a machine can’t make copies or print—not due to district misuse, but from equipment failure.
4. Have a well-organized trouble-ticket and call-escalation system.
The SLA must include a way to measure performance.
In Hayward’s case, if the Xerox equipment malfunctions and downtime results, there’s an online trouble-ticket system that identifies the machine location and time of the problem. A notification is sent to Level 1 for internal maintenance. If a district tech person can’t fix it, it goes to Level 2, where a higher-level employee reviews the problem.
The next step is Level 3, which means that a Xerox employee tries to deal with the problem. Level 4 is equipment removal and replacement within an expected timeframe. It’s all laid out step-by-step in Hayward’s SLA, Simon says.
5. Define performance criteria.
It’s critical to know exactly a vendor’s average tech-service response time, for example. For the Xerox multifunction device, it’s clearly stated as four hours, Simon says.
6. Identify the contact people for the service or vendor.
In dealing with any vendor, whether it’s a telecom company, engineering firm, or computer dealer, a district needs to have key people that they contact routinely. They don’t want to call an 800 number and talk to whoever answers the phone, as Scidmore says.
Eau Claire works with Berbee for its network electronics. District tech staff knows their account rep and have his office number, cell phone number, and e-mail. If the district needs to talk to other people in the company, the account rep makes sure they know who to contact or has that person contact them.
“It’s a model that’s somewhat old-fashioned, but you actually have a person that you know,” Scidmore says. And when things go south—like when Eau Claire once had to return unsatisfactory elementary curriculum software—it means one person is ultimately responsible.
7. Establish consequences for not meeting the SLA conditions.
Eau Claire did a curriculum management system adoption a couple of years ago and set deadlines throughout the proposed year-and-a-half implementation plan. Then the software vendor got behind schedule.
There were significant costs to the district in teacher training and tech-staff time, Scidmore says. But the agreement specified that the vendor would bear the cost—and they wrote the district checks when deadlines weren’t met.
According to Scidmore, the district finally took a complete refund, scrapping the entire effort. The vendor couldn’t argue, and the SLA prevented the district from losing money.
8. Do staff development on both teams so that everyone understands the process.
Every Friday Hayward allots up to four hours of time training for its entire IT staff, says Simon. A Xerox technician, who has access to the district’s internal trouble ticket system, also attends.
9. Review performance reports in regularly scheduled meetings.
Simon and the district’s purchasing director met every two weeks with the Xerox customer service manager and tech support team manager the first six months of the project. Now they meet once a month. In the meetings, they review all reports on machine performance, matching it against the SLA criteria.
10. Hedge your bets. Spell out that products can be returned for any reason.
Eau Claire does just that on its purchase orders for almost every piece of software it buys. Most software companies are reputable and deliver what they promise—but this protects districts from the ones that don’t, Scidmore says.
Sheila Riley is a San Francisco–based freelance writer.