Facilities Management (FM) has long used Service Level Agreements (SLA’s) for measurement of our service performance. A new phenomenon is the rise of the eXperience Level Agreement or XLA. Whilst SLA’s provide an easily measurable technical basis for our service, we are missing the importance of how that service is actually received by our customer and the experience that this leaves them with.

XLA Spock

How relevant are our current SLA metrics in driving improved customer satisfaction and service experience? How appropriate is it that the metrics are generally measured from the supplier’s perspective? How is this affecting our Clients? What are the things to be on the look out for and how do we measure it?

In many areas of the delivery and measurement of our services, we are following in the footsteps of our cousins in IT and we have some catching up to do! FM, like IT, is seen as a support service, but both services have the capability to affect the entire business as well the massive potential for impact on employees, stakeholders and the organisation’s customers.

Unlike IT, however, FM has been born out of a plethora of different service industries, requirements, skill sets and experience. FM has probably the widest spectrum of services of any service sector that I can think of. All these elements have been mashed together in some Frankensteinesque experiment, and like the proverbial camel, FM seems to have been designed by committee where we have all been cobbled together to form a profession.

I mean no ill intent to any of my fellow industry participants and in no way do I seek to underplay our significance to the organisations we serve. FM has the capacity and capability, to serve our customers well and have a profound impact on our client’s core business.

FM growing pains

Throughout our formative years, we have suffered from growing pains. In the two or three decades that FM has been in the mainstream, we have followed an engineering orientated approach to our service. This has led to a move from the early client dictated input criteria governing our service, to a more relevant and accurately specified service levels based on the outputs of our service. Thankfully this means that the majority of SLA’s today focus on the output of the services we provide to our clients.

Unfortunately, there is a downside to this evolution. We have been somewhat misdirected by our well-intentioned engineering colleagues to believe that services are processes and that the predictable output from these processes should be consistency. There is one problem with this formula. It is erratic, impulsive and inherently emotional human beings that deliver service not predictable machines.

Thankfully services are not delivered by Mr Spock clones. Services are heterogeneous and intangible and whilst that is seen by our engineering brethren as being our downfall it is, in fact, our saviour. Services are received by customers who are also humans. Whilst the output of a service should be consistent, we need to provide the best quality service. To do that the service experience needs to be tailored to the receiver or end user of that service. Once you have managed to achieve that it doesn’t stop there, you need to be prepared to improve. Because human nature dictates that once expectations have been met, the bar is raised and our expectations with it.

I can hear all of the process engineers, quality controllers, compliance officers and technicians wailing in agony over the thought of bespoke tailoring our service to the end user. I do not mean to be their tormentor but they need to brace themselves, it gets worse. Not only should we be tailoring our services to the end user, we need to be, cognisant of the different satisfaction vectors that are applicable to the three different types of patrons we serve, Clients, Customers and Consumers.

Clients

The Client is the highest level recipient of our services in the organisation. This would normally be characterised by members of the C-Suite, the Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Financial Officer etc.
Ultimately the output of our services ends up in the Company numbers. Often the impact is significant and as such other than when these individuals are the Consumer of our service they are not interested in the output from our services but rather on the effect of this output on the business or what can be described as the business outcomes.

Customers

The Customer is the owner of our contract. She is the contract manager and the primary relationship that we have with the organisation. She may be the Head of Procurement, Operations, Corporate Real Estate or even HR, in some more enlightened organisations. She is concerned with ensuring that we meet our contractual obligations which are often indicated by the SLA’s, budgets and savings. She is predominantly concerned with our SLA performance and ensuring that we meet our contractual outputs.

Consumers

The Consumer of our services is often referred to as the end-user. This is anybody within the organisation either permanently employed or contracted, visitors, customers, suppliers or any other stakeholder that has access to, or interaction with the facilities. The Consumer is concerned with two things firstly, does the facility enable them to conduct their business effectively, productively, safely and in comfort? Secondly, where a service is received, does this engender a positive experience? Both of these outputs are what shapes the consumer’s service experience.

So to make matters more complicated not only should we be shaping the service experience of the consumer we have to deliver to our contractual outputs, which should be connected to the core business outcomes in order to provide value. Who said FM was easy?

FM at a crossroads

The story about the I Love Lucy episode in  Stoddart Review-Why the Workplace Environment is Key to Productivity illustrates how human beings tend to gravitate towards what is in the light is easily visible and measurable. In our historic rush to try and prove our worth to our customers, we have focused on the low hanging fruit and measured the outputs of our services in terms of things like uptime, availability, response & recovery times etc.

This is both desirable and required but only as a means to and end not the end in itself. The measuring of service outputs as it currently stands is nothing more that self-congratulation and flattery. These outputs mean nothing to our Clients and Consumers.

We are at a crossroads in our evolution in FM, our path will be dictated by how well we make the connection between these easily measurable outputs up the chain to the organisational outcomes and down the service line to the consumer of the services and the experience we leave them with.

The IT industry has been struggling with this issues in what they refer to as Quality of Service (QoS) and Quality of Experience (QoE). But not to be outdone, the FM industry through people like Marcel Broumel from Holland have done a lot of work on the subject in what FM organisations are calling XLA’s or eXperience Level Agreements.

Introducing the XLA

As I said above, a lot of our FM these days is still technology focused. With the imminent impact of Technology and IOT, we need to be careful that we do not get blindsided and ignore the importance of the customer experience. In the post Customer Experience, the Near Future of FM? I highlighted the importance of designing the service experience first and only then tailoring the technology to suit. This was based on the quote by Steve Jobs. “you have to start with the customer experience and work back towards the technology, not the other way round”

Without a well thought out service experience, FM will have very little impact. It’s important to truly understand how our consumers think, feel and experience our service from their perspective. If we are to be able to manage the experience the old adage tells us we have to be able to measure it. This requires a new type of agreement, a relationship based on outputs it is no longer enough. To make a difference in the shortest time possible we have to be able to ensure that we put experience first and process second. The experience of consumers and their customers and stakeholders who use the facilities should be the new focus of attention.

What is an XLA?

In FM the SLA’s are a commonly known but often misunderstood concept. They contain measurable outputs (hopefully) which measure such things as the uptime of the air conditioning, the reaction time when a fault is logged, the restoration time of a functional failure etc.

The focus of the SLA is the measurement of the technical performance and the output of our services. This is an important differentiator. Experienced FM’s will have many horror stories to tell about what are known as Watermelon SLA’s. A Watermelon SLA is when everything on the outside looks positive and green but everything on the inside is red and brimming with frustration.

I can personally attest to dreading monthly meetings with clients, in which we presented an almost perfect scoreboard of green traffic light SLA’s which presented a picture of us having performed above the required level and proudly patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. The truth, however, was that this was not the Client’s experience. His experience was one of an increasing level of frustration with a service that was not delivering to his requirements, made worse by a service provider that hid behind an increasingly irrelevant scoreboard.

This lasted several years and the client’s frustration only grew with every meeting. Needless to say, this contract did not measure the client’s level of satisfaction let alone the service experience.

FM contracts are very much like a balloon, you squeeze in one place and it bulges another, unsurprisingly therefore whilst the client was unable to financially penalise us for his experience, this led to a great deal of dissatisfaction and a regime of extracting the maximum penalties in other areas of the contract.

We need to let go of the idea SLA’s need to be a perfect science. Satisfying everybody is clearly impossible but it should still be the aim of all service providers. We need to grow to another maturity level and understand that we need to manage expectations of our service and to optimise the experience around how this is received. This requires a new way of managing and measuring.

How do you measure an XLA?

Fortunately, the world of retail has forged a path for us to an understanding of how to measure customer experience. There are many complex measurement methodologies, but the simplest one is the Net Promoter Score. In my organisation, we use NPS as an overall blanket measurement in ‘quick hit’ type surveys. These weekly telephonic surveys provide a litmus test of where we may have issues brewing under the surface. This enables us to be responsive to our Clients needs and ensure that the issues can be nipped in the bud before they escalate. We also have Customer’s that are surveyed on a monthly basis based on a selection of the calls logged at the help desk.

The best quality interaction and information, however, is gained from a deep dive into our customer’s experience of our service on our annual or six-monthly surveys. These face-to-face interactions with a cross-section of our clients, customers and consumers is conducted by an independent consultant. The fact that the consultant is independent facilitates a very open and honest conversation that is well received by Clients and is often very revealing.

Consistency in the questionnaire approach is key and this is based on 5 key dimensions of service delivery as outlined in the RATER model.

1. Reliability

The ability to perform the promised service dependably and accurately with a consistency of performance. It means that the provider performs a quality service right the first time.

2. Assurance

The knowledge and courtesy of employees and their ability to convey trust and confidence, competence and credibility.

  • Security– The ability to maintain a risk-free environment in the workplace as well as maintaining the financial security of assets as well as private and confidential information which is entrusted to the service provider.
  • Credibility – Involves trustworthiness, believability, and honesty. It involves having the customer’s best interests at heart. Contributing to credibility is Company name, Company brand/reputation as well as the personal characteristics of the contact personnel such as behaviour and attitude.
  • Courtesy– involves a willingness to openly communicate, politeness, respect, consideration, and friendliness of the contact personnel (including receptionists, contact centre agents, etc.) It includes consideration for the consumer’s property (e.g. no muddy shoes on the carpet) and a clean and neat appearance of contact personnel etc.
  • Competence– means possession of the required skills and the requisite knowledge to perform the required service.

3. Tangibles

The appearance of personnel, physical facilities, equipment, tools or equipment and all communication materials used to provide the service as well as any physical evidence of the service.

4. Empathy

The provision of caring, individualised attention to customers includes the ability to be easily approachable with ease of contact, understanding customer’s needs and listening to them.

  • Communication– The ability to disseminate and communicate relevant information timeously and in an appropriate manner and keep customers informed in a language they can understand.
  • Accessibility– The ease of access to the service provider and lack of hassles to be able to request and receive promised services.
  • Customer Knowledge– Involves the ability to listen and understand customer’s needs and involves making the effort to learn the customer’s specific requirements, provide individualised attention and recognise the regular and Important customers.

5. Responsiveness

The willingness or readiness of employees to help customers and to provide prompt service that meets the customer’s needs.

Contracts that underwrite the perception of your service with the financial penalties present a very real and immediate financial risk to the operator. This will undoubtedly focus efforts on maintaining acceptable levels of service quality and service experience. However being at the behest of Clients and allowing ourselves to be open to penalties based on perception builds a degree of that is difficult to undermine or take advantage of.

I really value your comments and I will respond to your comments and answers to this week’s Question: Do you think XLA’s will affect the FM industry?- If so how?