Faced with heavier-than-ever competition, pickier-than-ever customers, and a whole host of forums and websites where any old Joe can post a potentially crippling review, it seems that more and more businesses are embracing the folk wisdom that great customer service means better business.

Consider, for example, the ongoing race between TV and Internet providers to narrow their service-appointment windows — a service element that had been ignored for years, until suddenly heating up as a point of competition. It’s clear that these companies are leaning on their field service operations as a way to stand out from a crowded field.

And with all the focus on improving field service, it now appears that even the fine print of service agreements is getting some attention.

Service-Level Agreements

It sounds a little crazy, sure (How many people know what a service-level agreement is, let alone study it?). But to some, it’s the next natural step for service companies that are desperate to please a customer base that’s growing to expect more and more, and one that’s a lot less willing to wait around for a late installation than ever before.

“It becomes really important to set the right expectations for customers,” says Dan Ushman, the co-founder and CMO of SingleHop, a server and cloud-hosting provider. “The running logic is that if customers know what to expect and you deliver, it’s better than promising more than you can deliver. It’s almost better to under-promise and over-deliver.”

Ushman is the brains behind SingleHop’s recent “Bill of Rights,” which ReadWriteWeb called the “best SLA ever.” Service-level agreements are the part of a service contract in which the level of service is formally defined — what exactly is being done, how long it will take, etc., plus the repercussions of a company’s failure to meet its SLA. They’re common in Internet service provider contracts, but have practical implications for field service operations, as well.

Ushman’s company’s SLA sets rigid timing standards on things like replacement services, and clearly outlines what customers get if the company misses its own mark. Now more than ever, Ushman says, it’s imperative for companies to make sure that the wording of their service contracts lines up with what customers should expect.

“People are willing to wait for service as long as it’s a reasonable amount of time relative to the market,” Ushman says, “but they feel ripped off if they’re made to wait and they weren’t expecting it.”

A clear SLA, he says, “moderates expectations and provides transparency between the customer and service provider.”

A Solid SLA

Most companies already have all the data that should go into building a solid and fair SLA — average service times, wait times, etc. Ushman said his company’s SLA gives a little padding to its timing claims, just in case, and attached attractive financial credits in the event that they miss a service appointment. Again, it’s less about the speed of service, and more about setting (and meeting) customers’ expectations.

Companies need to also be very clear upfront about the agreement and what happens if a service visit is missed or delayed. Burying an SLA in tiny typeface at the bottom of lots of paperwork doesn’t help make anything very clear, and forcing customers to mail in a rebate card to get their credit only frustrates them more.

“Our plan is to really take it as far as we can, as far as proactively popping up an alert if we miss an SLA,” says Ushman. “There’s no harm for us in doing that. If I upset my clients by missing an SLA and not being upfront about it, I’ll ultimately lose the client. If I give a give a few bucks in credits when I screw up, I keep the relationship clean.”