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Regular benchmarking and customer surveys are increasingly best practice for in-house print rooms. These measurement tools provide the management team with an indication of whether your print room’s capabilities, products and services are aligned to what your customers require. But how can you ensure that both parties know what to expect of each other?

The answer is to draw up a Service Level Agreement, or SLA. This is essentially a negotiated agreement, or supply contract, between the print room and each of its customers within the organisation, and consists of a series of clauses that describe the day-to-day performance each party expects.

In a sense, the SLA is akin to the “Terms and Conditions“ that accompany any commercial transaction. It sets out the services the customer requires, the services the print room agrees to provide, how they will be managed and measured, and the responsibilities of each party. For example, a typical clause might be: “Provided the customer places an order by 12.00 noon on any given working day, the print room will deliver the goods to an agreed location within 24 hours.“ While similar contracts are the norm in relationships between commercial printers and their customers, the SLA concept is new to many in-house print rooms. This is understandable, because when print room and customer are members of the same “family“ there seems no need to formally document a relationship that has grown organically over time. This is all very comfortable, but problems arise if print room capabilities and customer expectations diverge over time, so that neither party understands the other. In this situation, the print room will be second-guessing what customers need and how to satisfy them.

To ensure that both parties are agreed and are realistic in terms of their expectations of each other, an effective SLA needs to achieve three things.

  1. First, it should encourage communication — not only during the initial scoping discussions, but also at regular reviews, to ensure the SLA still reflects reality. In fact, much of the value of an SLA derives from the two-way dialogue necessary to create it, which provides a great framework for focussing communications and addressing tough questions.
  2. Second, it should prevent misunderstandings; as a formal document that has been predefined and shared, it helps avoid conflicts or, if they arise, enables them to be resolved within a set framework that both parties accept.
  3. And third, the SLA provides objective measures that print room and customer can use to evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of the services provided.

With an SLA in place, neither side should be able to get away with “moving the goalposts“!

In an ideal world, of course, the SLA should be in place from the outset, but for in-house print rooms this can be unrealistic. They are still worth creating, however long-established the relationship between print room and customer, because they spring from the best intentions – the desire to agree the parameters by which products and services will be delivered. And although you shouldn’t regard the SLA as a panacea that will transform a poor relationship, proposing one is a positive first step towards turning things round.

So the reasons for having SLAs in place are clear, but how do you go about creating one? What exactly should you include? What form should the SLA take?

The answers to these and other questions, such as what “SMART“ stands for when you’re setting the all-important target service levels, can be found in the next article of this series entitled Getting started with service level agreements.