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Alphabet Soup: SL-Service-Level

This month is all about “Metrics that Matter” so I thought it would be appropriate to discuss one of the key measures of accessibility in the contact center:  Service level.

SL = Service Level.  Also called telephone service factor (TSF). Service level is defined specifically as: “X percent of contacts answered in Y seconds”; e.g., 90 percent answered in 20 seconds. Contacts that must be handled when they arrive require a service level objective, and those that can be handled at a later time require a response time objective.

Source of Contact Center definitions :  Call Center Management on Fast Forward, by Brad Cleveland.


Another great resource to help you navigate contact center acronyms:


Being accessible to our customers, which is what service level, measures is one of the critical drivers of customer satisfaction.  Therefore to quote Brad Cleveland (from pp. 57 in CC on FF):  “The principle of accessibility is at the heart of effective contact center management.”  “Service level ties the resources you need to the results you want to achieve. It measures the degree to which you’re getting contacts “in the front door” and to agents. It is a stable target for planning and budgeting. It is a unifying concept, and it is concrete.”

The concept and definition of service level is not difficult to understand.  It is “X % of contacts” answered in “Y seconds”.   What is more challenging is determining what the “X” and “Y” should be.

Whenever I facilitate an ICMI seminar, and we begin discussing the planning and management process, I will ask the participants “What is your service level objective?” As usual, everyone who has a service level objective shares their targets and there are some that are similar, some that are different. 

But then I ask: “Where does/did that come from?” The room typically becomes quite quiet.  After a few moments of uncomfortable silence, I ask a third question: “If you were tasked with setting the service level for your center(s), what process would you use?” Suddenly the room starting buzzing again, and what follows is very lively, productive discussion about setting service level objectives.   

Some of the topics/questions we discuss include:

  • Who needs to be involved?
  • When and how do budgets come into play?
  • How do we determine the resources required to meet them?
  • Should we set different service levels for different customers? Different contact types? Different times of day?
  • Should we consider the competition?

The service level goal we select will in fact answer these questions, so we truly need to be thoughtful and thorough when we set this objective.  Typically the groups I work with conclude that there is no point in having a goal if no one knows where it came from and while there are many factors that go into determining what the service level target will be, most groups agree that the main drivers of service level need to be: customer expectations and organizational objectives.

We also agree that, even if we have a valid service level, we need a plan to ensure that it is effectively communicated, resourced and implemented so that the service level goals are understood and consistently met. 

Which leads to another key question we need to answer:  What timeframe do you report service level? 

Is it reported by:

  • Should we consider our competition?
  • Month?
  • Week?
  • Day?
  • The number of intervals we met it?

Clearly this makes a big difference in terms of performance and customer experience as well as whether or not we can compare ourselves to other centers.  Even if we have the same service level objective, say 80% of contacts answered in 30 seconds, as another center, if we report the number of intervals we met service level and they report service level by the month, clearly we are not comparing apples to apples. 

I also just need to add that with any metric, we can’t just look at one metric to assess how we are doing.  We need to put metrics in context and look at them in conjunction with other measures and results.  For example, with service level, while a critical metric in the contact center and a driver of customer satisfaction, it is just one measure,  a measure of how quickly we “allowed the customer access to us” we also need to assess what happens to them once we provided that access.   Measurements associated with contact quality, efficiency, revenue, etc. also need to be examined to put our performance around service level (accessibility) in context.  I think we have probably all been on the receiving end of this as consumers ourselves, where we get answered quickly (service level) however, the experience we had was not one we’d rate highly.   

And finally, metrics are indicators, they don’t tell you HOW or the WHY you are meeting or not meeting the goal, they just let you know you are or you aren’t.  It is up to us as leaders to choose the right metrics, ones that drive the right behaviors, right processes, etc. and use them to assess this, identify continuous improvement opportunities and make the changes that lead to the desired results.

I hope this leads some of you to ask these same questions within your own centers and organization if you haven’t already and/or provided you with some validation on the process you used to establish your service level and how your report it.

Rose Polchin | Senior Consultant, ICMI

Read the complete Alphabet Soup series: Introduction | CSAT, Customer Loyalty and CSR | SM (Social Media)  | SL (Service Level)