How to take your sites performance SLA to the next level

If you haven’t read them already, you should read two posts about performance SLAs written by Steve Thair and Jonathan Klein. They do a great job of spelling out in clear terms exactly what kind of user experience the site is aiming for and how it will be measured.

Take, for example, Jonathan’s example of a good SLA:

“The homepage of our site will load in under 3 seconds measured at the 80th percentile via synthetic tests running in New York, LA, Seattle, and Miami every 30 minutes. We will measure this SLA at 8:00AM every morning and base it off the last 24 hours of data.”

This is perfect as an internal yardstick — it’s short, snappy, quantifiable. Whether you’re a developer or an executive, this is something you can get behind. If your site doesn’t have an SLA like this, it should. And after you’ve created that SLA, you should work on the next one: the performance agreement you make with your customers.

Why you need to make a performance commitment to your customers

In our industry, there’s a lot of big talk about the importance of delivering a fast user experience to customers. How many customers actually hear any of this big talk? And if they were to hear it, would they believe it?

My question is this: Would you be willing to put your money where your mouth is and make a public performance commitment to your site’s visitors? One with real consequences?

Here’s what a serious performance commitment looks like.

Remember those old Domino’s Pizza ads? Your pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes or it’s free. That’s a good customer SLA. Your pizza delivered to your door in 30 minutes… or 40 minutes… or an hour… or maybe tomorrow. That’s a bad customer SLA.

Did Domino’s give away a lot of free pizzas to people who cheated the system? Of course. But when people thought of fast, reliable pizza delivery, who did they think of? And who do they still think of, even 25 years later? Domino’s.

Domino’s knew that people want their fast food to be fast, so they made a promise to deliver it quickly. A promise with consequences everyone could understand — from the customers to the cooks and delivery people.

By a similar token, we know that most people expect web pages to load in 3 seconds or less. We know that slowness is the #1 pet peeve of most internet users. And we know that if a site isn’t fast, people spend less or don’t spend at all.

What we don’t know is how to talk about our commitment to performance in terms that customers care about. Domino’s knew how to do that.

So how do you create a performance SLA that your customers will buy into?

If only it were as easy as hitting a timer after an Generic Viagra order comes in. E-commerce is a trickier proposition than pizza delivery (though perhaps the CEO of Domino’s would debate that one). Real-world performance is hard to measure from customer to customer, so how do you enact and enforce a policy that relies on customer honesty and reporting?

I don’t have any definitive answers, but here are some thoughts:

Empower customers to report poor performance.

People love to complain about slow sites. Make it easy for them. Better that they complain to you and feel they’re being heard — and even rewarded — than that they complain to all their friends. Some of the ideas that I outline below give customers the ability to give feedback at the exact point of pain. The results: you get very specific feedback, and your customer gets to vent to you rather than some random passer-by.

State your performance goals on every page of your site.

Perhaps with an icon that says something like “Faster Shopping: We Promise”. The icon links to a plain-language SLA, which says “We value your time. Our goal is to have every page of our site load in 3 seconds or less for every person who uses this site. How are we doing?” Include a comment field. Send a one-time discount to every person who sends you feedback.

Allow in-page performance reporting on every page of your site.

This could be as simple as a link that says “Is this page too slow?” This could work like a social widget, which people can click to send an automated page-specific report to your dev/ops team. By accumulating and analyzing this data, you could get some fresh insight into your site’s real and perceived performance pains. The trick is in making this easy for your customers — one click and they’re done. If they’re a registered user of your site, maybe this could trigger a one-time email offer where you thank them for their feedback and offer them 20% off their next purchase.

Follow up on abandoned shopping carts.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve killed a transaction because of terrible performance. Would I be lured back if the company sent me a follow-up email with a short multiple-choice survey asking me why I changed my mind? And if they offered me a discount in exchange for my feedback? Maybe.

Obviously, with each of these ideas you’d need to build in protocols to control for abuse, but that’s not an insurmountable obstacle.

To me, customer SLAs represent an exciting opportunity to truly make performance a company-wide endeavor, by aligning clear marketing tactics with clear dev goals. I’m very interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

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