Exec Interview: Johns Brothers Makes Clients Feel Like Family
Company leadership discusses brand reinvention and embracing the chaos of change, growing RMR streams, targeting niche markets, and migrating customers through upgrades.
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You’d be hard-pressed to find a security systems provider more deeply entrenched and with more brand equity in and around Norfolk, Va., than Johns Brothers Security. With roots that trace back to 1892 when Johns Brothers was founded as a wood and coal delivery service, the company evolved into heating oil and then HVAC before eventually offering security systems and monitoring.
Johns Brothers Security was officially launched in 1974 and in 1996 acquired by Dwight Schaubach. JBS has become one of the largest security firms serving residential and commercial customers throughout Virginia and North Carolina.
Johns Brothers Security’s basic recipe for success is thusly spelled out on its website: Maintaining a high level of customer service in an era of substandard customer service is why we continue to grow. Our customers refer us to their family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. This simple business model of providing a valued product and service at a fair price and providing exceptional customer service has not failed us.
While its longevity qualifies JBS as an “old dog,” history has shown the firm able to learn new tricks. “The shift we’ve seen in our business, the disruption if you will, of smart home technology and outsiders entering the market has made it challenging for us,” says Johns Brothers Security Business Development Manager Scott Twine, a 25-year industry veteran who joined the company five years ago. “At the same time, we have an advantage due to a strong local presence and name. We’ve been able to build on that and reinvent ourselves as a technology company, as opposed to a traditional electronic security company.”
With a nearly 50-50 split among home and business clientele, Johns Brothers offers a wide variety of security, life safety, automation and other products and services, with system monitoring routed into the UL-approved central station contained within its Norfolk headquarters.
Twine and JBS Vice President/General Manager Woody Parsons, who has been with the firm 32 years, discuss how embracing new technology, new customer expectations and new personnel needs is lifting the sibling-named company above its rivals.
Could you pinpoint a couple of challenges that you’ve encountered the past three years and how you’re managing them?
Scott Twine: The most challenging is the pace of technology. Like a lot of traditional companies like ours that have been in the market a long time, we saw these things happening in front of us with smart home technology and getting our heads around that. The challenge has been to make the shift with the existing employees that we have, getting them fully trained, and accepting the fact that this change has to take place in order for us to remain relevant and to stay in business, frankly.
At some stage of this process, it was optional. It is no longer optional, so the challenge has been buy-in from the existing employees and the training curve. We’ve had to really lean back toward our vendors, which are a tremendous asset to us. We have long-term relationships with many of them. They’ve come alongside us and helped us develop and train our existing employees on the technologies of today, to ease the pain associated with change, which is difficult for everyone.
Our messaging to our employees has been, “You’ve been loyal to us, we’re going to be loyal to you, but you have to understand that this is not an option anymore. We have to make this turn.” I can’t emphasize enough how important training has been for us. The other piece is finding employees. It’s been a difficult time for us to hire and bring aboard new technicians and salespeople as well. What we found is that, thinking outside the box a little bit, we’ve started hiring people who have no industry experience. But they have some characteristics, employment history or educational background that would denote they may be a good fit for technology.
We’ve been looking for those types of individuals and we’ve taught them our business. We’ve had more success that way than we have going the other way, which is people that have experience. We’ve found a lot of those people have bad habits they bring with them. Getting them to change those is more difficult than teaching somebody an industry that’s brand new to them.
It seems many integrators are reaching outside the industry to pull in people who don’t have the background or training, and they’re trying to mold them. That could broaden the industry.
Twine: I agree completely with that. For decades, it was good enough to be the trusted alarm company in the area, and you could build your business and deliver products and monitoring services, and that was good enough. This is a lifestyle play I believe now, and bringing in other viewpoints and people from outside of our industry who don’t have this ingrained security background really does open up the mindset required for our industry these days.
Thinking about the services and systems we provide differently than, say, this core group of security professionals if you will. Someone who has the ability to view the smart home technology in new ways, this connected system of sensors and devices, they can definitely bring solutions to the table for all sorts of things outside of the traditional security we were all raised and trained on.
Has the company been hit with any wakeup calls resulting in a reevaluation of how you approach certain facets?
Twine: How we handle our existing customer base has been a big wakeup call for us. Going back to our existing customer base is now a necessity, reconnecting with them and offering upgrades that traditionally were never even thought of to help offset potential attrition. Everyone’s [residential] customer base is bombarded with smart home technology marketing from all directions. We found early on that a lot of our existing customers were not even clear on what we did.
We had to circle the wagons and start marketing back to our existing customers, letting them know that we can do this smart home technology, and that we’re the trusted source to get those products and services as opposed to taking it from a Best Buy or do-it-yourself provider. Getting them to reinvest in their security systems and for us to reinvest in the account, to make that account stronger and to stay with us longer and to be able to add services and products, was one of the big wakeup calls that Woody and I had to talk through. It’s been super successful for us.
Woody Parsons: If we don’t take care of our existing customers, someone else is going to try to get them. Again, reinvesting in our existing customer base has been crucial. There are choices out there and obviously we want them to stay with us.
What kind of growth have you seen lately, and overall since the recession?
Parsons: I’ve been here 31 years and we’ve never laid anybody off due to lack of work. Not that we didn’t see a slowdown when everyone got hit about 10 or 11 years ago. From there, our growth opened up with this smart home technology and now it’s trickling over into the business sector. We’ve been a longtime Alarm.com partner and that support has been huge for us.
Twine: We’ve been an Alarm.com partner since 2003, so we’ve kept pace with them over the last five years and really tried to dive in and benefit from the direction they’re going. We believe they are driving the industry’s business in a lot of different ways and it fits into our model very well. We have about a 55/45 split of our account base with 55% being residential. In the business sector, we’ve seen a nice kick and an increase in RMR by providing the solutions we’ve always provided but more of an integrated approach using the single platform of Alarm.com for business.
We’ve seen some nice growth there. Video has been a really big growth for us in both markets. In the minds of a lot of customers or prospects, video is security. We’re doing more video now than we ever have, and it’s become more stable. With a lot of the technology that’s available with analytics now, customers love it. It’s more affordable too. We have mostly standardized on Hikvision and Speco video products.
In the business sector, we’ve always been strong with access control, intrusion and video, but we’ve really seen business owners take to the integrated solution. A lot of them are willing to pay for RMR that was traditionally not a part of the model. Getting the sales team onboard with leaving their personal opinions about traditional business at the curb when they go see someone and just showing clients what we can do on an integrated basis with RMR and let the customers decide, we’ve gotten them to think that way.
What I mean is that if you sold access control for 10 years and now I tell you that you’ve got to charge $5 to $10 a month per door, on top of what you’re already asking them to spend for the access control solution, it’s a little bit much for salespeople to swallow and they try to make assumptions and decisions for our prospects. We’ve really had to work with them on this, but it’s working and our RMR is really growing.
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