Monitoring Roundtable: Answering the Call During COVID
Execs from leading monitoring providers tell how they upheld the integrity of emergency response when the pandemic struck, and how they continue to help their dealers excel.
Perhaps central stations should add beverages to their array of value-added services. That suggestion is not so farfetched after witnessing how nimbly the electronic security industry’s third-party wholesale monitoring centers adapted to the previously unimaginable challenges of a pandemic — making lemonade out of the mother of all lemons. While it helped that these facilities were designed with redundancy and to withstand natural disasters, COVID-19 wrought unforeseen circumstances.
Having confronted that daunting dilemma by rising above and beyond to maintain the continuity of alarms and related response and service needs, these providers are now primed to continue elevating dealer businesses and delighting their end customers. Now that is indeed refreshing.
Assessing the impact, outcomes and future manifestations of the pandemic are among the key issues tackled by representatives from the six leading monitoring services firms that took part in this year’s SSI Monitoring Roundtable. Other pressing topics include developments in technology, services, RMR opportunities, DIY and more. It all concludes with a handy company directory.
How has the pandemic changed your business internally and externally? Will some changes be long-lasting?
Jim McMullen, President & COO, COPS Monitoring: Prior to the pandemic, the comprehensive redundancy of our six monitoring stations and distributed staffing made us better prepared to withstand localized situations and outages than any other company. We also have significant room for growth and consistently maintain fully outfitted workstations at each location, which gave us the ability to physically distance employees within our sites. Perhaps most importantly, we have ability to proactively close more than one location if we saw the need to without impacting service levels.
We did make changes to our disaster preparedness plans in response to the pandemic. As the result, our systems, procedures and employees are now better prepared to endure circumstances that are more widespread. Some of the changes included procuring an inventory of hundreds of new laptops, expanding our ability for employees to connect securely and documented procedures to allow employees in all departments to work from home if necessary.
Communicating with our dealers also evolved. COPS has a longstanding tradition of hosting in-person training and seminars at each of our six locations. During the pandemic, we hosted dozens of webinars ranging on topics such as guidance on the CARES Act, 3G upgrades, CRM options and legacy financial planning. Attendance for the webinars was either the same or greater that in-person seminars.
Faced with governmental restrictions on traditional residential sales or the reluctance from end users having installation and service personnel in their homes and businesses, dealers were forced to pivot and adapt. Very early on during the pandemic, we introduced a program with SS&Si called “Do-it-together” where we trained dealers how to sell DIY with the added benefit of real-time video chat support from a local professional alarm company.
William Niles, CEO, Brinks Home: We have seen significant changes to where our daily business activities take place. At the onset of the pandemic, we equipped our operators with laptops and significantly reduced our daily personnel in each of our facilities. As with any major change, working from home has brought significant challenges, but has also provided unique opportunities to change how things are done. In many ways it has allowed greater business flexibility, redundancy and responsiveness much in the way the Cloud has transformed many IT services in recent years.
Daniel Oppenheim, CEO, Affiliated Monitoring: In some ways, radically, and others, not at all. For our partners’ subscribers, nothing has changed in the slightest — at no time has the impact of the pandemic been felt by them. In fact, our industry-leading response times improved both during and after the pandemic!
Internally, how we do monitoring will likely never be the same. Before COVID, we, like most of our competitors, were 100% facilities based, with all monitoring specialists in one of our centers. When life suddenly changed for all of us last year, we put our emergency plan into action. This plan — initially designed for natural disasters — worked flawlessly, allowing Affiliated to pivot from 100% on-premise monitoring to almost fully remote, with zero disruption in service.
Steve Mayer, Vice President of Operations and Administration, EMERgency24: We leveraged our nimble culture and technology and learned how to work remotely for operations and nonoperations team members. We think it enhanced our offering for employees and even improved our service level performance operationally. When the UL standards are finalized, we will layer in our standards to ensure our operations remains highly secure, highly responsive and highly customer oriented.
Aria Kozak, CEO, Elite Interactive Solutions: During a pandemic it is vital that information is transferred in real-time between a site, a command center and law enforcement dispatch. As a leader in crime and catastrophe detection and prevention, our team was able to pivot our infrastructure within our secured command center to focus on the core of our business, monitoring sites. Nonessential personnel to our core have been working from home and we are able to provide appropriate protective measures to ensure that our command center stays safe.
As Elite’s remote guarding implicitly utilizes advanced technology and traditional man-guarding components that enhance both responses to and prevention of criminal activity, our physical staffing levels of agents remain low with added support from remote employees. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to affect major areas within our customer pool, we kept staffing and security at a 99% utilization ratio and continued to do our job.
Morgan Hertel, Vice President of Technology & Innovation, Rapid Response Monitoring Services: The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world forever and required all businesses to adjust in order to survive. Rapid Response, however, incorporated many strategic and technical innovations into the 2011 design of our corporate headquarters expansion in preparation for these types of events. Still, we faced the COVID-19 challenge head-on and made any additional changes necessary to continue delivering high-quality service to our Dealers. However, there are a couple that are most notable.
First and foremost, Rapid Response opted to maintain all monitoring operations within our facilities throughout the pandemic. This was an easy decision for us since we could safely run without any major changes due to the design of our facilities and because a remote monitoring model does not leverage all of the redundancy, data security and personnel management we enjoy from within our hardened centers.
Keeping our Specialists within the facility did mean increasing the focus on safety protocols while still maintaining a high level of effectiveness and security. Since Rapid Response has always maintained ultra-hygienic facilities including 24/7 cleaning staff, advanced HVAC filtration and touch-free restroom technologies only minor modifications were needed in response to the pandemic. We upgraded to Level IV UV HVAC filtration systems and added infrared temperature cameras, four-hour employee temperature checks, UV room sterilizers, UV sterilizing wands and boxes, social distancing of staff members, provided each employee with a touch free thermometer for their home and focused the 24/7 cleaning staff to sanitizing every workspace at the end of shifts. Additionally, we initiated daily company-wide communication on the status of COVID-19 in our local areas and any need for changes in protocols, workspaces, or policies. The health and safety of our team was always paramount.
Another notable change is the way in which we communicated with each other. Having multiple offices, several support teams working remotely, and the need for social distancing, we no longer could just drop by someone’s office or workspace to have a meeting. Face to face meetings in conference rooms were a thing of the past and everyone needed to adapt to using platforms like Zoom, MS Teams and at least a dozen others.
At first this transition was challenging as it required a roll out of web cameras, headsets, account setups, and dealing with VPNs and security issues. However, now that all of that is done, it has enhanced communication for the better. In person conversations will always have their place, but the new digital connections enable us to quickly collaborate on a project or just have a quick one-on-one meeting with video.
Obviously, this communication shift has extended well beyond just internal communication, it’s now become the norm to have video calls which for most are a much better alternative to voice calls. We expect this to be a reality for businesses for years to come.
What are some of the latest technological changes/improvements within your facilities?
Peggy Page, Strategic Account Manager, STANLEY Security Wholesale Monitoring: We are currently launching interactive video monitoring. Trained professionals at the STANLEY Security Monitoring Center review alerts from onsite security panels or camera analytics to visually confirm if an intrusion attempt is taking place and then follow customer-directed protocols for handling the alarms including notifying law enforcement or other first responders. This service is a very cost-effective way to eliminate nuisance alarms and ensure that your customers are only alerted when events truly require their attention.
Mayer: Layered-in webcam interfaces and live screen views so our operations management team can better support our dispatch monitors that are both local and remote. We leveraged proprietary technology to communicate with the remote team. We also built out additional workstations to enable social distancing for those working in our facilities. We can monitor the monitors visually and audibly at all times regardless of their being onsite or remote.
Jason Chancellor, CIO, Brinks Home: When employees began working from home in March 2020, we identified the right technology to enable them to continue to provide an excellent customer experience. This was enabled whether they were working from home or were in one of our two UL-Listed alarm response centers, where CDC guidelines are still practiced. Our IT team has diligently ensured that employees are able to stay connected virtually and have access to the right equipment and resources to successfully complete the work.
Oppenheim: This year, we completed our migration to the next generation alarm monitoring platform MAS EX. We have been a user of MAStermind monitoring for almost two decades, and the move to EX has given us even more capabilities and flexibility while still relying on the most robust and reliable automation platform in the industry.
Our award-winning Alert Message mobile app and platform has also been a great success; more than 80% of our partners have started using this custom group chat service, and they have all seen their false alarm dispatch rates decrease dramatically. Developed in-house, Alert Message allows subscribers to chat with other contact list members and collectively decide how to handle an alarm situation.
Our innovative Brighton mPERS and IoT platform continues to gain new capabilities. Brighton is unique in the industry, allowing partners to quickly integrate new mPERS, IoT and security products with our monitoring platform in as little as a few weeks. Brighton provides a powerful, well documented suite of APIs allowing developers of today’s cutting-edge products a simple way to create a reliable, robust connection with our monitoring center and specialists.
Interactive video monitoring continues to become a bigger part of our business and a driver of increased RMR for partners. We are currently implementing Cloud-based analytics on our Immix CS monitoring platform, which is fully integrated with our MAStermind EX automation system. These analytic solutions provide additional flexibility to offer video solutions in challenging situations while continuing to support a wide variety of systems and manufacturers.
McMullen: In the past year, we’ve reinvested millions in our infrastructure. This includes things like new generators, UPS units, upgraded phone switches, firewalls, routers, SD-WAN networking equipment, upgraded IVR, VMWare upgrades, blade servers, hardware and software for cybersecurity, custom software integrations, and new and redundant communications paths. We have upgraded all critical systems from solid-state hard drives for speed and reliability, HIPPA certification, SOC2 recertification, etc. For us, it’s the ‘price of admission’ to best run a network of monitoring facilities.
How does your company train staff to deliver the latest technology and customer care.
Kozak: Elite has invested heavily in dedicated and on-the-ground support teams to test our products and solutions. We have committed over $8 million to dedicated systems that allow us to efficiently detect crime onsite and reduce instances of false alarms. Our key to retaining our client base year-over-year has been utilizing automation to verify performance of physical security systems and automated proof of networked physical security system compliance. The tools that we use internally give exact specifications and fix recommendations that allow us to really stand out from our competition and keep our teams engaged and ready before crime takes place.
Niles: We know that a positive customer experience starts with a positive employee experience. Over the past year we have launched employee resource groups, improved our benefits packages and provided additional training to employees across the company to ensure that our people are equipped to provide our customers with the best-in-class experience they expect. In addition to our comprehensive new hire onboarding process and internal training platform, we offer one-on-one coaching on troubleshooting the latest technology and key success behaviors to enable our employees to proactively address customer needs.
We also made the decision to move our training team out from under the HR umbrella and embedded all our trainers within the business units they support. This enables them to focus on key functions and truly be subject matter experts, in turn allowing them to be more effective trainers. We’ve already seen the benefits of this organizational redesign with better performance from our sales and customer care agents in the weeks immediately after they exit the training program.
Mayer: After an extensive six-week, hands-on training regimen, we have monthly reviews of calls and quarterly testing. As needed, we provide training when we develop new services and change procedures. Ongoing training is essential to maintain the highest levels of quality. Dispatch monitors are rewarded for high quality scores.
McMullen: More important than training staff on new offerings is our ability to integrate new technology in a way that makes it seamless to our staff. COPS is the only professional monitoring company with its own proprietary UL-Listed monitoring platform giving us the unique ability to modify our systems and build processes to minimize or eliminate perceivable differences between systems and technology when presented to a dispatcher, which saves precious seconds on response times.
When training is required, you must first start with the right person. We believe a good dispatcher is determined by more than experience and education. So we look for people who are a “right fit,” and accomplish this with proprietary recruiting, screening and training, methods developed with the assistance of an industrial psychologist trained in matching the right people to the right jobs. People who are a right fit tend to be more motivated, more productive and care more about their performance — exactly what customers want from dispatchers safeguarding their homes and businesses.
Those selected begin our proprietary gradation program, which we believe is the most thorough, rigorous and challenging in the industry. The basic premise is “up or out,” in that we only want people who are interested in becoming experts in their field to serve our dealers and their customers. There is no room in our organization for mediocrity or people who want only limited responsibility; we want people who can persistently excel. After the initial 120 hours of classroom training, and countless hours of direct supervision, our gradation program becomes a continual process where dispatchers reinforce customer service skills and learn new technology.
Oppenheim: Affiliated employs a rigorous, multifaceted testing regime that helps us identify the best talent. This, combined with a holistic, award-winning training program focused on the changing needs of today’s workforce, has allowed us to have one of the lowest attrition rates in the industry. Fewer than 2% of applicants pass our rigorous background, personality, and skills assessment and successfully go on to become monitoring specialists. All of our monitoring specialists are TMA trained and certified, and participate in regular uptraining and recertification classes.
Security Is Our Business, Too
For professionals who recommend, buy and install all types of electronic security equipment, a free subscription to Security Sales & Integration is like having a consultant on call. You’ll find an ideal balance of technology and business coverage, with installation tips and techniques for products and updates on how to add sales to your bottom line.
A free subscription to the #1 resource for the residential and commercial security industry will prove to be invaluable. Subscribe today!