Selecting a Central Station—Are You Sending and Receiving the Right Signals?

What are reasonable expectations for a dealer to bring into his or her partnership with a contract central monitoring station? Mitigating long-term costs, ensuring credibility, meeting customer needs, backing up signals, training personnel and adapting to new technology are not only reasonable, but essential.

As an alarm dealer, selecting the right central monitoring station is one of the most important business decisions you’ll ever make. After all, once the installation is complete, the central station represents you to your customers and will typically interact with them more often. Even more critically, the central station will be responsible for helping ensure the well-being of your clients.  Just what does an alarm dealer expect from his or her central monitoring station? What expectations are reasonable? What expectations are unrealistic? What’s just plain wishful thinking? Let’s take a closer look at the elements of selection that actually drive the dealer’s choice, even when it’s for all the wrong reasons. 

Cost Consideration Exceeds Basic Formula

When asked about their choice of central station affiliation, the first words from most dealers are, “It has to be A) cheap; B) inexpensive; or C) cost-effective.” Those three alternate wordings all express a common thread: economics drive the decision of selecting a central station to provide contract monitoring services for customers. It is also a dramatic simplification to base the future of your alarm service company on just a numerical comparison.  Your central station choice can financially impact your operation in a number of ways. When they don’t perform to your customer’s expectations, you get a cancellation. That is an economic impact. If they aren’t diligent in tracking alarm signals and contribute to a surge in false alarms for your customers, that’s an economic impact. When there is a disagreement about fees, billing rates, service charges, extra costs for setting up or modifying an account file, etc., that’s also an economic impact.

Take Your Customers’ Needs Into Account

A central station has two types of customers: the installing dealer and the installing dealer’s accounts. Sometimes, it can be overlooked in the relationship that each type may have different needs and expectations.  The account (end customer) wants timely response, immediate dispatch if a problem arises, clear communications with the operator, contact with a knowledgeable person in the event of an operating problem and an unswerving “good attitude.” There are several concerns about trying to meet those expectations.  The account may not know enough to ask these questions, but the dealer who sells and installs the system should know and exercise discretion in selection based upon the answers received. The dealer should, however, be asking another set of questions before committing his or her economic future to a central station.  Use of the Internet to view signal activity and even receive alarm verification is now available from some central stations. Notices to dealers and customers are available via Internet, pager, cell phone, PDA, fax and plain old telephone. What format or formats will meet your needs and enable you to offer exceptional and unique services to your accounts?  Many leading central stations are now separating the functional requirements of the operator from those of a data management or dealer services person. This enables the dealer to inquire about special procedures for putting unique accounts into service, getting details on alarm activations, answering questions regarding billing and generally having access to all of the business and technology management resources without placing an operator out of service.  At the same time, customer accounts receive more prompt response and service because the operator is not distracted while responding to a nontime-sensitive inquiry. It is this service and response differentiation that will lead to exceptional alarm response performance on a more regular basis.

What Redundancy Methods Are Being Used?

UL standards for central station operation specify certain levels of redundancy for receivers, power supplies and personnel staffing, while also establishing criteria for record keeping. These are the minimum standards acceptable for the industry, and you should expect your central station to meet them.  But, beyond the obvious, many central stations now offer multiple incoming circuits for a dealer’s accounts, even from different carriers, such that, in the event of a natural disaster, there may still be transmission capability.  It may well be that the central station is fully redundant in every technology, component and personnel issue. The true test is to test with frequency and the intent to correct deficiencies, and keep the process current to reflect today’s expectations of continued operation, even in the presence of tornadoes, earthquakes, floods and ice storms.  When a dealer proposes security to a customer account, the result must be total in the presence of natural disaster, mechanical malfunction or electrical line separation. A quality central station must provide for “belt and suspenders” operation to meet the customer account expectations. 

Check That People Are as Fit as the Facility

While it’s true that the signals, receivers and computers are electronic, and the software that drives the system is bits and bytes of data stream material, ultimately the incoming signal is placed into the hands of a person who must respond. That response is derived from the training and experience of the operator or operators, the supervisors, the managers, and the ownership.  There is only one nationally accepted training program for operators — the SIA/APCO program — which has been developed by the Security Industry Association and made available to central station operators. Every facility has its own staffing level and supervisory talent. Each facility develops its own procedures for hiring, then utilizes a training process to bring operators to competence. To provide consistent service and hold personnel accountable for performance, there’s also a standard operating procedure, in which all personnel are expected to demonstrate proficiency.  If the opportunity presents itself, a dealer should meet with the people as well as inspect the facility. You should be able to review the training curriculum to see what is expected. Ask to see a copy of the standard operating procedures and learn how they may effect how you do business.

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