Monitoring Roundtable: Execs on Traversing the Pandemic, Positive Outlook
Managers from four central stations describe how they are successfully navigating through COVID-19. Among the valuable takeaways are how internal and external people skills, grit and adaptability have never been more critical.
A year ago no one could see or imagine the upheaval the rest of 2020 (and now into 2021) was going to throw at humanity ― particularly the United States and Canada — with a pandemic that has been as merciless on lives as it has on livelihoods. As if that was not nerve-wracking enough, there’s been a turbulent election and social unrest as well.
Like never before, the economy and business community has been put through the proverbial wringer these past several months. However, the electronic security industry’s collective refusal to relent in taking care of its workers and customers, delivering lifesaving and lifestyle systems and services, and finding new paths to profitability have further entrenched a well-earned reputation for responsibility, resiliency and reliability.
One of the best vantage points from which to observe, evaluate and pick up insider knowledge about the industry is through the eyes and minds of those in leadership roles with installation and monitored services companies.
Those businesses have feet on the ground going onsite for sales, installation and service to commercial and residential properties alike as well as the first line of response in the person of central station operators. While business has continued throughout the pandemic due to these providers rightly being designated as essential workers, everything has had to be re-evaluated, shifted and continually readjusted.
Amid a “Twilight Zone”-like scenario that has been all too real, SSI gathered four members of The Monitoring Association (TMA) for its annual Business Issue roundtable. These central station managers share how they have contended with COVID and the myriad challenges it has wrought. At the same time they explain ways the ordeal has changed their operations for the better and why their outlook is so positive. You can also find a dealer program guide on page 3.
Jeff Cohen is president of Cleveland’s Quick Response wholesale third-party central station. Beginning in 1969 as a Sonitrol franchisee, the multigenerational business delivers monitoring services for about 500 alarm dealers and also runs its own small retail alarm company, focused primarily in Northeast Ohio.
Kevin Stone is COO for New York’s Doyle Security Services (headquartered in Rochester with eight total offices in the state and Erie, Pa.). The company’s array of services protect commercial, public sector, utility, pharmaceutical, education, specialty manufacturing, communications, sports center, multiuse building, critical infrastructure and residential facilities. The firm’s UL central station also provides wholesale monitoring to around 100 alarm companies.
Allison Tuke is monitoring operations manager for Paladin Technologies, headquartered in Vancouver, British Columbia, with 16 total locations throughout Canada. The firm’s 950+ employees custom craft and install technology solutions for companies requiring monitored services, integrated security, network infrastructure, A/V, fiber optics/OSP, structured cabling, unified communications and more.
David Velasquez is the central station manager for American Burglary and Fire, a St. Louis-based security systems and monitored services provider since 1978. Offering coverage within an approximate 100-mile radius, in addition to monitoring the company performs access control, video, fire, smart home and A/V system design, installation and service.
How has the pandemic most impacted your company thus far, and what is your outlook moving forward?
Allison Tuke: Having about 90% of our operators working remotely across British Columbia really taught us not necessarily about the technology we needed to use and practices we needed to change, but it taught us a lot about the people working for us. It showed us the resilience of those people and how working as a team is key to working in a monitoring station.
Whether the isolation of not being able to feed off the person who sat next to you when you’re on a bad call, they really needed that team environment. And so we created a peer-to-peer employee wellness committee to enable them to better communicate with each other and get that support throughout the day. Our outlook at this point is definitely positive. I’m curious to see what the remote worker will look like if, in fact, that becomes part of our hybrid model for a ULC monitoring station. It certainly opens up the ability to have a broader pool of candidates. I really hope remote workers continue to be an option as it allows us to really diversify some of our staff.
Kevin Stone: Working from home and transitioning to that type of environment was a challenge, but something we were able to do pretty quickly. The technology is out there and thank God for that. If the pandemic happened a decade or more ago, I don’t know we would have been positioned very well to send people home. We’ve had a lot of success with people working from home. Some of the larger, more strategic projects have been set aside. We’ve really focused on the blocking and tackling of the day to day. Externally, we’ve had to focus on, obviously, PPE out in the field with our technicians.
Knock on wood, we’ve not had very many COVID cases. We’ve had a few isolated things that haven’t played out to be a big problem for us. We send out emails, call and text our customers in advance to let them know we are coming, let them know what the guys will be wearing and how we are going to interact with them. We are taking temperatures every day. We’ve seen our team rise up and meet these challenges head-on and do a great job with it.
Out of the gate we did see some increased activity as far as customers wanting to cancel. We adopted a plan very early on where we would give three months of free monitoring to anybody having a challenge or a struggle. Then we would revisit at the end of three months in the hopes they’d be in a better position to maintain the relationship with us. That has, by and large, worked out very well. We didn’t see nearly as much attrition as we forecasted. Certainly, we’ve lost some small businesses.
We have a lot of customers in that category and that attrition is up, but residential attrition for us is actually down. People are home more, using their systems more and maybe they see the value a little bit more. Also when you get into a pandemic or something like this people think about their safety and security, and an alarm system is really good for peace of mind.
David Velasquez: We have seen less attrition on our residential side just because there’s so many different factors like you say, work at home. People just want to know that they’re safe when they’re in their house. On the commercial side of it, there’s a lot of attrition from customers that have lost their business. A lot of hospitality, restaurants and stuff like that, the majority of our attrition has come from that client base. For some time the St. Louis area had not been hit too badly, but the past couple of months the virus has truly skyrocketed here. We’ve been taking precautions here in the central station with our techs in the field. Some of our bigger projects, like newer construction, those stayed where they’re at just because no one’s on those jobsites.
One big change for us is with our sales team as they used to help customers in person to get comfortable with their new systems. We’ve had to become more hands-off, giving customers more information through literature and getting sales reps prepared to handle it online, going over everything that way and keeping it more in a virtual space. Before the pandemic we really prided ourselves on the hands-on approach; we want to be there right there with you. That was one of our top selling points, and so taking it virtual has been a big step.
We have been fortunate in not having to implement any remote operators working from home. We had other departments take those steps, but not as far as the central station. We haven’t had those sorts of impacts with the staffing. I pray every day that it stays this way, but we’ve got to be prepared for the worst. One of the challenges we’ve run into is not everybody has reliable Internet in their home. We have some people in some pretty rural areas. They can’t work from home because their satellite Internet cuts off after a gig of data usage. At least half our dispatchers reside in those rural areas where they can’t get high-speed Internet.
Jeff Cohen: We chose to keep our operators at our central station in-house because we had the space to move people around the building. We moved a couple of departments around and we spread them out. We spread out the operators to maximize the amount of space between them to ensure everyone stays safe. I’ve never been a big fan of remote work. Should we decide to send people home or have additional people logged in remotely, everything is there ready to go. Our facility is pretty isolated. If you don’t work in the central station there is no reason for you ever to go into it. We do have a few people, like me, who would traditionally be there every day, if nothing else to say good morning or goodnight to all the shifts. I haven’t been able to do that for nine months, and it’s unfortunate.
That’s been one of the biggest challenges for many of us, the team-building things we used to be able to do, whether it’s as simple as just bringing in lunch for the operators, etc. It’s challenging for us trying to keep the team as a whole company intact. Other than that, we’ve also been lucky with only one COVID case and it was caught early. The operator did the right things and it did not spread across the building.
For our contracted alarm dealers, it’s been a mixed bag. The growth rate among them is generally slow, but we haven’t seen any big spikes or dips in aggregate. One thing we have seen is a little bit of an uptick in some dealers looking to sell, especially the smaller ones saying, “I think I’ve had enough.”
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