State of Commercial Security 2021: Handling, Healing & Hopefulness Post-COVID

It is not if but to what degree a commercial security dealer’s business has been forever changed by the lingering pandemic. Four battle-tested company leaders talk hardships, lessons and security spoils coming out of this war.

State of Commercial Security 2021: Handling, Healing & Hopefulness Post-COVID

What about remote diagnostics and troubleshooting of your systems? Are you doing much of that, and has it grown due to the pandemic?

We have two customers where we have remote access to their servers. We have a guy who will log into their servers once a week and check everything out, or if they have an issue with something he can log in remotely and assess it before we roll a truck out there. We hope to see this offering grow and present it to all of our customers. However, not many people want to give us that backdoor into their network in order to look at what we need to.

We offer it as an additional service. We have a different hourly rate for remote service. If it is a customer that we have a maintenance contract with then we’ll log in once a week and precheck everything, It’s about being proactive so if something’s going on we can let them know, “Hey, you got cameras out at this site,” and then they’ll let us know how they want us to react to it.

Blake: We also offer remote service, but it depends on the vertical. In the DoD space for example, it’s never going to happen. With utilities, it’s never going to happen. But with something like healthcare, it’ll happen, but normally on a secure VPN. Or you get into finance and normally you have a secure VPN or a certain computer that they’ve whitelisted to allow access to. I think clients expect that level of service nowadays with their systems. I’d say in the midmarket SMB people are becoming a little more accustomed to it and a little more willing to do it.

For a long time that midmarket was a little bit harder to sell that service and get people to do it because you had a lot of security directors who liked to be little Napoleons with their fiefdom where they wouldn’t want an integrator coming in and taking away their perceived job security. We’re getting to a point now where most of these systems are not necessarily new.

We’re on Gen 2, maybe Gen 3 of their camera system and access control and IT directors at these midmarket businesses want someone to just take care of it versus saying, “Hey, I don’t want you to touch it. It’s just job security.” Most of the time it’s wrapped into either a maintenance agreement or it’s a design-build. We tend not to give away our labor for free because we value our expertise, knowledge and training.

Brinkman: We have some customers on a SaaS plan. We have an in-house person to remotely call in and manage their account where we have permission and access to that. That service is available at a different rate from what we offer other customers that aren’t necessarily on a SaaS signup. It’s both an opportunity and a challenge for us because we only have one or two guys who are very good with that and want to expand it. We are looking at more techs not going out in the field because customers don’t necessarily want us onsite, getting them more up to speed on how they can remotely service things. We need to get more people trained up proficiently.

Chritton: I also think remote service is very important and very efficient. San Francisco is a high density area where it takes a lot of time to drive around commuting. So anytime we can log in and fix something remotely, we consider it a benefit because we can actually get more work done with fewer people. All of our techs have what we call remote desktop licenses, with the ability to log in, look at what’s going on.

A lot of times a customer will call and say there’s a problem, but what they tell us is inaccurate. They don’t know how to diagnose it. They’re not really sure what’s going on. We’ve gone to that and push it as much as possible, but there’s liability to consider. If you log into a remote desktop and leave without closing that portal it’s an opportunity for bad guys to get in and do damage. So that has to be closely watched and properly managed.

What chief lessons have you learned from the 2020 experience that will help your company be the better for it?

Chritton: The most important lesson is that safety is at a premium. We’re running a skeleton crew. Most of our staff is either working remotely or on jobsites. We run a very small crew compared to what we used to have and we trade off. We’ve set up all our employees where they have to log in and answer basic questions every day as an audit process. The potential liabilities have gotten higher in that if someone gets sick or if you spread sickness to your customers.

You need a good HR department or someone to advise, ensure you follow the rules. You have to protect yourself and your business. Also, cash is king. Limit your expenses and have a deep pocket so you can weather the storm. We don’t lease our vehicles, we buy them and if we can’t afford them then we do without. You can also say we don’t want to have huge expenses and limit our monthly spending. That’s one way to look at it. There are layers to it but you need to have money tucked away for a rainy day.

Blake: I’ve learned as a leader or manager you can’t overstate the importance of communicating with your employees, especially in a time of crisis. Invest in your employees not only financially and with training, but also through emotional wellbeing. Really spend the time to talk to them, see how they’re doing, because it’s affected them at home as well. They have issues with their children, who are out of school, and they might have a spouse who’s been laid off. Just talking to your employees tends to be more of a stabilizing force than anything.

Copeland: Keeping a close eye on our finances, now we’ve got to be able to keep the money going. We’ve always been a company that has supported our community and other people around us. It’s hard not be able to do that as much as we’d like. We had to make a lot of cuts and a lot of stuff that we did. Unfortunately, we had to cut 401k matching for our employees. We’re just trying to make it all work.

Brinkman: The top lesson for me is being adaptable. Anybody who wasn’t open to change is having to navigate that as the world we’re living in. We have to instill confidence in people in spite of the fact we don’t know and we have really no control over what is happening to the world around us. The only thing we can control is your attitude about it. So it’s about trying to stay positive and engaged with employees, really taking a continued interest in them and their well-being, and then how we can safely take care of our customers.

Looking at 2021, much uncertainty remains. Are you tamping down your revenue expectations or proceeding with an optimistic outlook?

Chritton: It’s a mixed bag. I’ve said before that security is recession-less. It’s a great industry to be in because when times are bad, people need security; when times are good, people need security. We are blessed to be in this industry. Cautious optimism would be a good way for me to put it for 2021. There’s definitely going to be growth and new opportunities. We’re a small enough company to move faster than the larger corporate nationwide companies. We kept all our employees; we didn’t furlough anyone and invest a lot of money in their training.

Copeland: We’re also hopeful and optimistic to see a lot of projects roll back around, or at least get talked about. Customers are starting to open the doors back up. We’re looking forward and making a big push into the mobile market. We’re putting a lot of money and time into that sector. For 2020 I think we were like 25% behind where we were in 2019. If we can stay where we’re at during 2021 then that would be a good year for us.

Brinkman: We’re projecting some but not significant growth. It’s hard to know exactly because the pandemic continues to be in such flux. So much is out of our control and the impact it has on our customer base. That said we’re budgeting some growth in all areas of the business.

Blake: We’re still forecasting we’ll hit double-digit growth in 2021, with the primary driver being security as a service. Thankfully, where we are in the Midwest tends to be a little more economically resilient than the coasts. We’re seeing a lot of people relocating from the Northeast.

While certain verticals might be a little slow, like hospitality and tourism, it’s absolutely through the roof on things like MDUs and high-rise condos in Florida. In that MDU market, wireless locks have been a big growth driver for us. A lot of apartment managers and property managers want a piece of software and a system to manage all their tenants, rather than having to rekey.

Do you think diversification is an important approach right now?

Yes, absolutely. We do everything from A/V to construction cabling, mass notification, firearm security, it’s a wide spectrum. When we go to market with the customer we try to create as large a package as possible, because then it gives them one throat to choke. For us it’s been really successful because they might not be buying as much maybe on physical security but they might be buying on, say, A/V and video conferencing and vice versa.

We have an agricultural customer that’s got hundreds of sites, and they’re looking at large deployments for cameras and access control because they’re reducing the number of employees actually managing those sites. There’s still big opportunities in the industry but sometimes you really need to create the business or use case of how they’re going to use that technology and how it solves the problems that they have adjusting to the post-COVID world.

Check out an extended version of this interview in podcast form, here.

About the Author

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Scott Goldfine is Editor-in-Chief and Associate Publisher of Security Sales & Integration. Well-versed in the technical and business aspects of electronic security (video surveillance, access control, systems integration, intrusion detection, fire/life safety), Goldfine is nationally recognized as an industry expert and speaker. Goldfine is involved in several security events and organizations, including the Electronic Security Association (ESA), Security Industry Association (SIA), Security Industry Alarm Coalition (SIAC), False Alarm Reduction Association (FARA), ASIS Int'l and more. Goldfine also serves on several boards, including the SIA Marketing Committee, CSAA Marketing and Communications Committee, PSA Cybersecurity Advisory Council and Robolliance. He is a certified alarm technician, former cable-TV tech, audio company entrepreneur, and lifelong electronics and computers enthusiast. Goldfine joined Security Sales & Integration in 1998.

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