Contracting monitoring services may be the single most important decision you make regarding your customers. In essence, you’re handing those cultivated clients over to strangers. You’ve found the customer and sold them on your systems, services, and professionalism – and now you’re going to turn their fate over to a new entity and hope for the best.

But your work is far from over. It’s time to find the right monitoring company. Now is when you can build the all important recurring revenue, but you can’t do that if you lose your customer to attrition, and many will agree that comes from not handling monitored accounts properly.

Just how do you “shop” for a monitoring company, and what questions should you ask about functionality, service, and cost when looking for a provider?

Start by phoning the company to see how long it takes to talk to a live person; that’s just one way to begin the search.

Make a checklist of what to ask, but remember to tailor the questions for the type of accounts you handle. Ask your peers who they are using, why they’re using them, and what is their level of satisfaction.

Several years ago, Paul Romanelli, president of Suffolk Security Systems in Southold, N.Y., in eastern Long Island, was hit with an impending area code change and had to reprogram accounts. It was then that he decided to do research on central monitoring stations. He says he wasn’t dissatisfied with his current provider, but thought it would be the perfect time to reassess the field.

“We wanted to make sure the entire monitoring process for our customers ran smoothly. That when they called the central station for any reason, the call was handled quickly and efficiently,” Romanelli says. “Another important consideration was central station operator training.”

Central station operator training and procedures are critical to efficient handling of signals. And if a monitoring company has a large amount of accounts, one operator for every 1,750 to 2,200 accounts during peak times seems to be a reasonable number, according to industry sources.

“It’s important to know how many dispatchers they have compared to the number of accounts and how many signals they handle an hour during peak times,” says Tom Shacklett, president of Alarm One of Texas, Katy, Texas. “You should also be able to go online and have access to the history for your customers. We have customers who want to see specifically who armed or disarmed a system.”

There are many central station monitoring companies from which to select, but most in the field agree that holding the Underwriters Laboratories (UL) listing for burglary and fire (called protective signaling) is criteria not to be ignored.

“The UL listing includes standards for the building, central station, software, and quite a long list of requirements that encompass the infrastructure of the operation, and that’s critical,” says Lew Walters, dealer relations, Affiliated Central Inc., New York. “It also addresses back-up generation, back up for phone lines, and more,” he says.

Redundancy is one of the hottest topics on the minds of central monitoring stations and their customers, and it should be a major consideration for the installing dealer. “Central station redundancy is the service that adds value to the alarm company and the customer,” says Bart Didden, president of USA Central Station Alarm Corp., Port Chester, N.Y. “There are different methods, such as operating separate central stations, disaster recovery software, or switching signals to another monitoring firm or phone company central office. Redundancy is a value-added feature for the independent dealer competing with local dealers.”

“How much central station redundancy is necessary and how it is performed is certainly the question of the day,” says Mark Matlock, vice president of sales and marketing for United Central Control in San Antonio, Texas. “So many things can happen to a central station, such as a tornado or other natural disaster, or blackouts and the like.”

The telephone lines are the heart of the central station. Most will agree that the central station should purchase these lines, but Steve Baker, vice president of NACC in Irvine, Calif., sees things differently. “Security dealers need to own their own phone lines. From the dealership point of view, they need to have some form of ownership for added leverage. If they want to sell their account, or move it themselves, they can do it.”

Baker says whether the alarm company owns their own phone line or leases has a direct effect on the price charged for monitoring.

Gone are the days when you had to ask questions about panels and receivers and signaling formats. Today, most receivers can handle a variety of signals and many communicate via a standard protocol.

It’s not an easy endeavor to choose a central monitoring station and there are many top-notch firms providing service to the industry. But like all else, let the buyer beware, and start with the basics by asking as many questions as possible to get the answers you need to know.

Sidebar: Before You Buy

Make a matrix of questions before you switch or decide on who to monitor your customers, and start with these listed.

  • Is the central UL listed and for what categories, i.e., burglar and protective signaling (fire)?

  • What type of back-up/redundancy does the central station have?

  • What are the procedures for redundancy if the central station goes down or there is a blackout? How are signals transferred and to where (this is a great consideration after the blackout that crippled a large area of the northeast and Midwest recently)?

  • How do you access customer subscriber information (Internet, fax, etc.)?

  • What software does the central station use and what is available to the dealer for not only account management, but marketing and sales support?

  • How are remote video signals delivered to the central station and how is video automated and integrated with alarms? Does the central station offer remote video monitoring?

  • What type of DVRs can be supported by the central station?

  • How are dispatchers trained and what is the ratio of dispatchers to accounts during peak times, such as openings and closings?

  • Is there open communication between the central monitoring firm and a point of contact available 24/7?

  • Can I physically visit the central station?

  • How does the central station track activity and patterns and how do they manage these numbers?

  • What is the response time, i.e., how long does it take signals to be answered and how long does it take to dispatch?

  • How far back does the company keep data on computer on alarm activation?

  • What can you do to help me run my business, beyond monitoring?

  • How many signals does the central station handle at different hours of the day? During peak times?

  • Will I own the phone lines or is it a lease and how does this figure into the formula as far as the cost per month?