Increasingly corporations and other businesses want a more professional visitor system that allows them to run reports, logs and histories on their visitors.

Increasingly, end users are coming to dealers and integrators wanting more from their visitor management systems. Much more. And integrators are filling that need with new technologically advanced systems that not only integrate with access control, but with external databases and more.

A recent white paper by EasyLobby, Needham, Mass., estimated that, as of 2008, only 10 percent of access control systems were integrated with visitor management systems. But integrators and dealers are starting to see that number shift.

While most say they are not doing many visitor management installations now (typically anywhere from half a dozen to a dozen per year), the level of inquiry is increasing, particularly in certain markets.

“I support the sale of dozens of systems annually,” says Brandon Arcement, manager of global security technology, Johnson Controls, Milwaukee. “Typically we will sell them not as stand alone systems but as part of a larger package where they are integrated to other systems as well.”

Emerging Markets

The old way of doing things has definite deficiencies when it comes to security. More and more, businesses want a more “professional” approach that also encompasses higher security, the ability to know who is in the building, how often and for how long, and sometimes even to check the visitor’s identity before they enter the building.

“Businesses want the ability to pre-register visitors so that an employee can be on the Internet or Intranet, get online and put in pertinent information before a visitor gets there, and have reception or security print out a temporary badge and have it ready in advance,” says Dan Rice, account executive, Entech Sales and Service, Dallas. “They like the ability to have a log of when the visitor is on location and to keep a historical reference, as well as the ability to keep that information in the database so if it is a frequent visitor they don’t have to input that information every time.”

John Strauss, sales director for the security life safety group, Sound Inc., Naperville, Ill., sees the same demand for solutions involving a log that increases efficiency.

“More and more I keep having existing customers asking for a visitor management solution. Corporate campuses are looking for an electronic log, something easy to sort through if they have issues instead of going through a manual log. They are also looking for something a little more professional than a hand-written log that no one can read. They want to be able to process visitors easily so they can move them through their lobby and on to their destination.”

Arcement adds: “There are really two things we are hearing from customers that really make us start thinking about visitor management systems. The first is the need for high throughput or a quick way to process folks who are visiting. The second is they need some way to do some sort of background check against a database they have access to.”

Steven Turney, security program manager, Schneider Electric, Carrollton, Texas, says the school market is especially interested in these more automated systems because they have the ability to tie them to the sex offender database.

“I am seeing a lot more interest in them for sure, especially within the K-12 school market. I am seeing a mass deployment within the school market down here,” Turney says.”

Another benefit for all end users is driver’s license scanners. “They can enroll a visitor by typing into a keyboard but that takes time,” Turney adds. “It makes sense to put in a driver’s license scanner to streamline the process and reduce errors. There are also Web-based applications where you can make a request to come visit through a Web portal and I can approve that without having to go to a dedicated computer. The badge is ready to be printed the minute a visitor walks up to a kiosk and signs in.”

Things to Watch for

Because these systems are newer and dealers and integrators may not have that much experience with them yet, there are some issues to be aware of in the designing, planning and installation phase.

“One of the most common systems for these to be integrated into is access control,” Arcement says. “Although they have that capability, sometimes there are licenses that have to be purchased from the access control provider. One area we have been caught on before is not being prepared or having estimated that cost. Also make sure with any systems databases you may be integrating to that you estimate the cost of subscription licenses. No-fly lists and sex offender databases, for example, are managed by other organizations and there is an annual or monthly subscription that the end user should be prepared for (See “Working With Outside Databases” at left for more.).”

Often the visitor management system and access control system are compatible with each other, but not always — and it is important to keep that in mind.

“Over the past several years access control and visitor management systems have become more open,” Arcement adds. “They are network-based and have open and available software kits. But if integration does not exist, it will have to be developed.”

Turney cautions to check ahead of the access control system in use to determine integration possibilities. “The manufacturers for visitor management systems have made it very simple. It is not difficult to install or configure. But the integrator needs to verify what access system is there before committing to doing it. Not every visitor management system integrates with every access control system.”

Another issue is Web tie-in, Strauss says. “If the customer is looking for Web pre-registration, it requires us to interface with the IT department, since we need to install and work on their server. Then we need to know where we are going to load the database. Let’s say there are four visitor management stations in a building. That’s four different points of entry. When I enter in that information it has to go to the database, which is typically installed on another server or workstation. You have to know what type of database structure the customer wants.”

Words of Wisdom

Integrators and dealers who are starting to get into this market do have some advice for others: Like anything, the first step is to really know what your customer wants.

“Anytime you are selling a visitor management system they key is to understand operationally how it will work within a customer’s organization,” Arcement says. “It is often not good enough just to understand how to install it. You have to understand the customer’s work and flow because this is something that every visitor who enters that facility will interact with.”

Turney stresses getting specific with customers. “One thing I always stress is to ask the customer what they want and don’t assume when they say they want visitor management that you know what they mean. Always ask about the background checks, Web access, historical logs, and driver’s license scanners. We always look for the customer’s goal. That pretty much dictates the solution that gets put forward. What do they want the system to do? We can come in and install a simple system that prints a name on a badge. But if we don’t understand their goals and needs we might not provide the right solution.

“We have bid and gone after projects where through thorough questioning we realized they wanted a little more sophisticated system, but then someone else came in and bid a cheaper system that only prints the name on a badge. The customer didn’t realize the difference until it was installed. No one was doing anything malicious, but the customer didn’t get what they wanted. Also, if you find a customer wanting to do background checks with databases, before you jump off the deep end and install it, I would highly recommend you consult whatever state you are in to make sure it is legal first. The same goes for driver’s license scanners. There are some states that will let you use the scanners to get first and last name but won’t allow you to get the address or driver’s license number.”

At the other end of the sales process is training and follow-up.

“From a training perspective we provide the customer with as much training as they ask for or as much as they need to make them comfortable with the system,” Turney says.

“Generally we will train the security personnel and often the receptionist whose duty it is to create the badges,” Rice says. “We also provide a small document that they can send out to all the employees that describes how to register a visitor and get on the Web page.”

Arcement adds: “There are two types of training — basic operator training, which is typically a short course of walking operators through how to check in and check out a visitor. Then there is more detailed administrator training, which teaches how to create new user fields, templates, customized badge formats and layouts. From a technical support standpoint, it is really based around what the customer wants. We can do on-demand service or a planned service agreement for preventative maintenance.”

Working with Outside Databases

One of the most advanced (and attractive) features of many of the new visitor management systems is the ability to tie in to sex offender, no-fly and driver’s license databases. But there are pitfalls to be aware of if this is something your customer wants.

“You need to be aware of the legal ramifications, which vary by state,” says Steven Turney, Schneider Electric. “Some states make special considerations for K-12 schools to capture information off of driver’s licenses for background checks. But in these same states, government or corporate clients will not be allowed to do that same thing.”

Other considerations are financial. “Those are services that are usually annually licensed,” Turney adds. “If the installing company or integrator doesn’t let the customer know that up front, they may have a false expectation and come next year’s budget they won’t know to account for it.”

Or in some cases, when the customer is told about the fees, they may realize that a “nice to have” feature is not a “requirement” for them at this time.

“We haven’t done much with databases yet,” says John Strauss, Sound Inc. “Not that some of our customers aren’t looking for that. But they have to pay per station where the database is interfacing with those third party lists and giving access denied or granted messages.

“A lot of schools and colleges are asking about it. But when it comes down to the cost of licensing per station it can get costly. If everyone is funneled through one entrance they are only paying for one station, but if they have multiple stations it can get a little more costly.”

For those customers who do use the databases, there is another aspect to make them aware of, Turney adds. “If they are going to do background checks and a visitor is red flagged, who is going to respond? How are they going to respond? This is very important. As an integrator we need to help them understand the potential ramifications. But ultimately the end user will have the final decision on the actions they would take.”