MKS Previews Stark, Celebrates 30th Anniversary at Users’ Conference
An air of excitement surrounded the MKS 2015 annual users’ conference as the company formerly known as Micro Key Solutions previewed its new Millennium Stark user interface and new add-on products such as a mobile app for sales applications, MKSales, to attendees. The event, held in March at the Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World, provided a magical backdrop for MKS to describe its corporate rebranding initiative to its customers and to celebrate its 30th year of providing software solutions to the security alarm industry. The two-day conference culminated with a celebratory nighttime event for attendees at French Island at Disney World’s Epcot theme park.
“Thirty years of existence as a company, especially in this sector that’s rapidly changing and evolving — we are really proud to have achieved our place in this industry,” said Victoria Ferro, Micro Key’s president, during opening remarks. “More importantly, we have done so on the backbones of strong ethics, of respect and integrity. We have had a true commitment to the success of every alarm dealer and central station customer.”
Ferro said that MKS brought on 60 new customers at the end of 2014. The company hired a new technical support manager and employed a new QA team with three full-time members. “We’ve managed to decrease our open issues in our production by 300 percent with the addition of those teams,” Ferro described.
Ferro took a moment to acknowledge that things haven’t always been rosy for Micro Key Solutions and its customers. “We’ve seen our fair share of challenges, and like every typical company that has been in business for 30 years, there have been ups and downs…that impacted negatively on our performance…and attributed to a negative perception in the alarm industry.” With the company’s new tagline that asks industry professionals to “Rethink Automation,” Ferro emphasized how that call-to-action emerged from the fact that MKS has emerged as a stronger entity in recent years.
“I still meet people that have a negative vibe about Micro Key or they had Micro Key a long time ago and maybe they had a bad experience. And what I’m here to tell you today is that with hard work and commitment and dedication and really hard choices, normalcy was restored and we were able to turn things around…. I can wholeheartedly say that we are not the same company that we were during those times. When we ask you to rethink automation, we’re asking you to rethink what value our products and services are actually lending to your company.”
Nathan Bryant, president of Richardson, Texas-based Sentinel The Alarm Company, concurs. “I’ve been a Micro Key user for 25 years, but I haven’t used all their modules for 25 years. We did use a number of their modules for a number of years, but we…went to another product and had been using those for about 15 years before I decided to come back,” Bryant said. “The reason I came back was because I felt like some of the issues on how the software operated all got resolved. I wanted to get everything back on one package so I’m not split up, and so I came back. That was about nine years ago.”
In commenting on the state of the company and its 30 years in business, Ferro recognized the contributions of founder and former CEO, Atlee Mercer “for his cutting-edge vision in the creation of this amazing company” and current CEO, Wayne Torrens, “who has been a critical pillar for success with his knowledge, support and guidance.”
She also recognized the MKS staff and management team. “I truly believe with [this] team, that we’re going to be able to reach our goal, which is to have the most central stations and the most back offices being run with Micro Key’s accounting in the world by the year 2020.
“We have a new logo, we have a new tagline, and new products and a new directive. But we have the same mission: a dedication to the commitment and success of every single alarm dealer and central station customer,” Ferro concluded.
“Micro Key is really responsive,” said Christopher Lohr, president of Protection Systems Inc., Highpoint, N.C., the company that was named MKS Customer of the Year at the conference. “Last year at the conference I said, ‘Victoria, you should send some of your programmers out to the dealer, to the real world, to let them see what we face with the way the program works.’ They had two of their senior developers sit with us for two days and go through our operation. They’ve given us the feedback that they are changing [certain things] because of their visit. We felt like we were able to make a difference. We’re a partner with them, so we felt like the partnership just got stronger and the product is going to be improving,” he said.
Update: One of the final pieces to the MKS rebranding initiative was just completed October 6, with the introduction of a brand new website www.microkey.com. The new site features the full product suite for its Central Station, Accounting and Service software modules, a revamped blog (MKS411), customer success stories, MKS integration partners, industries it serves, upcoming industry events and more.
At the MKS annual users’conference held at Disney World’s Contemporary Resort in March 2015, SDMspoke with President Victoria Ferro about the company’s introduction of Millennium Stark, the rebranding of Micro Key Solutions as MKS, and the software company’s future roadmap.
SDM: In 30 seconds or less, describe who Micro Key Solutions is, what you do, and what your value proposition or differentiator is?
Ferro:Micro Key Solutions – MKS provides back-office management software and central station automation software to the security alarm industry. Our main value proposition and what differentiates us from any of our competitors in the industry is that we are truly a single-source solution. As one vendor, we do both aspects of your business in one single database.
SDM: What is the purpose of having an annual users’ conference? I know from talking to attendees that Micro Key provides great support and regular communication throughout the year.
Ferro: We definitely pride ourselves in over-delivering with our communication and support to customers throughout the year, but our users conferences are something we place a great deal of value on. The No. 1 benefit of the users’conference is the relationship building. We have a really tight-knit relationship with our customers; you can tell that it’s like a big family reunion here at our conference each year.
It also serves as the actual preview of the new development efforts that we had over the previous year. So in 2015 all of the products — all of the enhancements and the new features that we’re discussing — are development efforts from last year. Customers have ongoing maintenance support contracts for upgrades and for technical support, and this is part of their investment — to be able to preview our development efforts that are going to give them tools to keep them competitive and to keep them be efficient in their daily operations.
SDM: In your opinion has it been a successful conference from Micro Key’s perspective?
Ferro: This has been our highest-attended conference. We have people represented from many countries, including Canada and the Caribbean. This has been a very successful conference for us in regards to the information that we’re presenting. Walt Disney World has been an amazing back drop for us to share this new information and celebrate the new re-branding and 30th year anniversary of our company.
SDM: Micro Key Solutions is now called MKS. Why did you re-brand the company?
Ferro:Micro Key has been in the industry for 30 years and we have grown and evolved and changed 360 degrees as a corporate entity, as an operational entity. We still hold true to the principles that the company was founded on, but we are a very different company from a technology and service aspect that has allowed us to remain one of the leaders in our space within the industry. The re-branding was just the natural evolution to signify that growth, to let the security industry know that we are the same company with the same backbone, the same commitment to this industry, but we are new — we have and are continuing to evolve as a corporation.
SDM: Please tell SDM’s readers about the new Millennium Stark, which is being previewed at this conference.
Ferro: Millennium is our overall product name. We have Millennium Neo, which is version 34. Millennium Stark version 35 is the new brand. We’ve been previewing the new GUI interface, Stark, and been showing our MKS customers the power of the new interface, the customizable views, and much more. Then the new enhancements that we’ve been showing per module are available in the new version. Most of the conference attendees have been running the production version, but we will be rolling out the full version to all of our customers after the conference.
About two years ago we started branding each version of our software with a name and a number, because it has more brand recognition when it’s an actual name. We went with super heroes from very famous movies that save the world, because we feel like our software, in an indirect way, contributes to life safety. Neo was from the Matrix and Tony Stark is Iron Man.
SDM: So what your customers are seeing at the conference is what things are going to look like in Stark?
Ferro: Yes, we are exclusively showing Stark during the conference. We also launched the new add-on products, which were our mobile apps. We previewed the proposal application called MKSales and the Web dealer portal. MKSales is an iPad app for sales and prospecting for sales people in the field. Our new dealer Web app is for contract central stations to provide tools for their dealers — for their data entry portal and for their reporting portal.
We also launched a new service dashboard for service managers. Our new dealer billing for the contract central station is going to revolutionize the way that they’re able to do the billing to their dealers. It’s going to simplify the process, and it’s going to take a lot of manualness out of people’s billing processes.
Those are some of big things and there are numerous small features and updates — things that people have requested that we’ve been able to develop. To make a tweak here and there — that just creates additional efficiency and easier usage.
SDM: Tell us more about Stark. How would you describe the difference between Stark and Neo, and why you went to a completely new product with Stark?
Ferro: It was time for a refresh. Interfaces now are a lot more simplistic and less complicated. The way people want to do data entry has changed; the way that they want to view data has changed. Another really important change is that consumers want things that are relevant to them. In Millennium, the way that it was designed in your initial prospecting screen and subscriber screen, you had a set data set of what you were allowed to see. There wasn’t any ability for you to customize your views.
One of the important elements of transitioning to Stark was to give different groups within an organization the ability to have more power and customization. For example, if I’m in the sales staff, I don’t need to see all of the billing or all of the service information that’s related, because my focus is more sales-centric. Or maybe from a security aspect I don’t want some of that information to be accessible to people. So now the end users have the ability to customize the view when they first log in.
Another important thing was data entry. In Millennium Neo, the data entry was a little bit fragmented. There was one screen to put in the basic information; then another to enter the billing information, and another to enter the central station information. Thinking about how those functions actually happen in a real-life central station or in a real-life dealership, they’re entering 10 or 15 people at one time. So we wanted to give users the ability to just go straight down without having to be mouse-intensive, to increase the efficiency of data entry. Therefore, we’ve revamped the entire data entry component.
SDM: I heard a lot of applause from the audience and people saying, “Yes, yes. Great, great!”
Ferro: That’s awesome. Our goal with doing this was to streamline it and make it so much easier for customers to do data entry.
Stark offers increased performance, as well. With the new tools we have an increased performance for a better end user experience. It’s faster, more efficient, and provides an overall better experience for users.
SDM: Other sessions at the conference were held to show users how they can have better functionality from their current system, is that correct?
Ferro: We have some tune-up classes. We’ve been noticing that in the software business — not just the security alarm industry — people typically are using less than 10 percent of the features and functionality of whatever software product that they own.
One of our missions from six years ago has been educating people to be more engaged with their software investment, to use it more efficiently and to eliminate paper in their organizations. I visit a lot of customers at their offices, and they are still doing things with a pile of paper.
One of our initiatives in the last two years has been our Tune-up Services. Our product experts go to our customers’organizations and listen to their needs and their pains; then they show them how to utilize the software and apply their workflow, or help them to modify their workflow to utilize our software more efficiently so that they can get the maximum benefit of the features.
So we offered some of those tune-up classes here at the conference. We compiled the top 10 mistakes that people make or the top 10 pains from both product lines that people were having and then created these tune-up checklists so that they could start to apply some of that right away. If a more in-depth analysis is needed, they could have a trainer come on site for a tune-up service to implement a customized training program for their organization.
SDM: Tell us about the conference’s keynote speaker, Bob Harris of Attrition Busters.
Ferro: Having Mr. Harris come was so relevant to what’s going on in the industry today. He hit the nail on the head in regards to the competition that’s out there with these big companies in the industry. I think one of the most brilliant things he said was that every single person in your organization is a sales person.
I think a lot of people walked away with aha moments. They’re feeling powerless to some of these big entities that are coming in and snapping up some of their business because of price. Bob is giving them an education on how to cultivate the tools so that they can combat that. We were thrilled that he was able to join us and talk about such a relevant topic.
SDM: Being your company’s 30th anniversary, what have been the most important milestones and turning points?
Ferro: The concept of Micro Key began with the recurring billing solution, then added a service solution, and from that small start they then added the central station automation solution. These were days when computers were just becoming commonplace in businesses, so people would get their first computer and then they would get this solution along with it. So that was a really important milestone in the industry and for us as a company. Automation software still wasn’t very common; it was all done manually. People would look up the account on a Rolodex and then call the person.
That transformed the entire central station industry and Micro Key was one of the first players that were able to do that.
Another big milestone was when we transitioned from our DOS product into a Windows product. And yet another important milestone was when we launched our mobile apps, moving into the mobile arena. It was a really cutting-edge jump in our industry. We launched our first Web app three years ago, and launched three mobile apps last year and have a few more launching this year.
Now this year with MKSales, this is the first industry-specific sales app that’s going to be available in the industry. Our competitors all partner with a non-industry specific CRM application, which further displays that our customers are able to do everything they need within our software.
And we’re not done. We still have many goals, and a lot of things on our developmental road map.
SDM: As monitoring takes on an increasingly important role in this industry, what is on the horizon for MKS?
Ferro: One of the main things, which will be really useful, is the IVR integration which is the automated phone integration. With that, instead of low-priority signals being handled by an operator, they’ll be an automated call out bound. The end user can cancel it with their passcode, from their phone. We’ll also be doing it through a text message system so that they can cancel alarms like any low priority.
And later this year, we are going to be rolling out the ASAP to PSAP protocol so central stations can communicate directly with their local public safety answering point.
SDM: You commented during this conference, “I would like to have the most central stations and dealers running our accounting software by the year 2020.” How will you make that happen?
Ferro: We’re not far from that goal. We’re running many proprietary central stations; we’re also running many educational facilities’and government facilities’central stations, as well as alarm dealers’central stations. Our goal is to get our message — why MKS is different, why our products and services are different — out to as many people as possible, because it’s not a hard sell once I can get them engaged and show them 15 minutes of our product. It’s not hard for me to sell people on why MKS is the best solution to run their central station or their back office accounting. The product really sells itself. So it’s just a matter of us getting that message out to people who haven’t seen it. Or, if they saw it 10 years ago, we’re asking people to just give us 10 minutes and take another look at Micro Key, and see how far we’ve come from the last couple of years.
SDM Interviews MKS President Victoria Ferro
Ferro spoke more about the exciting changes happening at MKS, such as the rebranding initiative and new software introduction, in the following interview with SDM Editor Laura Stepanek.