Best Practices for a Well-Run Monitoring Center
When it comes to hiring, training and scheduling monitoring center employees, companies need ingenuity, flexibility and communication.
Hiring, training and staffing at a monitoring center comes with a host of challenges. Finding reliable, entry-level staff with the right personality profiles that are willing to work any shift, any day of the year is one. Another challenge is ensuring that employees are trained to deliver on-time metrics coupled with unparalleled customer service. A third challenge is the complicated dance of staffing and scheduling employees to meet the demands of a 24-hour central station while incorporating weather events, growth and call volume surges, sick time, breaks, holidays and more.
Hiring Best Practices
When it comes to hiring, each monitoring center has a slightly different profile of what makes for an ideal employee — though most cite excellent customer service skills as a must.
“One of our major focuses is hiring nice,” says Michael Gelvin, training manager at United Central Control (UCC), San Antonio, Texas. “It’s difficult to train someone to be nice; you have to hire that personality. In addition, we need that person that adheres to procedures. With this job there is no wiggle room. We need someone to follow those procedures 100 percent of the time.”
While some monitoring centers value previous call center experience, others are quick to dispel the myth that previous call center experience automatically makes a potential candidate a good fit. “One of the challenges is getting qualified people, because not everyone is the right candidate,” says Keith Godsey, senior vice president of Dynamark Monitoring, Hagerstown, Md. “I don’t refer to the business as a call center. I call it a monitoring center because it adds credence that the type of person we need can handle an intense job that may involve crises.”
In addition, monitoring centers must look to the future when finding the right mix of an employee that follows all-important standard operating procedures (SOPs), but can also think outside the box. “You definitely need someone to follow processes and procedures, that’s a big thing. But we also look for innovation. Sometimes that can be at odds with following procedures, but for leadership roles we need people that will also ask questions and ask why,” shares Justin Bailey, president and COO of AvantGuard Monitoring, Ogden, Utah.
Finding those potential monitoring center staffers that check all the boxes can be a challenge on a good day, but a good economy adds another layer of difficulty. Almost every monitoring center that SDM spoke with noted low unemployment rates and an extremely competitive hiring market as the biggest challenges to finding new hires. To keep up, monitoring centers use a multi-faceted approach to recruiting.
“Across the nation where we hire, many folks are already employed, so it’s a pretty competitive market,” notes Steve Mayer, vice president of operations and administration at EMERgency24, Des Plaines, Ill. “Particularly right now, there is a challenge just attracting new employees at entry-level positions. To meet the current challenge of bringing in qualified people, management uses online job postings; conducts outreach at community colleges and local institutions; has rewritten job descriptions to best capture the individuals they are looking for; as well as altered the company’s pay scale to become more competitive among entry-level positions, according to Mayer.
In addition to job ad sites and a referral program from existing employees, Vector Security, Warrendale, Pa., regularly changes its job descriptions — pinpointing different aspects of the job — to ensure it attracts the right candidates, according to Anita Ostrowski, vice president of central station services. “We are also starting to look into virtual job fairs, chats and hiring apps to see how useful those technologies may be,” adds Pat Killian, regional HR business partner at Vector Security.
Pete Straka, vice president of human resources at Securitas Electronic Security Inc. (SES), Uniontown, Ohio, SDM’s 2019 Integrator of the Year, says the company uses social media and networking sites to create campaigns touting live hiring events. “We have potential associates RSVP and come in. It’s a great way for us to anticipate volume of the events and gives us lead time to create something exciting,” he says. According to Straka, the live events allow management to get a realistic preview of potential candidates and allow potential hires to get a realistic preview of what the actual job is like.
CPI Security, Charlotte, N.C. (SDM’s 2019 Dealer of the Year) also utilizes in-person recruiting fairs on its 37-plus acre campus. Potential hires get a taste of the company’s culture and see all the amenities at the facility, including on-site gym and cafe. “We do a lot of multi-channel recruitment, including social media, online postings and a referral bonus program. But our culture really tends to help recruit people as well,” says Jennifer Snellgrove, chief people officer at the company.
Once CPI Security management sees a recruit with good potential, they’ll bring the candidate onto the monitoring floor. “I believe in being very open and transparent about what it is they are getting into. They get to see the cubicles and the desks, and they get to hear from other employees,” says John Shocknesse, vice president of customer care. “That goes a long way toward making sure that prospective employee understands the environment and the role.”
Giving candidates an idea of the company culture, the environment and the job itself can help monitoring centers set themselves apart from other job openings. To distinguish themselves even further, many companies make a point to communicate growth and long-term career potential to new recruits. “We spend time explaining the advancement opportunities, and we provide actual examples,” says Jonathan Rainbow, director of operations at Rapid Response Monitoring, Syracuse, N.Y. “I give them my story and how I started as an operator in an entry-level position. Many of our key employees have had the same experience.”
The Interview Process
Once the resumes are in hand, the actual hiring process can vary among monitoring centers, but the process typically includes a mix of phone interview, in-person interview, skill test, behavioral assessment, and drug and background screenings.
“This job is over the phone, so we want to talk with them over the phone, see how they sound, how they articulate, etc.,” explains Sarah Murphy, senior operations manager – central station services at Sonitrol of Fresno, Fresno, Calif. After that, candidates are given a typing test, personality test, followed by an in-person interview, where Murphy says more than one employee tries to be present so that the interviewers can discuss the candidate together.
Don Azcona, field operations manager at Radius Security, Richmond, B.C., Canada, says that the company employs a number of tactics to determine if a potential hire will make for a good fit. “We use a combination of personal index assessment, predictive learning assessment and interviewing,” Azcona says. During the interview stage, candidates will also go through real scenarios that have occurred on the job in the past to see how they react to stressful or difficult situations. “It helps us see how they are going to deal with these cases and it creates a great picture of what they’d be like working for us,” he says.
Jim McMullen, president of COPS Monitoring, Williamstown, N.J., agrees that finding the right employee goes beyond looking at a resume or sitting for an interview. “You can’t tell whether or not someone will be a good dispatcher simply by looking at them, reading their resume or even talking with them in an interview,” he says. “Qualifying someone as the ‘right person’ is determined by more than education, experience and attitude or just plain guesswork. At COPS, there’s a science behind our selection process. Applicants are screened with a proprietary personality profile that we developed with the assistance of an industrial psychologist trained on how to best match individuals’ traits to the specific job roles.”
Training Best Practices
Though the recruiting and hiring process can be quite time-intensive for most monitoring companies, training is arguably the most crucial part of the process. Training, much like recruiting and staffing, requires constant evaluation of processes and procedures as technology changes, services change, and new hires’ needs change or evolve. Monitoring centers use a variety of training models to keep employees engaged, but also to give different learning types the opportunity to grasp the important information they need to become outstanding operators.
During the initial phase of the operator training process, many monitoring centers start by teaching new hires about the industry, the company and the company’s unique culture. “We want them to have that background, so we relay a lot of history and unique stories or situations we learned from the past, or new technologies that changed things in the industry,” says Mayer, of EMERgency24. He adds that the company’s six-week training program uses a combination of book learning, hands-on practice, role playing, observation and mentorship.
One way member companies of The Monitoring Association (TMA) give new hires a comprehensive foundation to begin their monitoring career is by including TMA’s Level 1 operator training program in their curriculum. “Level 1 introduces operators to the industry, the responsibilities they will bear, and operator best practices,” says John Brady, president of TRG Associates and TMA’s Education Chair, McLean, Va. “It explains technology and 911 centers, how signals get to the monitoring center, and gives them an understanding of the environment they’ll be working in.”
The online training program is made up of seven modules and meant to be flexible and concise, Brady shares. Companies can use all of the training or parts, and even fold it into a monitoring center’s larger program.
For the first couple of days of training at Dynamark Monitoring, the company gives new hires a big welcome, introducing them to executives and all the other departments to make them feel like a part of the team. After that, the structured training program begins with those all-important basics, Godsey says. “We give them alarms 101,” he says. “Most people have seen a burglar alarm or fire alarm but may not understand how it works, so we take them to that level. They need to understand what a keypad is, what happens when an alarm goes off and how it translates to the central station.”
Dynamark also has trainers conduct a week of software training with new hires, teaching them the system inside and out, and allowing them to watch and listen in as operators handle calls. Eventually, new hires are allowed to handle low-priority phone calls with a trainer on the line. They may sit next to a buddy operator for a few months, as well. “We also spend a lot of time teaching how to do a proper dispatch. We are very detailed with how we talk with someone or how we leave a message and what we are trying to tell them. This prevents a lot of call backs or questions from customers,” Godsey says.
In addition to traditional classroom and book learning, Criticom, Longwood, Fla., mixes in guest speakers to discuss not only SOPs and why they have them, but also company background, business development, the sales process and more. “We try to create a well-rounded employee that understands what the overall goal is,” says Tony Wilson, president of the company. He says that Criticom also finds great success preparing new hires by using training accounts on its Mastermind software platform, allowing them to learn to navigate the software and get hands-on experience with real-life scenarios that are not live.
After comprehensive training on the company, the industry, TMA Five Diamond program, types of alarms, protocols, procedures and dialog training, NMC, Lake Forest, Calif., uses a training simulator, which generates alarms from a database of accounts and allows new hires to role play with a trainer. “It simulates customers calling in with a myriad of scenarios to prepare them for what goes on, so that by the time they take that very first real call they are prepared,” says Todd Shuff, vice president of operations.
Azcona of Radius Security says his company has been successful with a one-on-one approach, assigning new hires to an operator who will take them through the processes and allow them to learn through video, voice recording and shadowing. “In the beginning, we used to hire skilled operators from the industry, but we’ve found that hiring the right person with the right attitude that wants to be a part of our team has worked better,” he shares.
Monitoring company UCC pairs new employees with senior operators or mentors to learn procedures and get a hands-on approach right away. “We used to do more classroom training but found that [new operators] were a deer in the headlights when they hit the floor,” says Teresa Gonzalez, president of the company. To ensure new hires adjust to the job successfully, UCC breaks training down into multiple levels or phases, allowing new hires to really absorb each level before moving on. “For example, level 1 is how to handle high priorities such as a burglar alarm. The protocol is black and white, so they memorize what to do and we limit their access to only those kinds of events to allow them a period of time to adjust,” Gonzalez says.
For monitoring operators that handle live video, sources say that preparing them for the plethora of scenarios they may come across is very important to include in the training process. “You’ve got to get people accustomed to the randomness of what they’ll see with video,” says Chris Brown, vice president of central station and guard force business unit of SureView Systems, Tampa, Fla. “If you have two-way audio, that’s also a whole different script. You’ve got to know what to say, how to manage your voice, when to be more firm and when to be more friendly. It’s a mental exercise and you have to take them through all those mental exercises so they get thrown off their feet a bit during the training and not in real life.”
Scheduling Best Practices
Aside from hiring top-notch talent and implementing all-important training, scheduling monitoring center staff is a very important part of a well-run monitoring center. When problems arise, metrics, call times and customer service — the bloodline of a monitoring center — all suffer. But staffing and scheduling monitoring center employees can be quite complicated, to say the least. Growth forecasting and historical data can help determine general staffing levels for the year, but flexibility and nimbleness become musts when vacations, sick time, unpredictable weather and more get thrown into the mix.
“The need to be flexible is so important because things can change overnight. Because of that, sometimes our best game plans are thrown out the window and doing quick outreaches to people becomes important,” Mayer of EMERgency24 says.
While some monitoring centers make scheduling a more manual process than others — and some even task dedicated, full-time staff members to handle scheduling — all rely on some type of metrics to aid in the process.
“We really focus on our daily alarm activity and phone data,” shares Damon Kanzler, senior vice president, centralized services and business operations at SES. “That helps us predict the staffing levels we need. We also continue to focus on growth to help as well. A few of the best practices SES has incorporated into its scheduling process are monthly reviews and getting rid of rotating shifts. The monthly review is really important because we look at alarm traffic and peak times to see if we need to adjust schedules. In the past, we also used to rotate shifts with associates, but we found that people like the predictability of set schedules for work/life balance and planning,” he says.
Shocknesse of CPI Security agrees that consistency is probably the most important practice to implement when it comes to monitoring center scheduling. “We learned long ago that the quickest way to get rid of an employee is to change their schedule around, putting them on all sorts of shifts and days. We try to be very consistent and transparent. As long as you let employees know their schedule ahead of time and they’re aware it won’t change dramatically, then it usually works very well,” Shocknesse says.
“We definitely look at the schedule, at the metrics and response times, as well as volume coming in and that historical data, but we also need to react live, in real time,” says Matt Majocka, monitoring center manager at Guardian Protection, Warrendale, Pa. He adds that though the company’s software will tell them when an employee is projected to take a break, for example, it’s important that the management team is constantly looking at the call queues and unexpected influx of alarms to manually adjust times accordingly. “We’ve got to be flexible in relation to that,” he says.
Filling in the Gaps
In addition, Jason Bradley, vice president, care and monitoring operations at Guardian Protection, says that though the company schedules for three distinct shifts, hours are slightly staggered to make sure performance levels don’t dip. “You should always avoid everyone leaving or arriving at the same time in the monitoring center because no matter what you try to do, your performance will suffer,” Bradley says.
While staggering shifts can help ensure performance consistency, other practices to tackle the complexity of staffing a 24-7 monitoring center include over-staffing, using on-call employees, or using part-time employees to cover gaps.
“We do over-staff so if one person calls in that’s not a big deal,” says Brandon Niles, director of operations at Acadian Monitoring Services, Lafayette, La. In addition, he says, about five years ago, the company began finding qualified part-time employees and relying on them to ramp up staffing and fill in scheduling holes. “We have a heavy part-time workforce, particularly on the video side, and it really comes in handy when it comes to staffing,” he explains.
Though unexpected wrenches can be thrown in any day of the year, overnight shifts and holidays can add an extra layer of complication. Monitoring centers incentivize employees with pay differentials for second and third shifts, holiday pay, and even celebrations, including hot, catered meals, decorations and costume contests.
“We have a ‘we’re all in this together’ approach when it comes to holidays,” says Bailey of AvantGuard Monitoring. “We’ll ask our team members to pick a holiday they prefer. It generally works out well that some want one day off and they’ll work another.”
Connecting With Staff
Though scheduling monitoring center employees may be one of the most complicated operations within a monitoring center, some companies embrace the challenge and look at the task as an opportunity to connect with staff and increase communication.
“We look for people that are open to shifting schedules,” Sonitrol’s Murphy says. “We don’t guarantee any schedules and we are very clear on that from day one and tell them to expect to work holidays and weekends. But we also stay in communication. When you allow people to see what they’re scheduled for ahead of time and allow employees to trade shifts if they need to, we find they’re really good about it.” She adds that the company expects employees to be flexible, but management also aims to be flexible back when needed. “It’s truly about communicating and setting expectations, and though scheduling can be a roller coaster and difficult at times, it becomes an opportunity to grow with your people. It’s a chance to connect with them and explain to them how much of a key part of the team they are.”
Rainbow at Rapid Response Monitoring says including employees in the scheduling process is an opportunity for management to relate to monitoring staff on a personal and professional level. Management has found that employees appreciate a set shift — and they try to include the monitoring employee in the conversation to determine those preferences. “From my experience, no individual is the same. Not everybody wants weekends or holidays off. We spend a lot of time understanding what is important to an employee, to understand their expectations and their preferences when it comes to scheduling,” he says. “This allows us to see everyone’s expectations and we find they usually fall within our needs.”
In the end, whether it’s recruiting, training, scheduling or all three processes, creating a sense of team and fostering a connection with other team members is crucial to garnering long-term, productive employees and achieving operational success.
“When you’re on a call in a difficult situation, an operator can feel like they’re on an island,” says Brady at TMA. “Knowing that you have a team in the room to offer perspective and help you through situations is absolutely key to what I think makes a good central station.”