This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue of Security Business Magazine. When sharing, don’t forget to mention Security Business Magazine on LinkedIn and @SecBusinessMag on Twitter.
After nearly 35 years as a security systems integrator, I thought I knew the office well and felt like a competent manager. I had experience in both sales and operations. I ran a well-run boutique: low project backlog, high customer satisfaction ratings, little to no inventory issues, high employee utilization rates, low employee turnover, and strong EBITDA. We were a well-oiled machine.
Over the past two plus years, as we dealt with the impacts of COVID-19, I realized I had no idea, and I’m just learning new ways to take care of our customers, employees and shareholders. I am convinced that I am not alone here.
The long list of new challenges is long, but there are two that seem to have had the most impact on our business: communication and inventory management.
Operating and doing business during a global pandemic is challenging but rewarding if you’re willing to learn new tricks and reinvent the way your team communicates, engages with your customer, and executes the current and future backlog.
I mean there is a light at the end of the tunnel, and COVID and global supply chain issues will be gone at some point; however, if the past two years have taught us anything, it’s to be prepared for the unexpected.
Let’s start with what happened two and a half years ago. We closed the office and sent everyone to work from home. Most of our clients have done the same.
Before that happened, if our customers had a problem, they would call the office, talk to the service coordinator or office manager, tell them what the problem was, and the team would take care of it. The service coordinator would walk down the hall, find out who was available, call the customer back, set up the schedule, and assign the technician. The technician would then travel to the customer’s site, meet with the customer, troubleshoot the problem with parts in stock, sitting on the truck or from the nearest supply store. The service would close the ticket, charge the customer, and the rest is history.
The main finding is that whatever the steps were, they were all routine, with the same steps being followed day after day without fail.
After years of doing things the same way, everyone in the chain of custody, customers and employees have understood what to expect. Plus, the necessary little things along the way that ensured success happened. The cafe talks about how some customers liked things, who the field technician had to coordinate with on site when they arrived, who had certain spare parts on their trucks or what on the store shelves were of public notoriety. People talked, we interacted, communicated, held staff coordination meetings, and had coffee or lunch with our customers. It was just the way things were done; being together in one place and talking was key to our success, and then it was gone. Looking back, we had no idea how important these little things were to the success of our business until we stopped doing them.
In today’s world, documenting the standard operating procedures required to serve and support our customers to achieve the same level of customer satisfaction as in the past is an absolute requirement.
Often the person reporting the problem only has part of the information. They are not on site and often will not be there when the technician arrives. In some cases no one will be there, so it is essential that whoever is sent knows the location of critical equipment such as the headend, power supplies and IT equipment. System maps, schematics, and other proprietary system information should be readily available to the technician prior to arriving on site. This same level of documentation is required after the call to ensure that everything done during the call is electronically captured for presentation to the customer as part of the closing process. Ultimately, everything has become very electronic and automated, and if not done correctly can cause significant problems internally and for customers.
Forgetting the little things in today’s world often leads to misinformation or an upset customer because things weren’t done at their request. Indeed they were, but the information was not captured and presented correctly. There’s a big difference between telling someone about what happened and how you fixed their problem or putting it in writing in a way they clearly understand and understand. Everyone in the food chain is learning a new way of doing things, and that takes time and patience, which we don’t have much of anymore as we’re all inundated with requests for Teams meetings or Zoom meetings.
Now the elephant in the room: Spare parts and inventory. For all my years, inventory was frowned upon, and in the C-Suite, it was a four-letter word. No one in their right mind wanted safety equipment on shelves, whether in the store or on a technician’s vehicle.
Stocking distributors took full advantage of this philosophy and sold on the benefits of stocking orders and just-in-time inventory, with the added benefit of counter sales. If you need it, we have it. Look at us! No messy list, no warranty issues, problem solved.
Fast forward to today, and what I wouldn’t give to have multiple varieties of CCTV cameras or a stack of access control proximity readers sitting around the store.
The good news is that backlogs have never been higher than they are today. Yet without the parts needed to get the job done, you can’t get the job started, you can’t keep your team busy, and you can’t create the regular revenue and profits needed to satisfy shareholders. This impacts every aspect of our business and not in a good way.
Unfortunately, integrators must quickly figure out how to deal with this massive problem because specific parts are simply not available. In some cases, the manufacturer or friendly stocking distributor who sold you on just-in-time inventory or over-the-counter sales can’t even provide expected ship dates. What is the answer?
Let’s start again with communication. It is essential to communicate with customers and let them know what is going on. In some cases, bringing the manufacturer into the conversation will soften the blow and add credibility to the message that the plastic shortage, the chip shortage crisis, and the impact that COVID has had on the supply chain are real and won’t be going away anytime soon.
Proper planning of current projects, future projects on the board, and standardization on specific hardware allows the savviest integration companies to place storage orders or advance equipment orders with their preferred cast.
The best news is that several more progressive storage distributors work closely with their integration partners on equipment orders in advance and will hold inventory for them until everything arrives for the project. Another trick could be to place orders for the same equipment with several distributors simultaneously.
The inventory issue is so hot that the integrator will need the inventory and can do an internal cost transfer to another project, or the distributor will take it back without restocking fees and fill another order.
The other strategy here is to research alternative sources for the same security device or a similar security device, depending on the use case. Many head-end systems are open to multiple technology manufacturers, and open standards such as ONVIF have opened the door for manufacturers to mix and match technologies, especially with some of the advanced VMS options available.
On the home access control side, shortages and delays on equipment from one of the largest vendors are having a massive impact on the market. Yet this one is much harder to solve, because high-assurance access cards from specific manufacturers don’t work well with others.
Depending on the particular access card format used, there are other manufacturers of access control readers. Some of them have substantial inventory, so it just takes some engineering and testing to determine if there is a solution that works.
Rob Hile is the Florida Branch Manager for integrator GC&E Systems Group and is a veteran of more than 30 years in the security industry, serving in various leadership positions with integrators and manufacturers.