Central stations can face a bevy of challenges to staffing their call centers with quality applicants who not only must display particular personality profiles, but a strong devotion to customer care as well. And that’s just for starters.
Ahead, we delve into the strategic approaches and real-world experiences of several monitoring center executives and managers, who shed light on identifying the best candidates, mastering onboarding processes, and fostering a culture that retains top-tier talent. Additionally, they discuss their views on the effectiveness of work-from-home policies in an industry necessarily built around centralized operations.
Talent Supply & Demand Dynamics
Monitoring centers are deploying a diverse array of strategies to address the ongoing challenges of talent supply and demand, with employee referrals emerging as a cornerstone method for tapping into networks and attracting qualified candidates.
Brek Grover, central station manager, Peak Alarm Co., Salt Lake City, comments the talent pool in the company’s service area currently seems to “ebb and flow.” The company, which was named SDM 2023 Dealer of the Year, is able to fill positions within its central station, but nevertheless the smaller pools of talent has slowed the hiring and onboarding processes.
“Immediately after COVID we had an influx of people looking for work, but that seems to be slowing down and it is becoming more difficult to find qualified folks,” he says. “We are noticing a decrease in the number of applications for open positions which translates to fewer interviews and smaller pools of eligible and qualified candidates.”
Peak Alarm is currently finding that most of its new team members found the company on Indeed or were referred by a current team member. The company also pursues a philosophy to always be in hiring mode and perpetually accepts applications and conducts interviews.
“We feel that by always looking for talented folks, we are able to strengthen the company as a whole by providing advancement opportunities to current team members in either the central station or in other departments within the company,” Grover says. “It gives us more flexibility in our scheduling. We also find that it affords us the ability to make personnel changes without the fear of being short of personnel, which can be detrimental to operations.”
In the past couple of years, the market has definitely been more challenging and competitive to recruit potential candidates, says Kathryn Schultz, marketing and events manager, United Central Control (UCC), San Antonio. That’s especially tough in a 24-hour call center environment where shift work, working weekends and holidays is required but not attractive to Gen Z, who desire remote work and flexible schedules.
“Salary minimums have increased, and there are ‘hiring now’ signs all around town,” Schultz says. “Potential qualified candidates have a lot more choices to choose from. For us, it’s consistent recruiting efforts along with employee referrals that help us to fill available positions.”
UCC uses online job boards such as Indeed and has an ad running consistently throughout the year. Interoffice recruiting is also done as the company has multiple locations where existing employees have the opportunity to relocate if qualified.
“Employee referral is one of our more successful forms of recruiting,” Schultz says. “We have a bonus program that allows employees to benefit if they refer a candidate who is hired and remains employed for a specific period in the first year.”
The market for qualified candidates has definitely tightened when compared to pre-COVID, says Steve Mayer, vice president, operations and administration, Emergency24, Des Plaines, Ill. “Hiring has gotten a little better in the past six months, but it is still not as good as it was,” he adds. “Retention of new employees has also been a challenge. We now hire 20 percent to 30 percent more than we need so we can meet our operational targets as we grow.”
Caroline Brown, president, Security Central, Statesville, N.C., explains the company has become more agile in adapting to fit the needs of those looking for employment because job candidates now hold more leverage than prior to the pandemic.
“Most of us can drive down the street and see signs for sign-on bonuses, lofty starting rates, and let’s not forget the remote work positions,” she says. “All of those factors have greatly impacted those who are willing to even apply for a 24/7/365 position.”
Quite frankly, we’re very bullish about the talent pool right now for both of our monitoring centers. It is exciting to see candidates come back through the door again.”
— JASON BRADLEY, Guardian Protection
In order to differentiate from similar positions in the market — something beyond a hiring starting rate — Brown says the company is relying heavily on hiring candidates who fit the company’s core values and want an employer offering a growth path. Promoting from within whenever possible is also key for Security Central, she says. During the pandemic, the company created a new role, corporate recruiter, which Brown describes as having been tremendously successful, allowing the company to keep a steady stream of candidates available for its monitoring center training classes and other opportunities.
“When you are receiving hundreds of applications on LinkedIn, Glassdoor, etc. it’s important to have the right screening process and eliminate candidates who do not align with our mission and values,” she says. “Our recruiter expanded our employment search beyond those [online platforms] and attends local career fairs; publishes open positions with the Chamber of Commerce in surrounding areas; and we offer a referral program to our existing team, one of my favorite avenues of hiring talent.”
Guardian Protection — with monitoring centers at its Warrendale, Pa., headquarters and a second facility in Butler, Pa. — has seen a “very positive, dynamic shift to back to being able to hire again,” says COO Jason Bradley.
“Quite frankly, we’re very bullish about the talent pool right now for both of our monitoring centers. It is exciting to see candidates come back through the door again,” he says. “We are seeing both markets simultaneously pick up. It’s good to see people wanting to get back into the marketplace, and more importantly, good people as well.”
Following the outbreak of COVID-19 and ensuing lockdowns, UL released a set of guidelines for the monitoring of alarm systems from a home. These guidelines were established within UL 827 as a temporary solution to what was believed then would be necessary only until the pandemic abated.
While some wholesale central stations and dealer-operated monitoring centers used the guidelines to set up call center staffers in their homes, others adopted additional safety procedures in their facilities to continue onsite processing of alarm signals.
Because of the success with instituting work-from-home policies, some organizations advocate permanently modifying UL 827 to allow remote monitoring during normal times. Others remain vehemently opposed to the idea over data privacy concerns and safeguarding other technical aspects to processing and handling alarm signals.
“Using remote staff during COVID allowed us to maintain our commitment to our customers,” says John Shocknesse, vice president of customer operations, CPI Security, Charlotte, N.C. “We continue to have the same ability to leverage remote work when circumstances require it.”
Post-COVID, there are no contact center roles at CPI that are hired as remote work. It is only used as an option to flex or augment staff or in the event that a weather event may impact the ability for employees to come on site. In the event of an emergency situation, each supervisor, team lead and the manager have the equipment necessary to be deployed remotely.
“While we stand ready to deploy several members of our staff if and when necessary, we’ve found that most of our team wants to work in person,” Shocknesse says. “We built a state-of-the-art facility that includes amenities like an onsite fitness facility with strength, conditioning, and nutrition coaching, as well as an on-site restaurant that includes company-subsidized food made by an executive chef. … We’ve found that our employees enjoy the amenities and culture at CPI far more than working remotely.”
Security Central created a hybrid work program for its customer service and data entry team, along with its developers on the IT staff. To be eligible for remote work, employees must qualify with a minimum length of service, no errors within the last quarter (internally or externally reported) and complete a remote work training program to ensure the integrity of service is upheld off campus.
“If there are any concerns surrounding an employee, he or she must return to campus full time,” says Caroline Brown of Security Central.
The majority of Security Central’s positions, including the dispatch center, are not eligible for remote work. And while those employees who are able to work remotely love the opportunity, Brown says she is not the biggest fan of remote work.
“You lose out on brainstorming and mind-sharing opportunities, not to mention the friendly competition. When you see someone striving to achieve a promotion or solve a complicated problem, most often other team members join in and are motivated alongside that person,” she says. “Being siloed at home, you lose the social aspect necessary to develop a relationship with your colleagues and customers. There are numerous processes we have developed simply because people worked in an open environment and questioned why someone was doing something in a particular fashion leading to a new, more efficient solution.”
Jim McMullen of COPS Monitoring states plainly he also is not a proponent of dispatchers working from home, and therefore all call center employees remain situated at the company’s UL listed monitoring centers.
“The job they perform as a lifeline to millions of homes, businesses and institutions is far too important to risk by rolling the dice on the numerous variables that can affect a remote work environment; all of which can compromise security and service levels,” he says. “With that said, the workforce is changing, and technology makes some WFH possible. Therefore, we do have a very limited number of non-dispatch WFH employees in other support positions.”
Dynamark Monitoring is almost exclusively an in-office company, with dispatch staff working from home, explains Trey Alter. “We believe we work better when we are together. The ability to brainstorm, troubleshoot, and have quick conversations will never be matched by Zoom.”
Alter believes remote work has a place in the company’s businesses, but it is not a replacement for gathering as a team each day. The company does have a handful of non-dispatch team members working remotely; however, they all live too far from a physical office and instead serve roles in the field.
“I am just not ready to concede that a truly great company can be comprised of a bunch of people working out of their spare bedrooms,” he adds. “So much of the magic in creating something together as a team is lost this way.”
Jason Bradley of Guardian Protection feels similarly. The company’s monitoring center team members, whom he refers to as “protection specialists” continued to work onsite throughout the pandemic.
“We didn’t do it during COVID. We don’t do it now. Honestly, it’s not something that’s on our roadmap for the future. We believe that while there were certain functions throughout the company that we moved to remote work through COVID, we firmly believe from a monitoring standpoint that we are more efficient, more effective in office,” Bradley says. “Our team — I am so proud of them — accepted this 100 percent. They absolutely know their mission. And we had no turnover during COVID due to this decision.”
While Guardian Protection prefers CareerBuilder over LinkedIn when casting a net for candidates specifically for its monitoring centers, Bradley says the company actually receives a fair amount of direct applicants through its own website.
“Guardian is a known quality in the area. But we also get a lot of referrals, which is super important to us because we really stress to our team, refer people who you want to work with,” he says. “And that’s not always the person that maybe you want to hang out with. The person that you work with may be entirely different. Internal referrals is really our bread and butter right now.”
Woodie Andrawos, president, National Monitoring Center (NMC), Lake Forest, Calif., notes the rapid pace of change in the alarm industry is greatly impacting staffing in general. Consider the increasing adoption across the industry for automation, artificial intelligence and its subsets, as well as increasing demand for more intelligent services.
“We are looking to fill positions that are more technical than they have been before. Operators, for example, might need to be trained on remote video monitoring and PVM (proactive video monitoring) response,” he says. “That takes much more time to invest than when the industry was more simplified in its approach. The job market right now is challenging, although better than a year ago; but we are investing in training and recruitment to find the ideal people to meet our standards.”
NMC leverages various channels to attract potential employees. Its approach includes using online job boards, industry-specific job platforms and professional networking sites. The company also engages in targeted outreach through industry events, conferences, and collaborations with educational institutions that offer relevant programs. These avenues have proven effective in identifying new talent for monitoring stations, Andrawos says.
“Digital channels, like social media and content marketing, are also important as they give us the opportunity to highlight our work culture and job openings to prospective candidates,” he adds. “To gauge the effectiveness of our recruitment strategies, we regularly evaluate performance and collect feedback from applicants to ensure we’re meeting the mark.”
Strategies for Assessing Cultural Alignment
How companies go about assessing job candidates on whether or not they would be a good cultural fit can be an especially critical exercise for monitoring centers. Identifying those persons with the values and personalities that align well with a life-safety mission is paramount.
“This is a tough question to answer because it is both proprietary and extremely complex,” says Jim McMullen, president, COPS Monitoring, Williamstown, N.J. “To simplify, we can train anyone how to go through the motions but to be successful, a dispatcher must possess a whole host of personality traits such as empathy, a sense of duty, the desire to help others, and a professional demeanor, just to name a few.”
The challenge with identifying these traits for the company, McMullen adds, is they are monitoring experts — not psychologists.
“So, decades ago, we hired an industrial psychologist trained in identifying and matching personality traits with specific jobs,” he continues, “The industrial psychologist also helped us design our training, recognition and rewards programs.”
On the question of whether previous call center experience routinely makes a person a good fit in a monitoring center environment, McMullen answers emphatically, no.
“Potentially? Perhaps. Having call center experience may show that a candidate is comfortable providing customer service over the phone,” he adds, “but I’m confident it doesn’t prepare them for the types of situations they’re going to encounter by providing life-safety services.”
In fact, all sources interviewed for this story essentially expressed that an applicant with call center experience does not necessarily give them a leg up on other candidates who have never stepped inside a call center.
“The biggest red flag, for me personally, is when someone has transitioned from a call center and listed a negative reason for leaving,” Brown says. “If a candidate is willing to negatively discuss their previous employer, they are not a fit at Security Central. Why? If something does not go perfectly, then it will be us the person is referring to in the next interview. No company is perfect, and we all have our challenges; however, there is always a professional route to discuss your exit from a previous employer.”
Security Central has an initial screening process for applicants to determine if the position he or she has applied for is a fit, Brown explains. Within the screening process the company uses tools, such as Predictive Index, which measures behavioral drives and cognitive ability, to determine if the candidate would be successful in the role. PI is coupled with other qualifiers such as a phone screening and empathy metrics.
We feel that by always looking for talented folks, we are able to strengthen the company as a whole by providing advancement opportunities to current team members in either the central station or in other departments within the company.”
— BREK GROVER, Peak Alarm Co.
“It is important to note we are continuously developing our process to ensure we are offering the highest qualified talent the open positions,” Brown says. “What was successful six months ago does not always translate to successful hiring today because the market is adapting and changing rapidly.”
Dynamark Monitoring, Hagerstown, Md., also utilizes specialized testing for many positions to assess a candidate’s innate strengths for alignment with its own needs, explains Trey Alter, president.
“This is really step one in the process and quickly shrinks the pool of applicants. Just because someone wants to work at Dynamark does not mean they have the skills to help move us forward,” he says. “Once testing is complete we review their past work history, phone screen them, and then have an in-depth interview or two. Our process takes time but we have really refined it to yield the best results.”
UCC uses a three-part assessment to identify job applicants who align with the company’s values and life-safety mission. It begins with the application itself, Schultz says.
“The application process eliminates unqualified candidates if they are unable to pass a background check or work a rotation schedule, weekends or holidays. If they get past the application process, and are contacted for an interview, based on their responsiveness and communication, that will determine if they are qualified for the last step, which is an in-person interview,” she says. “During the in-person interview, we design our questions to ascertain if their values align with our company core values.”
Of course, many variables can be at play in the application process at Guardian Protection as well, but for Bradley the real focus is having the applicant address a particular question: Tell me about yourself.
“It is the opening question. Wherever you want to take it. Just tell me about yourself. Because if you can’t talk about yourself, it’s going to be difficult,” he says. “Typically, you are finding out what sort of person they are, what their passions are, how they can communicate. And in relationship to those passions, you can see the smile on their face, their hand gestures; just how are they going to be able to interact with other people. That’s what we’re looking for. … It helps us determine are they a caring individual that’s going to look after other people?”
Bradley explains the people who have been successful in Guardian’s monitoring centers come from all walks of life, many of whom may not have gone on to college after high school.
Subject matter experts interviewed for this story provide additional insights on strategies to create a positive workplace and foster teamwork among employees.
“We plan a lot of events both onsite and offsite. Having an opportunity to connect with one another in a personal setting creates stronger relationships. We are also very fortunate that we go to work each day and help make the world a safer place. There is something very powerful and magnetic about working collectively towards such a worthy goal. — Trey Alter, Dynamark Monitoring
“We prioritize a flexible work environment that supports work-life balance, contributing to overall employee well-being. By consistently reinforcing these values and providing opportunities for shared experiences, we create a cohesive and supportive work culture where teamwork thrives, leading to increased job satisfaction and a more productive, unified team.” — Woodie Andrawos, NMC
“We are constantly trying to engage our staff. A large part of who we are is giving back to our community. We regularly have charity drives for school supplies, clothing, food, and other needed items to ensure children in our area participating in The Boys and Girls Club or Power Cross have a bright future ahead. We also have fun competitions, like battles for perfect attendance, to keep people motivated.” — Caroline Brown, Security Central
“We reward and acknowledge people for doing excellent work. We have employees that have been with us for 30 to 45 years and we have brand new folks who see and hear how well we treat employees. The proof is in our average longevity, but also that we have a lot of boomerang employees — folks who left Emergency24 and then return. I love boomerang employees because they demonstrate that we treat folks well.” — Steve Mayer, Emergency24
“We know that incentivized, engaged and motivated employees want to do a good job for our dealers and their customers! We have programs such as Club 6, Alarming U., and Operations Management Retreats, which are all designed to help promote continued interest in learning and peak performance. These events and retreats are meticulously planned experiences with 5-Star accommodations and include a guest.” — Jim McMullen, COPS Monitoring
“We offer employees a suggestions box so they have a voice to be heard. These suggestions range from the type of coffee and chairs the company provides to suggestions on how to improve standard operating procedures and quality of services to time savings. We utilize many different opportunities to engage employees in the workplace for employee appreciation events to allow for fun down time and team building.” — Kathryn Schultz, UCC
“People in the service industries do wonderfully well. They’re transitioning out of that tip-based system and moving to a more professional job,” he explains. “The commonalities between being a server and working in the monitoring center are actually quite abundant. And those abundances are you have got to make a very quick impression, because monitoring calls are very quick.”
Crafting an Effective Onboarding Experience
Sources for this story explain the onboarding process is crucial as it sets the tone for a new hire’s entire employment experience, providing essential orientation, information and support to help them integrate smoothly into the organization.
At Emergency24, the onboarding for operations starts with a minimum of an eight-week training period. The company uses a mixture of training methods to help with all learning styles, but the highly supervised, on-the-job experience with trainers and mentors is the biggest help, Mayer says.
“We use several tests to ensure new operations employees are grasping and are able to apply the material. We use this as a quality filter as well to ensure we have the right people in the rights seats,” he says.
Once an employee passes their full ops test, Emergency24 continues the coaching and guiding. The team members are then moved into a quality assurance bonus program and are given very regular feedback on their performance and rewarded for excellence.
The onboarding process varies by position at Dynamark, where dispatchers spend two weeks in classroom training, and then have a 90-day program where they learn skills in phases. They move to a trainer to assist them and have a training program they must complete within 90 days. After they complete the first 90 days they graduate and are cleared to work solo. They are then put on a self-directed track where they can utilize the company’s continuing education program to attain more designations, certifications, and merit increases.
“It is critical to have a very well-defined program to help set expectations for new team members,” Alter says. “New hires want to feel that you are investing in them and care about their success. Companies who just turn them loose without a structured program will see very high turnover.”
The onboarding process for new hires at NMC comprises three distinct phases designed to equip agents with comprehensive skills and knowledge. First, over 90 days, new agents undergo foundational training delivered through in-class training at the NMC Training Academy. This initial period includes interactive learning experiences using alarm simulators, providing hands-on practice to reinforce their understanding.
Phase two consists of a six-month continuous education process. The focus intensifies refining call-taking abilities, enhancing customer service proficiency, mastering dispute resolution techniques and fostering practical communication skills.
Phase three extends the learning journey to a 12-month continued education phase, concentrating on advanced training modules. Throughout each stage, assessments, feedback from management, and targeted skills courses are integrated to identify and address any areas of improvement, ensuring a comprehensive and adaptive onboarding experience for NMC’s new hires.
“The emphasis on mentorship, hands-on training and peer connections fosters a sense of belonging and engagement,” Andrawos says. “This not only accelerates their integration but also enhances job satisfaction and commitment. A well-rounded onboarding experience contributes to employees feeling equipped, supported, and aligned with NMC’s mission, significantly reducing turnover and promoting long-term success within our dynamic environment.”
At the core of COPS’ onboarding and ongoing training process is a proprietary 18-month, six-level gradation program. The basic growth premise is “up or out,” explains McMullen, adding, “We want only to cultivate people who are interested in becoming experts in their field to serve our dealers’ and their customers. At COPS, there is no room for complacency; we only want people who want to continually move forward and strive for excellence.”
The system is also designed to identify those who need extra assistance to succeed and to weed out those who will never succeed. This can only be achieved with rigorous training, regular feedback, and extensive testing, McMullen explains.
“We feel our training program is the most comprehensive in the industry and we’ve been able to corroborate this idea through the acquisition of 14 competitors over the years,” he adds. “Acquiring other companies gives us unique insight into their operations, including employee onboarding.”
A thorough onboarding process and continuing dialogue once the person has transitioned to his or her department helps ensure a lower attrition rate, Brown says. Call centers can prove difficult and are historically known for high turnover rates. However, with continued investment in the employees by coaching, training and continually vocalizing the standard level of expectation, those high turnover rates can be mitigated, she explains.
“Invest in your team. If you create avenues for employees to reach milestones growing with your company, I believe they are more likely to stay with you,” Brown says. “Whether you help with education costs, industry-related training to receive a new pay bracket, or leadership training to develop young professionals, employees want to be part of an inclusive work environment with paths to succeed beyond their hiring point.”
“We talk about this a great deal,” Bradley says of Guardian’s overall retention strategy. “It is a thousand things because if you have a retention strategy that comprises, say, three or four or five items, they may relate to 20 percent, 40 percent of the workforce. What you have to do is develop a culture that’s doing so much constantly that you’re doing something that connects, eventually, with everybody.”
Among culture-building activities at Guardian Protection, for example, are monthly competitions in which the winners are recognized with different prizes every month. And it’s not always gift cards. Oftentimes, it may be an activity or an outing that involves the employees inviting a significant other or family members to participate as well.
“Other things that we do that are very monitoring center-related is we review calls that are brought to our attention through multiple ways,” Bradley explains. “We will honor a protection specialist — that’s what we call our folks who work in the monitoring center — with a Hero Award. We send that announcement out to the entire company and let people know that Bill did this or Jane did that and here’s a comment from the customer about their actions. We recognize their contribution.”
Retaining employees for longevity once onboard at Peak Alarm involves striving to develop a fun but professional culture that values team members and end users, Grover explains.
“We offer continuing education opportunities through The Monitoring Association and internal proprietary programs, great pay and flexible schedules, which are ideal for students,” he says. “We offer both full and part time positions. We put a great deal of emphasis on team member morale and hold team member events throughout the year to team build and inspire.”
Peak Alarm supervisors are empowered at the shift level to plan and execute activities with their teams to build great relationships, Grover adds. “We continually strive to create and maintain a culture where happy people do great work to ensure that our customers always win,” he says. “We believe that happy people do great work.”