What people missed most during the pandemic was being able to freely interface with other human beings as they were accustomed, without the interference of masking and/or distancing. The availability and swift ubiquity of interfaces facilitating video communications and meetings helped enormously but were merely a stopgap rather than substitute.
Now, as life and work begin returning to “normal,” thousands of commercial security and technology customers coast to coast are thankful they had another interface helping them through historically challenging times — Interface Security Systems.
Founded more than a quarter-century ago and headquartered within the St. Louis metro area, Interface is a leading, complete nationwide provider of recurring revenue-based managed security, network connectivity, unified communications as a service (UCaaS) and business intelligence solutions to distributed enterprises.
Best known for the robust interactive video monitoring capabilities gained from the 2012 acquisition of Westec, in 2021 the company reported 37% growth and landed $60 million in equity investing. Interface serves around 65,000 customer locations, with a strong foothold in the retail market that includes Michaels, Swatch, Kay Jewelers, Applebee’s and Panda Express.
“It’s always been important that Interface customers have a personalized experience,” says Senior Vice President of Marketing Sunita Mani. “We want to keep that same experience as we grow and scale our business. That’s why our motto centers around delivering relentless customer support, which we extend to every department that touches the customer with specific metrics to track performance. If you create an environment internally where people feel valued and they’re part of something, that translates into that kind of special customer experience.”
SSI spoke with Mani, COO Brent Duncan and Senior Vice President of Enterprise Security Sean Foley to find out how the company improves security, streamlines connectivity and optimizes operations to maximize ROI for the nation’s top brands. Also discussed are pandemic impacts and outcomes, in-demand technologies and services, and emerging market opportunities.
How has the pandemic impacted and affected your customer relationships?
Brent Duncan: We saw a disproportionately high impact on our customer base, given that we’re dealing so much with consumer-facing organizations. We have a large customer base within retail that was heavily affected by the pandemic. A good portion of that customer base is mall-based, even further impacted.
Back in early 2020, there was a lot of uncertainty and so we quickly dug in with our customers to understand how we could support them, how we could support their sites, really understand what their strategy was, their game plan, so we could align and be a good partner as this whole thing unfolded.
On the other hand, we also saw some of our customer base gain traction as a result of the pandemic situation, like quick-serve restaurants. They really saw an increase in business because people were doing a lot of take-home, not dining in. That led to significant technology adoption.
There are services in our portfolio that allow organizations to leverage technology for curbside. You can also think about using technology and voice-downs for enforcement of pandemic protocols, social distancing, mask-wearing, things like that.
We’re now seeing a significant emergence of using business intelligence to optimize the customer experience for people in-store, whereas prior to the pandemic that was more in a discussion stage. People had scratched their head about actual implementation.
The pandemic, ultimately, drastically increased tech adoption. The focus turned to leveraging new technology, video, anything in-store to drive awareness on customer experience or to create convenience as a result of some of the issues from the pandemic. We were excited to partner with our customers to help navigate that and figure it out. We have a number of services that have emerged directly out of the COVID situation.
Sean Foley: Coming out of COVID, now more than ever, the days of a business checking the box with respect to CCTV and an intrusion alarm and just being done with it are very much over. Our clients — which tend to be larger-scale retailers, QSR organizations, relatively sophisticated asset protection, loss prevention departments — want a lot more out of their solutions.
Whether that is ensuring that they’re not getting false alarms and integrating the video solution with alarms, dealing more directly with the rise in ORC and organized retail crime, shoplifting, they’re demanding that. They’re wanting to get more out of their security investment, and that’s what we’re providing.
Sunita Mani: Yes, we are seeing increased demand in security services, video analytics and focusing on the underlying network that needs to support these applications. That’s where we come in as well.
To what extent do you have in-house IT and network expertise to serve customers?
Duncan: We have a full network engineering organization here. From a monitoring standpoint, we divide security operations, monitoring, physical security operations monitoring as well as our video monitoring, and then our network operations center. Our NOC and network engineering group handles everything security-based or managing the underlying network, the WAPs, the routers, switches, all of that equipment, supporting the network, monitoring everything, broadband, voice, everything that fits into that network component.
Then we have a separate organization from a monitoring standpoint associated with physical security, video, alarms and the like. We have an extensive team in-house, on staff. Managing 65,000-70,000 sites across North America requires a great deal of depth and expertise on each of these product disciplines.
What lessons were learned operationally from the pandemic that you’re carrying forward?
Duncan: One of the biggest impacts has centered on supply chain, a significant and ongoing challenge. The days of just-in-time inventory are history. This has required us to have a much higher level of coordination and planning internally within our ops and sales teams, and with customers and vendors around fulfillment. We’ve done a lot of preordering, anticipated ordering based on business from customers and feedback we’re getting on their growth.
Internally, the pandemic ended up being an opportunity culturally for the organization to rally and understand the challenges of both our employees and customers. We think about disruption in terms of business, but this was a massive disruption to people’s lives. It was important to respond in a way that was thoughtful to our employees, reimagining working conditions, working remotely, flexibility, sharing the responsibilities across teams.
The most difficult things in life are those you look back on and see how they improved your outlook and approach. That’s definitely true with us as an organization culturally and it’s allowed us to build stronger bonds with our customers because we were arm-in-arm dealing with these challenges.
Foley: Out of COVID we’ve noticed with acute poignancy how the retail market has changed. The storefronts look the same, but retail is a much more vulnerable place for both the employee and the consumer than pre-COVID. There’s more risk of violence. We see it on TV and social media every day, more risk to assets with respect to shoplifting and organized retail crime, and more risk due to retailers’ difficulty fully staffing up.
You’ve got more exposure because you don’t have as many bodies, and they’re trying to do more with less. That creates opportunities for an organization like Interface to protect and also compensate for some of those changes on the P&L with security solutions.
Mani: There’s been a big companywide transformation initiative around our own technology platform, where we’ve adopted Oracle. We’re going through evaluating how each set of departments that touch the customer and how we can transform it so that the customer experience is seamless. One of the large differentiators as a service provider is how personalized and empathetic you can be toward the customer and what they’re going through. It’s been a key learning process where we’ve evaluated the technology stack across our organization.
What are some specific technologies or services implemented as a result of the pandemic?
Foley: One of our solutions is virtual guard where we use live two-way audio and video monitoring. That operation’s been around a long time but for the first time we had customers asking things like, “Can you make an announcement, say every hour, about social distancing? Can you deal with that for us? Can you make an announcement on an automated fashion every 15 minutes for mask-wearing? If you log into our video and see somebody not complying with one of those mandates, can you make a general announcement?”
We did a lot in direct response to the pandemic, particularly as it pertains to our virtual guard monitoring solution, where we can interact directly with our clients’ store environments. We then had an uptick in demand for business analytics solutions.
That’s been anything from, “Hey, I need to know how many folks are in my store at any given time. Of the number of folks in my store, how many of those are converting into an actual sale? How long are people waiting online? If they are waiting online, are folks bailing out of line because they get frustrated? What displays are they spending the most time at?” etc.
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