Online comparison shopping for home alarm systems

Alarm dealers, listen up! If you think customers aren't shopping around before they call your company and ask for a quote, you need to wake up. I've been spending time these past two weeks testing and examining some online sites that are designed to help consumers compare alarm system prices and features, and I think the information I saw as a consumer is useful for you!

The alarm system comparison shopper's site

The first one I want to make you aware of is LocalPrice.com, which is a fairly new Atlanta-based website that is spreading across the United States, hitting the major markets. They list providers with a great deal of information on the features and options consumers can select for their alarm system. For example, you can compare a big national firm where you get $33.99 per month and just two door or window contacts against an independent firm like a small local dealer, where you can pay only $15.95 monthly and get 3 door or window contacts. What's really informative is that LocalPrice provides the total 3-year cost (most alarm contracts are set for 3 years), which adds in the installation cost (yes, they publish it!) and monthly monitoring charges to give consumers the real cost over that period.

LocalPrice.com loads in quite a bit of information, letting customers know whether they need to have a landline, and whether you can get all sorts of other monitoring options besides "burg". LocalPrice.com's Rob Shields tells me he's finding that alarm dealers really love the amount of information that's on the site, because they can get fairly detailed in comparing themselves to the competition. Of course, it doesn't offer any info on current specials, so consumers are comparing base prices, not the sales push of the month. The big national chains always seem to be running a "Free Installation" special in my neighborhood, and those specials are important to customers, but you won't find that info here, although LocalPrice's founder Rob Shields says he has a goal to add that information to the website in a few months.

One question any consumer might have when doing online shopping is whether there's any validity to the data that's listed for comparison purposes. We've all been to the websites where you find that great price on a consumer good, and when you go to check out, you find that it's not exactly the deal they pitched. I asked Shields about what checks and balances he has in place to ensure the comparison information isn't bogus, especially since the companies put the information in themselves. Here's what he said: "We do an editorial check. If something sounds too good to be true, we can e-mail the company and make them verify it. But the best form of verification is having their competitors look at them. We have the law on our side, since FTC regulates advertising and applies truth-in-advertising laws."

Additionally, Shields said that he plans to put in place a consumer-driven checks-and-balance tool in the form of reviews. "We are going to add reviews in a few months. So if they are misleading, that will be reflected in the customer's reviews [of the alarm dealer], such as if they list one price for monitoring but that actually requires a longer contract than they list to get that monthly price."

Listings on the site are free for alarm dealers, though eventually they plan to sell preferred placement even as they continue to offer free listings. (Speaking of free listings, get over to the SecurityInfoWatch.com buyer's guide and list yourself for free here as well. We are more focused on security products than alarm systems, but you can certainly add your company.)

The bids model as a lead generator: ServiceMagic and BuyerZone

Of course, using the web for comparison shopping is nothing new. Companies like Orbitz, Hotwire, Travelocity and Priceline have been doing that for travelers for a number of years. And to some extent, we've seen that happen over at sites like ServiceMagic.com, where a potential alarm customer can fill in a request for information on an alarm system. At ServiceMagic, they have a fairly detailed information request list, so that you as alarm dealers would know whether you're bidding on a "2 windows and a door" type of project for an existing home, or a high-end system going into new construction. The consumer can even tell you where they want their keypads. The consumers fill out all the information, including what sort of timeframe they have for the project, and then they are matched with companies that ServiceMagic has partnerships with. To test out the system, I put in a request for a basic monitored home security system. After completing all the info, ServiceMagic.com came back with this response: "Your request has been successfully submitted. We're matching your project with prescreened pros and will notify you by email when we confirm their availability."

The downside to ServiceMagic's model is that it's really just a leads generator for affiliated companies, and consumers don't know who exactly is getting the bid information beyond the ones that respond. Secondly, there's a delay of information in that you have to wait for someone from one of their bidding companies to respond before you have any information on what the cost might be. In today's environment of instant access to information, that could be frustrating for consumers (caveat: It's not instant, but it's pretty quick – keep reading to see my discussion on the response to my request). The plus side is that your information gets handed to a salesperson who, if they're worth anything, will speak to you about your home and exactly what you need. While comparing 2 windows and a door might be suitable for base prices, most homeowners have unique attributes to their home (the big wall of windows facing their back deck, the fact that they never use the front door – only the side door, etc.) that make "stock system" pricing a bit of a challenge.

In the end, ServiceMagic seems to be the kind of site for customers who are willing to share a little information about their home over the web and in return they get to be lazy by having the alarm system suitors come to them. It's a different model from LocalPrice, which expects the consumer to do the research themselves (admittedly, they do make the research part of the equation quite easy). I had two calls within two hours from some reputable home security firms after putting in my bid, and someone from ServiceMagic even called to verify my request, and noted that they pre-screen their alarm dealers to make sure they are certified/licensed in the state they intend to operate. One of the calls was even from the head of marketing for a regional alarm systems company, so my request was going straight to the top! As a would-be consumer, this felt pretty good, even if I wasn't seeing rates from everyone.

Alarm dealers who join ServiceMagic.com pay for the leads they receive, though if you want, you can try out the service for 10 days for free according to their website.

Similar to ServiceMagic is BuyerZone.com. It also operates like a bidding lead generator, and within an hour after putting in my request, I had an email from BuyerZone giving me contact information for ADT and Broadview. A week later, I still had not received any calls from any companies offering to give me a bid, and since the contact information that BuyerZone provide was only for the company headquarters and not their local dealers, I didn't expect I would hear quickly. This one is still up in the air, but it has promise, especially because it does offer consumer ratings of the companies. ADT had over 6,500 ratings, and Broadview had over 1,700 ratings. The only challenge seemed to be that I was pitching a home security system in a major residential market (Atlanta), but only had info for the two national players. The question I had was for BuyerZone was this: Where are all the local alarm dealers?

A confusing and questionable site

Also on my list to checkout was HomeAlarmDirectory.com, a site I only recently became aware of after receiving a press release on a news wire. It touts itself as "America's #1 alarm systems directory", and says it gives "free online alarm quotes from ADT, Brinks Home Alarm and APX." As an industry insider, it quickly raised some red flags, chiefly because they referred to Brinks as Brinks Home Alarm instead of the old name Brink's Home Security or the current name Broadview Security.

With the computer at my fingertips, I jumped into the site, ready to get a bid for a home security system on a house in Atlanta. But that was about where things ended. Going to Georgia, they listed Atlanta as a location, but once you're on the page, it seems to be little more than a site that skims Google's information, stacks a map with data points of where company offices for security dealers are in Atlanta. What I finally find after perusing the site is that I can't get bids here, but there is a link to USAlarmCompanies.com where I can get bids for ADT, Broadview, APX, FrontPoint, Pinnacle and GE Security. I suspect that the sites have shared ownership.

Immediately, as a prospective consumer, I'm a little weary of what's going on here, because there's no contact or "about us" information for this website and I've been pointed over from another website that had little original information. It's feeling a bit like spam already, but since I have a Gmail address that is great at blocking spam, and a working knowledge of the industry, I decided to give it a shot. But that's about as far as I could go. I entered all my information and I hit submit, and then repeatedly faced an error message telling me that the request didn't process. So much for the promise of the message at the bottom of the page that tells me I'll be contacted: "By clicking 'Submit,' you agree that ADT, Broadview Security, APX Alarm, FrontPoint Security, Pinnacle Security and GE Security and their representatives may contact you (including via SMS) at the email address and phone number given above." A week later, as of the time I'm publishing this article, I haven't received any contact from companies affiliated with this site, so I have to believe that my request did not process, just as the error message indicated.

As a follow-up, I sent a request to ADT and APX to find out whether the site was a legitimate marketing partner for their companies (since the site publically displays their logos along with some of the other major national alarm dealers), however I have not yet received confirmation that there actually is any link between these reputable national alarm companies and this website. I'll post up their response in the comments if and when I receive replies. I also contacted HomeAlarmDirectory.com and requested additional information on the site and any affiliated services, but no response was received from the company after one week's time. A press release from February 2010 about HomeAlarmDirectory.com provided no media contact information for follow-up research.

In conclusion

There are some good choices for consumers out there in terms of bidding/price comparison sites, and with two very established sites (ServiceMagic and BuyerZone), consumers can have some trust in the process. At this point, especially since LocalPrice offers free listings for alarm dealers, you should certainly do a free listing with them (they are growing into more markets week-by-week), and alarm dealers should closely investigate the pay-for-leads business models that ServiceMagic and BuyerZone are using to decide whether the leads are legitimate enough to pay for (and whether there are even enough leads to bother making the effort). You'll find other lead generation sites, but some of these are highly suspect, and since you have spent years building your company's brand name as something customers can trust, be wary about linking it with a company that seems to generate little credibility itself. Online lead generation doesn't replace a comprehensive marketing plan for your company, but it might be worth it if you're conventional methods are struggling to generate leads.

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