Service for the Dead and Dying

The older I get, the more often I find myself amazed by the ignorance I find everywhere I look. It seems amazing to me that after 30 years of being part of an industry and 20-plus years of training that industry, I can still be shocked by it. OK, so what am I talking about this time? What could possibly have me in such a stir?

A Comedy of Errors
Less than one week ago, I was working with a client. We were inspecting and verifying his system. While we were checking things out, a contract service person was working on one of the outside cameras the unit appeared to have taken a hit with lighting. We stumbled on the service dude in the hallway. He was working on the floor, portable monitor in hand, camera plugged into a wall, and he was putting his hand in front of the lens and aiming at a very bright window. Since the camera had a backlight compensation program, I assumed he was testing it. My first mistake. The conversation from this point was fairly simple.

Me: Find anything wrong?

Service Dude: Yes, I believe we have a bad lens.

Me: Why do you say that?

Service Dude: Because the iris doesn't seem to be opening or closing.

Me: How do you know that?

Service Dude: Because I put my hand in front of it and I don't see any change in the picture.

It was at that point that I noticed the menu from the camera was displayed on the portable monitor. So before I stepped into a discussion to point out that the proper procedure of verifying an auto-iris lens would require that the lens be removed from the camera, I asked him why he had the camera programmed for a video lens when he was clearly using a DC lens. This, of course, was a stinging question, and I was given the field service technician's interpretation of my wife's "look." I was right and he knew it, but he didn't know why I was right or what the difference between a video and a DC lens were. For that matter, he didn't know who I was other than a meddling ol' fart.

Proof of the pudding came when he tried to reprogram the camera. It couldn't be done. Evidently, the unit had taken some sort of surge during the lightning storm that cooked some circuit in it. So, you say, nice story. Then it was over, eh? Just a bit of a minor miss in the field? But it wasn't over.

At this point, the service dude had already informed the client that the camera needed a new lens. Now he told the client the camera was shot and he would need a new one. What was my reaction at this point? "Whoooooo, baby! What do you mean, we need a new camera?" The client informed me then that the overall policy of the service company was that if a CCD camera went down, it wasn't worth repair. Buy a new one and move forward. You know, throw it away. Trash it, toss it, give it the ol' heave ho.

I hit the floor. This was an $1,800 camera with a (probably) minor problem, and they were going to throw it away out of prudence and on the word of an ignorant, poorly trained service dude that was the best that his company had to offer. Please note, I did not say that the service dude was a bad dude or a stupid dude or a rude dude, just an ignorant and poorly trained dude. That's his and his company's fault, and it is curable that is, if they recognize and accept that ignorance is a problem.

Bottom line, I took the camera to an old friend of mine LRC, LLC in Davenport, IA and $17 later, my client had a like-new camera. What was wrong? The programming of the camera was set up wrong. Evidently, in the process of trying to determine if the lens was working, the service dude locked the menu behind a pass code of some sort.

The Point of Absurdity
So I ask you, at what point did we, the professionals of industrial CCTV, decide to take our industry to the point of absurdity? I fully agree that if you have a piece of crap, a $50 midnight special that you bought from a guy behind the Woolworth on 52nd street, you probably shouldn't bother servicing the unit if it breaks. However, if you've got some good cash tied up, take a gander at a service estimate. You will, most the time, be pleasantly surprised. Granted, there will always be those horror stories of the cost of service, but the field is still ripe and you cannot afford to throw things away. If you can, call me and I'll take the trash out.

The next absurdity comes from the level of training that is being allowed to walk about in the field. We as an industry have been screaming for standardization and certification for years. Well, we have a piece of it ready for anyone who is willing to admit to ignorance. There are several good training companies (including myself) that have been out there fighting the good fight, educating the CCTV masses for more than 20 years.

I get so frustrated as I travel about and listen to the advice given to end users by "qualified," "professional" alarm companies about throwing away equipment based upon improper field knowledge or lack of test equipment. I get equally frustrated by the end users who hire these companies because they have been around for 50 years or because they have a big name in the industry.

People! Wake up and smell the credentials! Would you buy a brand-new car from a guy on the corner or from the big store around the block without a test drive and some minor, written assurances that the car was everything it was cracked up to be? If your answer is yes, go away. If your answer is no, then interview your security folks. Demand credentials of training, ask for references, and then call the references. If every credential is a happy one, be suspicious. Even God gets a few folks disappointed every now and then. Then, once you hire them, check their work from time to time. Ask for estimates on equipment prior to trashing it on the word of a field person. Fifty bucks for an estimate is a small price to pay if it keeps everyone up to snuff.

Choose Your Service Wisely
All right, back to the track. We have four basic types of service available to us in most industries: the warranty, the service contract, the service agreement and the service call. So what's the difference, and which one is the best one for you?

Warranty. It would be a safe bet for me to state that 80 percent of the people purchasing CCTV equipment and about the same percentage of people selling the equipment have little or no idea what the manufacturer's warranty is all about. The warranty, in almost all cases, does not cover the cost of field labor, travel time to or from the field, shipping or other related, miscellaneous expenses.

Be careful with this one. Many of our modern manufacturers have no program set up in the USA for warranty service, so you may be required to ship your equipment to Japan or Thailand to be verified before you can have it replaced or repaired and returned. The turnaround time can be as much as six to eight weeks, and the cost can be huge. No wonder we throw stuff away. Most of your top 15 manufacturers have excellent service programs in the United States and work hard to keep you happy. It's your responsibility, however, to know these things before you put cash on the line.

The second burn point on most warranties is documentation. If your "professional" service companies provided you with a PO or receipt or other piece of paper that states that you purchased 25 WDI-4784 cameras on June 4, 2004 for $X, then you just lost your warranty claims. You must almost always present a proper PO or receipt to the warranty repair service as proof of claim. This proper PO or receipt must list the date purchased, the company purchased from, and most important, the model and serial numbers of the units purchased. So if you did purchase 25 WDI-4784 cameras, you will have a list of the serial numbers on the receipt or kiss your warranty goodbye.

After 20 years of doing a bulk share of such repairs, it still amazes me the number of people that sputter about how they had just purchased this stuff and why wouldn't we honor the warranty and fix it for free? If I fixed everything under warranty because you all were nice guys and gals, then I would have gone out of business because the manufacturers would not reimburse me for the repair. Warranties are the responsibility of the end user. A good, professional service or installation company or integrator will make sure that all the service papers, receipts, and necessary documentation is in order and turned over to the client at the end of the installation. A properly advised end user will insist on it.

Service Contract. The service contract is an agreement that usually provides several options, each at a cost, and each based upon the negotiations of the service provider and the end user. These options may include the following.

X number or unlimited field service calls, or unlimited service calls with restrictions. If the system is installed, maintained and serviced properly, why would I limit the number of calls I was willing to cover? Because stuff happens in the field lightning, floods, angry gods of power surges, ground faults, upset employees and such. So the compromise is that the service provider is usually willing to provide unlimited service calls applied toward specific problems with the system and equipment, but paid calls for physical damage, acts of nature, ground faults and such.

Guaranteed response time from point of call for service. This means the service provider is willing to put his neck on the line for your security program. The provider agrees to get there and be busy fixing the problem within a certain time period from your call to report the problem. The average service response will be 24 hours from the point of call.

Guaranteed turnaround time for repaired equipment. The servicer guarantees that your equipment that is sent in for repair will be back to you within X hours or days. Great deal for the end user, dangerous deal for the service provider. The payout comes if the service provider does not get your equipment back from the factory authorized service point in time. They then have to provide you with free replacement equipment until your stuff comes back.

Replacement or loaner equipment. This is a nice feature to have for head-end equipment that needs to be redundant for your security needs. But if you are looking for an exact replacement, you are requiring that your service provider stocks such equipment and absorbs the cost. In that case, you may be better off purchasing backup equipment of your own to have available to the servicing company.

Most contracts will read "like" or "equivalent" replacement equipment. This is not all bad; all the service provider is promising is that if a camera goes down, he/she will replace it with an equivalent piece of equipment and prevent down time. The place where it gets sticky is with controlling or recording equipment. Obviously, the controlling replacement must be able to work the pan/tilts and lenses and such. However, can your employees work the equipment without training, and if not, does the training come as part of the project? If you have a replacement of like gender, does that mean it will use the same compression formats? If not, you have a problem. Watch the fine print for the details that could hurt you in the long run.

Quarterly inspections. This is a good thing if there is an actual process or checklist for what is to be inspected, cleaned and repaired. How about we say that we will have all housing/domes cleaned, back-focus to verify zoom functions, all control functions checked, monitor screens cleaned, all pan/tilts tested, pre-positions verified, playback and programming of analog and digital recorders reviewed. Finally, you want to have a clause that says that what is found in disrepair is repaired at the time of the inspection or a proper appointment is made to return and take care of the problem. Let's make the quarterly inspection something better than a quick peek at the monitor, eh?

Automatic annual or bi-annual renewal and/or cost increase. Service contracts, for the most part, are where many security companies make their only profit. The bid of equipment and installation is done at breakeven or loss, and the service contract will, after a couple of years, pay out the lost profits. The annual or semi-annual automatic renewal is part of the policy that you must pay careful attention to. This is where the various hidden, small-print comments are made: "This contract will automatically renew on the first day of the second month of each year after the year 2004 unless a written notice of cancellation is received from the client a minimum of 30 days prior to the renewal date."

Many times, a service contract will have a buy-out clause of 10 to 30 percent of the original installation costs if cancelled in the first two or three years. This may not sound too bad, until you try to cancel and find yourself on the line for 20 or 30 thousand dollars. Buyer beware always read and review what you sign. Many contracts have automatic rate increases of 10 to 35 percent annually. So if you spent $150,000 for your initial system, say the annual service contract is sold for 15 percent of that, or $22,500. You hit a 22-percent increase automatically for three years in a row and you are now paying $40,850 annually. The net three-year increase actually equates to 55 percent. Are you getting that much more for your service dollar? Probably not.

Many service contracts have cancellation clauses that will charge the end user cash penalties if they try to cancel before the allotted time. Some of these penalties are as high as 50 percent of the initial cost of the system.

Service Agreement. A service agreement is similar to a contract, but usually costs less and has fewer frills. The service agreement usually promises X number of field service calls per year with the end user paying for all repairs. The service agreement may also promise that such service calls are done within X amount of time from the initiation of the call. Watch out, though many service agreements have a markup clause for repaired equipment. That is, the service dudes and dudettes come into the field, pull a piece of equipment, send it to a qualified, factory authorized point of repair, get it back and mark up the cost of that repair as much as 200 percent before adding the cost of shipping.

Service Call. The service call is for those who do not wish to be bound to a contract or agreement. There is not much to do here. Call for help, hope it shows up, pray they can fix it, pay the bill and hope it would not have been cheaper to burn the barn down.

I personally like a combination service contract/agreement. You just have to learn to negotiate and make sure that you are not spending so much that the whole process becomes a lesson in futility.

At the end of the day, all of the above is worthless if you have an uneducated service dude or dudette show up at your door. You should negotiate minimum standards into every service contract and agreement, and even into every service call. It will throw the trunk slammers out of our industry, push the need and want for certification programs, and ensure that we maintain a minimum level of professionalism as we go.

Charlie Pierce is president of LeapFrog Training & Consulting, a company dedicated to training the professionals of the CCTV industry. Visit its Web site online at www.LTCTrainingCntr.com.

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