Culture and Commitment: How Core Values Sustain Custom Alarm’s Success
“I want to give you an example of the fun we have here,” Melissa Brinkman says. She opens her door and turns her laptop around, giving her Zoom audience a glimpse into the office. The screen fills with colorful lights and holiday décor. Anna Bradt waves – she is the marketing and communications manager and at the moment she is standing on a stepladder while hanging decorations. “It’s a Christmas decorating contest,” Brinkman, the CEO of Custom Alarm in Rochester, Minn., explains. “We did this for the first-time last year. We were all tired of the pandemic and we wanted to make the office a happy place.” Every department chipped in to transform their workplace into something magical. Despite the best efforts of the administration team, the operations team won. Now it’s less than ten days before Christmas and Custom Alarm employees are decking the halls with an eye on the prize.
Brinkman has worked hard to make Custom Alarm feel like a family to her employees. This has boosted employee retention – many employees have been with the company for more than a decade – and benefited their customers as well. “If people enjoy working with each other, then being at work doesn’t really feel like work. That makes it easier to do our best to take care of our customers,” Brinkman explains.
The idea of Custom Alarm as a family is a little more literal for Brinkman, whose father, Leigh J. Johnson, founded the company in 1968. After a stint in the hotel industry, Brinkman started working at Custom Alarm in 1998 in sales and marketing. She then served as Sales Manager, Director of Business Development, and COO before her father retired and she became CEO in 2014.
She took the opportunity to hit the reset button on the company culture, drawing from its strengths over the previous decades and implementing core values to set the company up for future success.
“It isn’t all about a profit,” she says. “It’s about a good work environment and making sure that employees feel valued.”
For Brinkman, this has meant not only giving her team excellent guiding principles that resonated with their personal morals, but also making sure that the company’s actions reflect these principles. The core values of Custom Alarm bind them together and help them go above and beyond for their customers every single day.
1. Customer Service
As a security and fire alarm installer, Custom Alarm’s business lies in technology that gives their customers peace of mind. Their sales pitch isn’t about the newest software or hardware on the market, however.
“We’re a customer service company that leverages technology to solve our customers’ problems,” Brinkman explains. “We have to stay on top of the technology, of course, but our biggest priority is how to take care of the customer.”
Brian Moser is the director of construction and development for Titan Development & Investments, a housing and commercial developer. Titan’s relationship with Custom Alarm has lasted more than a decade. “Three years ago, we were working on a $140 million hotel project, and we were supposed to get three phone lines pulled in for the elevators,” he remembers. “On the day of a building inspection, we realized that the contractor hadn’t patched the lines yet. I called Custom Alarm to see if they could help—and within a half-hour they had a wireless radio mesh network on site so I could pass my fire and alarm inspection. They didn’t just save the project—they saved my butt.”
Custom Alarm has retained some of their customer relationships for 30-45 years. Customers include friends, neighbors, family, and acquaintances – it’s not unusual for a customer to be spotted at the high school football game or in the grocery store.
“We’re in the community and we want to stay in the community,” Bob Boland asserts. He’s been the Custom Alarm COO for five years and has worked for the company for ten. “We want to be their partner, not take their money and run.”
In the early days of the pandemic when restaurants shut down completely, some of their restaurant customers called Custom Alarm worried that they would not be able to pay their monitoring fees. Custom Alarm waived payments for three months and then offered customers a no-cost exit from their contracts if they still couldn’t pay after three months. Boland describes the thought process behind this. “People remember who was really bad to them during a difficult time and they remember who was really great to them. Being great to them turns them into a committed customer.” He admits that sometimes this is hard to measure, “but the majority of our customers did not cancel due to the pandemic and appreciated our willingness to work with them.”
3. Positive Attitude
Having a positive attitude means proactively looking for solutions to benefit the customer rather than getting wrapped up in problems. “Even if we have a challenge in front of us, we need to focus on leveraging resources to find a solution,” Brinkman remarks. This has been top-of-mind lately as supply chain issues have limited their access to certain products and the Custom Alarm team has had to work harder in some cases to reassure their customers.
Moser appreciates that Custom Alarm lets him work with a single point of contact and that he can rely on that contact to provide what he needs. “If I have any questions, that person finds the answer for me even if it’s not in his wheelhouse,” he comments.
“We utilize all our resources before we say we can’t do it,” affirms Erik Lee, scheduling coordinator and 22-year Custom Alarm veteran. This includes unconventional solutions such as sending a project manager to take care of an issue if a technician isn’t available.
4. Lifelong Learning
Part of the reason Custom Alarm can offer such flexibility is because their team doesn’t work in siloes: instead, everyone is encouraged to learn other roles so they can step in as needed. In the process, they gain an appreciation of the work their coworkers are doing.
Lee programs the Alarm.com units before they’re sent out with the installers, and he’s been known to stop by customers’ homes on the way home from work to train them on Alarm.com. Brandon Clig, a sales manager who’s worked for Custom Alarm for eight years, sits down with the billing specialist and the CFO to better understand billing cycles.
“Lifelong learning has been really instilled in me here,” Clig reports. “We don’t want to stay stagnant in this quickly-evolving industry. If you aren’t willing to invest in lifetime learning—not just through training for your own role, but also in learning skills in other areas—you’re not really going to go far.”
5. Doing What’s Right Because It’s the Right Thing to Do
In operations, Custom Alarm focuses on the customer side to make business decisions. “Melissa really instills in us to treat people how we would like to be treated,” Boland comments.
This even applies to situations where the company might lose some money outright. “We may take a loss, or make an extra trip, or add an extra device,” states Brinkman. “One of the benefits of being a small company is being really committed to the customer, helping each other, and not assigning blame.”
Boland agrees. “It doesn’t make sense to nitpick the dollar: it makes more sense to do the right thing because it’s right.” Lately, this has meant absorbing the cost of price increases due to supply chain issues rather than passing that cost on to the customer.
Doing what’s right also means giving back to the community. Custom Alarm supports local and national nonprofits, and employees get eight paid hours per year to do volunteer work of their choosing. Giving back is not simply a catchphrase, it’s part of the company culture.
Culture and Commitment
Custom Alarm knows that a strong internal culture keeps their team committed and together.
“If we had a blizzard tomorrow morning, I’d still come into work,” Lee says of his commitment to Custom Alarm.
Most employees describe Custom Alarm as a place where they enjoy being around each other. “Some of my best friends in my phone list are employees at Custom Alarm,” Clig adds.
Brinkman’s dedication to core values has helped the company thrive. In a time of the “Great Resignation,” where companies struggle to retain employees, Custom Alarm has an office of happy people who have the freedom to learn new skills, collaborate on problem-solving, do what’s best for the customer, and have fun while they’re doing it.
The admin team won this year’s Christmas decorating contest, by the way. We’ll see if the operations team can reclaim the title next year.