Apple's recent release of iCloud further familiarizes the term and helps the cloud computing concept further penetrate the rental equipment industry.
J.J. Shea, chief operating officer, Solutions by Computer
Paul Chapdelaine, president of RMI Corp.
Michael Saint, president, Corporate Services
Richard Hercus, director of sales, Enterprise Solutions Group – Americas, Ramco Systems
Brian Spilak, president, Texada Software
Chris Branson, CEO, and Olly Williamson, senior business development manager, inspHire
Rob Ross, president, Alert Management Systems
Bob Shaffer, CEO, Point-of-Rental Systems
Patrice Boivin, president & CEO, Orion Software
Michael Stilwagner, vice president of sales and marketing, Wynne Systems
RER: The cloud computing concept has steadily grown as its benefits become more apparent to businesses and individuals alike. Do you think the popular release of Apple’s iCloud will further enhance awareness of the cloud computing concept and make offsite storage of data more comfortable for rental business owners?
Shea: Apple’s iCloud doesn’t specifically affect our rental systems, but the buzz about it adds to the awareness of cloud computing in general and makes business owners more comfortable with the idea of utilizing the Internet as a channel to access software, as opposed to housing the programs on hardware at the business. It can be particularly appealing in the rental industry because the rental environment is famous for being harsh on computer systems, and for the most part that’s a non-issue with cloud.
Chapdelaine: In a word, “absolutely.” It seems that anything with an “i” on the front of it is instantly acceptable to the marketplace and it is instantly hot! Ironically, iCloud serves a similar purpose as Microsoft’s SharePoint Services and Google’s “Google Docs” but Apple is so much better at evangelizing that the release of iCloud is bound to have a positive impact on the level of acceptance of the cloud by all.
Saint: If your question had not been specific to Apple, I would have said yes, but Apple has a history of being a poor provider to business with the exception of those engaged in graphic design and photography.
Hercus: All of the major providers recognize the future of the cloud and are doing what they can to gain market share. The release of Apple’s iCloud will increase the awareness and help rental owners understand the cloud computing concept. While everyone is talking about the cloud, I am still amazed by the various understandings people have with cloud computing. Historically, companies have relied on magnetic tape or disk backups of their data. Often, while the backups were performed, the actual restore of the data was not tested until a critical necessity only to find the tape or disk could not be read. The other option was the expense of a remote copy of the data. With cloud computing, business executives pay a monthly fee for their computing and do not have to worry about their data and where it is stored. The cloud storage will be more secure and accessible than what they have had in the past. I am not sure rental executives will feel more comfortable with Apple’s iCloud offsite storage for photo’s and music, but the increased awareness will be beneficial to their understanding of their potential for savings.
Spilak: Absolutely. We launched our SaaS (Software as a Service) deployment option earlier this year and we have had many customers adopt this way of deploying our rental management software application. Many organizations are utilizing similar services in other important aspects of their business and it is becoming more commonplace as business owners become more comfortable with the outsourced offering, i.e. payroll services, salesforce.com, email hosting services, etc.
Branson: Cloud computing had been with us for some time, many do not realize they have been using it. Cloud storage, such as Apple's iCloud, has recently become much more affordable for both businesses and individuals alike and we see this type of product sharply rising in popularity and usage over the next 12 months. There is no doubt that the move to the cloud is in full swing and Apple's high-profile launch of iCloud will undoubtedly raise awareness across the business spectrum.
The one challenge that the cloud needs to overcome is security. Most of the modern cloud applications available today are secure and robust - the recent attacks on high-profile companies are, in the main, taking advantage of older technology weaknesses and/or poorly designed security. Anyone looking to use cloud applications needs to review the security on offer from the provider to make sure it's fit for purpose.
Ross: Cloud computing has been around for some time now. Salesforce.com offered this service some 15 years ago. For the most part, it took from then, ‘til now to reach a high level of awareness. A distinction has to be made between cloud computing and cloud storage. Apple’s recent announcement (iCloud) offers cloud storage to the masses. It is designed to store music, photos, applications, documents, iBooks, contacts, etc.
And then there’s cloud computing. Cloud computing is what we do (Alert Management Systems). AMS has taken our robust rental application (Alert EasyPro) and deployed it in a cloud environment for a number of our customers, using their own off-site facilities or third-party data centers. With Apple’s entrance into cloud storage, awareness will definitely increase. Everyone likes to follow a winner. On the other hand, cloud computing still has a way to go to achieve the same expected popularity and low cost.
Shaffer: I don't see a mass embrace of the iCloud by rental management software providers. Number one in cloud revenue is Amazon followed by Rackspace and Google. The only advantage of the Apple iCloud would be better and easier connectivity to Apple Computer products, services and devices making it easier to access personal iTunes, which I doubt is a high priority for many rental company owners.
Boivin: Yes, absolutely. We are currently in the process of implementing a robust, reliable cloud-based technology to offer our clients. We share the view that in the future you will be able to run your business from an electronic pad, where all your applications will be on one device. We are a part of making this shift to offsite storage happen.
Stilwagner: We expect that Apple’s iCloud will educate people on how “simple” and “in-reach” cloud computing is, dispelling the perception of complexity.
Does Apple’s iCloud offering mean that smaller rental businesses with fewer locations will soon be best served by utilizing a similar cloud model for their software implementation and data storage? In other words, since iCloud is designed for individual users, do you expect similar cloud offerings to follow that offer affordable cloud benefits to small businesses?
Shea: At Solutions we’ve been offering SaaS for over a decade. (SaaS is cloud computing in which Software as a Service is delivered over broadband Internet). In our experience, the SaaS option is continuing to grow in popularity with smaller rental businesses. Access to the software is usually purchased on a subscription basis and includes software support. We offer two SaaS models: CProRent for CounterPro users, and Enfinity SaaS; in both cases, the applications are housed at our headquarters.
Chapdelaine: When RMI first released its cloud offering (almost 4 years ago) we assumed that it would be most acceptable to smaller businesses first with the expectation that larger businesses would follow suit later on. In fact, the opposite occurred. In hindsight, we see the reason for this being that smaller business owners had a hard time getting their heads around the actual cost of on-premise software. Initially, they were multiplying the monthly Cloud subscription fees and comparing them to the cost of the software only.
In fact, the software-licensing portion of the fee is nowhere near the total package of goods being wrapped into a single subscription price. People don’t realize how much they are spending in support of their on-premise software. The cost of file servers and requisite utility software along with the cost of the people that it takes to run an in-house system is significant. All of these costs go away with a cloud-based application. Heck, when we moved our own in-house system to the cloud our property and casualty insurance premium went down by over $3,000 per year. When I asked why our agent said, that’s what it was costing for your disaster recovery premium that you no longer need!
Saint: So many different "cloud" providers currently exist that anyone interested in "cloud computing" has many choices. Those in the rental business will not find a home with Apple because no rental software currently exists (to my knowledge) that runs on Apple platforms. Apple devices like "Macs" and "iPads" can be used as terminal devices only.
Hercus: Smaller rental businesses can benefit today from selecting a cloud solution. Our Ramco OnDemand ERP (RODE) solution provides companies the ability to focus on their business challenges without the worries of data storage and implementation issues. The cloud can offer substantial savings for smaller and large companies alike.
Spilak: Yes. Many owner/operator type rental businesses don’t have the IT infrastructure in place (facilities, people, etc) to properly manage an on-premise server application. Taking that headache away from the owner/operator rental business is just another way for them to keep the focus on what they know and what they are good at, which is servicing customers and providing reliable equipment.
Branson: In a word, yes. The economical and logistical benefits that a cloud-based platform provides will allow smaller businesses to become even more agile in changing market conditions. Need a new temporary outlet? No problem. Need additional user licences during the busy season? Done. Need to move locations without the IT hassle? You got it. Need to downscale your system? Click and it's done. Want full mobile access to your systems wherever you are? Easy.
There are already a wide range of cloud-based offerings that are relevant and useful to all types of business, not just rental. A mature offering is Google's Application suite. Does this allow small businesses to lower their IT costs and support their businesses no matter where their staff are? Yes, it does. Are other business applications being developed for small business in the cloud? You can bank on it. There are a huge range of business applications out there in the cloud today that small businesses can take advantage of right now; accounting, project management, sales & marketing, customer support, reporting, data analysis, off-site backup, document sharing and document management are just the tip of the iceberg.
The next 12-24 months are going to be exciting times in the cloud arena - the platform is maturing rapidly, the products being offered today are prolific and growing fast. Small businesses will be the biggest winners in this drive to cloud computing as they are natural early adopters, but don't hang about too long, the corporate’s won't be too far behind.
Ross: The iCloud is being marketed as a “personal” cloud storage option. Microsoft’s announcement of Microsoft Office 365, on the other hand, reportedly will more directly influence small- and medium-sized businesses. The price model that will go with it (starting at $6 per month per user), which includes Outlook for e-mail and other mainstay applications, will definitely be an affordable option for small businesses who want to reduce their IT investment. (Here is a report on Steve Balmer’s announcement: http://www.crn.com/news/cloud/231000595/microsoft-goes-live-with-long-awaited-office-365-cloud-apps.htm;jsessionid=Tmtv7L90Pt8y+2YbvOp0lg**.ecappj03?cid=nl_special)
We have just successfully beta-tested a new technology that allows us to deploy Alert EasyPro in the cloud for any of our customers, large and small. It can be seamlessly expanded to support literally thousands of simultaneous users anywhere in the world, including iPads and other mobile users. The small business operator can setup a network of five PC’s or less at a relatively lower cost, since it eliminates the cost of a server and reduces ongoing IT maintenance expenses. It does not even require a browser on each PC (“zero” client). We believe this could be a viable alternative for many of our customers, since it is based on reducing IT expense and simplifying implementation, as well as opening the door to the best in cloud computing.
Boivin: The idea of the cloud is for customers to benefit from the volume of virtual servers. The benefits are affordable for small businesses who can certainly profit from the cloud offering.
Stilwagner: We have already seen a multitude of cloud offerings Application Service Provider (ASP) Software as a Service (SaaS) made available within the past few years. Our own SaaS offering has been growing at a fast and steady rate for the past 10 years. I believe the ease of use with Apple’s iCloud will generate a buzz about similar solutions that may be available within the rental industry.
Explain how all the outside data management that the cloud provides will affect a rental business’ IT costs. How much of an annual savings do you think a small- to medium-sized rental business might expect to achieve when it no longer requires onsite IT personnel?
Shea: With SaaS and other cloud modes there’s no need to buy a server or software license, so there’s a large primary cost savings. As far as ongoing costs are concerned, all of our systems are engineered so as to not require onsite IT personnel. That being said, there’s always some ongoing cost benefit to the business because most of the routine demands of the system are outsourced to the provider. In small- to mid-sized rental businesses, where employees charged with system management typically have customer-facing roles as well, cloud computing can be a way to let the staff focus more intently on rental.
Chapdelaine: Our experience shows that overall costs are 30- to 40-percent less when you fully deploy our cloud solution. We had one customer that switched from our on-premise solution to our cloud solution. Three days before the final switch was made their IT person handed in his resignation. The owner of the company called me in a panic. How will this affect the conversion he asked? What type of person should I look for as his replacement?
My answer to him was none and none! It’s been more than 6 months since we moved this client to the cloud. There has been no need to replace the IT person. The entire subscription fee for our system was less per year than what the IT person was being paid. Pretty good pay back wouldn’t you say?
This may make some IT people nervous. Perhaps it should! That said, a good IT person will readily find other ways to provide benefit to his/her employer.
Saint: It may offer cost savings to rental business that are large enough currently that they employ IT personnel. Most small rental businesses rely on contractors to provide these services on an "as needed" basis and as a result it is doubtful that any significant savings are possible.
Hercus: The savings will vary from company to company, but companies should look not only at the cost of the onsite IT professional. Consider the tasks of an IT professional. One task is when it is time to purchase a new computer. Typically, the server, data storage, and backup devices are oversized for expansion consideration, which increases costs. With Cloud computing all of the expansion concerns are eliminated, which saves money. There are savings throughout the companies’ infrastructure in most cases.
Williamson: This is a tough one to answer. For example, why does a move to cloud necessitate a reduction in onsite personnel? Moving your IT to the cloud gives flexibility. It can give you known, manageable monthly IT costs. It could take away the hassle of financing and managing an IT infrastructure. It may open up a new range of software offerings, many of which are ground up redesigns taking advantage of modern browser technology and new thinking on productivity software. The range of savings available to a business moving into the cloud will vary dependent on their size, how much of their IT provision they move and their own current circumstances in terms of IT support head count etc.
Ross: Our clients who have larger, multi-store operations often have a significant investment in one or more IT personnel, so there is no question of the possible impact there. Typically, it could mean the difference between a full-time vs. a part-time person, so a savings of $25,000 per year and up is quite conceivable. This is more difficult to estimate for smaller companies, since their costs vary so widely. Since we provide “First Call” support to our customers, regardless of the issue, most of our small- to medium-sized clients get by with only “pay-as-you-go” IT consultants, who come onsite occasionally for maintenance or to replace obsolete equipment in an emergency. Some level of on-site support would still be needed even in the cloud environment, but small companies who have annual on-site support contracts might be able to drop to a lower level of service.
Shaffer: I don't know any small (1-5 stores) and only a few medium (6-15 stores) rental companies that have even one dedicated IT person on their staff. Instead, they depend on their rental management software vendor to support that product and their hardware vendor to provide connectivity and hardware support. Very large companies with hundreds of locations that long ago had multiple servers in different regions consolidated on one large server within the company or went to the cloud a few years ago.
Boivin: Cloud technology will eliminate costly IT expenses such as back-ups, technician availability, and security protection. Orion Software’s cloud offering allows rental managers to focus on their core business operations instead of managing IT. It reduces complexity, and helps clients get up and running faster. We believe businesses will benefit from approximately 25-percent reduction of their annual IT costs when they move to cloud services.
Stilwagner: The cost savings factor with cloud computing is huge. It not only removes the need for an IT staff, it removes the cost of ownership for servers, backup systems and the related software. Many small and medium companies may not have dedicated IT personnel. That role is filled by a senior person whose time is better spent as a business knowledge worker than a makeshift computer system operator. This is an area where soft costs are obviously recouped because the cloud provider takes on these roles.
Many rental management solutions providers tout their superior customer support capabilities. How important is customer support to consider when selecting a new software provider? Give me an example of a situation when support was invaluable.
Shea: It’s critically important. Anyone who’s ever had a hardware failure, particularly a server, knows how critical it is to get up and running quickly. We have a team that does everything possible to minimize downtime for a customer who goes through that, including after-hours support and remote diagnostics. In cases where a customer’s server has failed, we’ve been able to get the business back up and running on a SaaS setup quickly until the server is replaced, even though the customer may not normally be on SaaS.
On a less dramatic note, it’s important to have people at the other end of the support line who understand rental operations and can get to the heart of a question quickly. Our head of customer service ran a rental business himself earlier in his career. We’ve provided support to thousands of rental operations over nearly 30 years, and we’ve seen software put to use in all kinds of rental applications and very specific ways of doing business. It gives us an invaluable knowledge base for our support operations as well as our development efforts.
Chapdelaine: Customer support is perhaps THE most important thing to consider when selecting a new software provider! Let’s face it, most available software applications offer more functionality than the typical user will ever master. The role of a support group is multi-faceted. Here is a list of their typical areas of responsibilities:
1. Help a new user to get the system up and running (aka – system implementation). This involves system setup (all systems are designed with multiple ways of doing things that require “switches” to be setup so that the system performs the way that you want it to) that can be daunting to a new user because they don’t always appreciate the ramifications of their decisions. Our job is to discuss their needs with them and then guide them through the process so that they achieve their desired results.
In addition, there is the challenge of moving data from an old system to the new system. If the new user is a small business, there may actually be a benefit to keying the information into the new system manually. I have to say, there is no better training exercise than to enter all of your data manually. That said, if the new user has a significant amount of data to deal with, manual data entry is simply out of the question. As a result, our support team has to do the conversion for them.
Note: When dealing with on-premise solutions the cost of implementing the solution often exceeded the cost of the software itself. Worse than that, because the implementation process was an “additional cost” item, users tended to do everything they could to shorten the process, which usually led to a less than stellar result. With RMI’s Cloud offering the entire implementation process is included.
2. Answer users’ day-to-day questions. For as much on-line help that we build into our systems there is no better “user manual” than to pick up the phone and actually talk to a person that knows the system and more importantly a person that cares that you get the most out of your system.
At RMI our Key Performance Indicators (KPI’s) include the following that are measured and displayed on monitors throughout our offices all day/every day.
Calls Answered Live – When a customer calls us for help how likely is it that they will be able to talk to a real live person immediately rather than having to wait for a call-back. In our case, our goal is that a minimum of 80 percent of all inbound calls should be answered live. If the rate falls below 80 percent we add more people to our support staff.
Service Level Agreement (aka SLA) – At RMI we guarantee the following service levels in writing to our customers:
Critical Issue (e.g. system down) – We respond to all critical issues within 60 minutes of receiving the notice.
Level 2 Issue (e.g. some aspect of the system is not performing properly) – We respond to Level 2 issues within two hours.
Level 3 Issue (e.g. “How do I do this within the system?” – We respond to Level 3 issues within three hours.
Level 4 Issue (e.g. “I would like to know more about…) – We respond to Level 4 issues within four hours.
I’m happy to say that in the past three years we have had only one support call that we failed to meet our SLA on. (And, I’ll tell you this – there was hell to pay because of it!)
Customer Satisfaction – We ask every customer to measure us on a scale of 1 to 4 on eight different topics related to the call (e.g. friendliness, knowledge, response time, quality of solution etc.). I’m happy to say that overall our GPA exceeds 3.85 month after month.
3. Pro Active Support - It’s one thing to get a system up and running and then to answer questions but what about taking it to the next step? Our support team distributes a series of “did-you-knows” every other week. In addition, we create videos that demonstrate the power of our system and post them to our YouTube Channel so that customers can “see and hear” exactly what a particular feature was designed to deliver as a benefit.
We have recently begun running projects with our existing customers that are designed to help them implement some of our newer/more advanced features. We are currently running a program that is helping all of our customers improve cash flow while reducing postage costs by using our electronic invoicing and automated payment routines.
In summary, how important is customer support? Without it, the best systems in the world become worthless.
Saint: In my opinion the answer is the same as "How important is it for you to open your doors for business."
There are two aspects of support. First is the emergency response and the second is the constant maintenance of the software.
Most rental businesses today depend on their software solution to answer questions like "is equipment available," "is the customer qualified to rent," etc. Despite the increased reliability of both hardware and software, the fact remains that failures occur. Rarely are the users knowledgeable enough to diagnose the cause and take corrective action required to correct the situation. Failure could result in loss of revenue and even loss of customers. The software provider must provide support during the same hours that the rental company operates. The software provider should also be willing to install new systems and updates in non-working hours and weekends to prevent interruption of service by the rental company.
The implementation of a software solution in the rental business is a major event no matter the solution. Rental operators should not need to replace their software each time something changes in the market place like a new version of Windows or a change in their hardware. A solid support agreement can allow the rental operator to install and utilize the same software for many years without interruption or major expense.
Hercus: Selecting a solutions partner is one of the biggest decisions a company can make and one that they will live with for a long time to come. Customer support should always be an important factor when selecting a new provider. I would advise all companies looking at a new solutions provider to speak with existing customers for a reference. Customer support provides more than how-to’s for an application or how to fix an error. Ramco Systems prides itself with having proactive support and has a team who is familiar with each customer’s business. An example of proactive support could be informing the customer of an enhancement that they could benefit from or suggesting a more efficient business process. Superior support comes from having a true business partnership and an in-depth knowledge of their business.
Spilak: Support and service is one of the key factors in deciding what software supplier to partner as it is the key to ensure successful deployments and proper usage of the mission critical applications.
Williamson: The support of the product is invaluable as it is essentially the customers’ insurance against problems that can affect their software. Often software support is seen as simply the Helpdesk but customer support is really so much more. inspHire 'Customer Care Plus' package includes the Helpdesk support but also key elements such as customer account management, an online Help File and regular software updates. Whether it’s keeping the software up to date with legislation changes, adding new features, or keeping our knowledge-based documents current and relative, or simply having the right people on the telephone for when customers need our help - all of these aspects help us to provide the best possible customer service. In addition it protects the customer when they have issues with their software such as power outages or server issues causing data corruption, as well as helping reinstalling software after a hardware crash.
Ross: We believe providing superior support to our current clients is our most important function. In fact, in order to make sure that we achieve the highest possible customer satisfaction, we survey all our clients each month with a detailed set of questions. We get high levels of voluntary participation and publish the quarterly results on our website. Currently, we are achieving a satisfaction rate of higher than 96 percent. (For a detailed break-down, go to www.alertms.com.) Taking support a step further, we have offered a three-day Users’ Group Conference for 25 years now. (We have renamed it our “Profitability Conference” in recent years.) We find that our clients get more value from their software investment by continuously learning how to use it to be more profitable. Quite a number of our clients take advantage of this conference, as well as the invaluable networking that goes with it. In addition, our users are able to actively participate in the development of new software revisions, including voting on new features.
Shaffer: The availability and quality of customer support should rank high when choosing a rental management software provider. Call the providers support line on Sunday or after hours. Did they answer? Insist on getting a long list of users of any system you are considering and call the users. Ask them the logical questions such as 1) Is support real-time or does it usually require a call back? 2) How would you rate the quality of the support i.e. do the support personnel understand whatever type of rental your into so that they can understand your questions?
Having support available can be the difference between your system working or literally dying. Eventually, usually because of a hardware problem such as a disk crash or an erratic processor, your system will become inoperable. Suppose your using a system that is no longer supported. What would you do if you start up your system in the morning and a fatal error message is displayed on the screen?
Boivin: Rental businesses considering customer support should look for three key elements. A valuable support group is one that will ensure your business is always operational. A support team whose goal is to improve your operations using the best in customer service technology. Businesses also should consider a support plan that offers upgrades. The availability of upgrades can generate many benefits, allowing the business to customize their support plan. Lastly, a support team that uses remote communication to offer customer support. At Orion software, we use a direct connection to customers’ workstation so that we can provide fast and precise solutions.
Stilwagner: The experience, reliability and availability of a customer support staff are very important factors to consider when selecting a new software provider. All of us have been in that frustrating situation where you are on hold with a vendor that is not familiar with the scenario or the industry jargon, which adds frustration to the issue you need resolved. Support and client services people hired from the equipment industry translate “rental speak” to “system speak” and vice-versa. Consider the availability of the support so that when you have an emergency are they available 7x24x365.
Describe the very latest technologies that rental businesses are benefiting from both in terms of hardware equipment/devices and software features. What do you see coming?
Chapdelaine: Access to your system anytime from anywhere is the answer to getting the most out of our systems considering how we now live and work. In addition, everything has to work together. Our ERP systems must communicate with our banking systems, with our Microsoft Office systems, etc.
And, I have to be able to do whatever I want through my Smartphone or Tablet.
RMI’s Advantage is generating Key Performance Indicators (both generic and customer specific) on an up-to-the-minute basis. Historically, we would tell a user to log into the system for an immediate update. Today, the system e-mails the critical KPI’s to the appropriate person on a user-defined schedule.
Naturally we use our own software so I have it setup to e-mail me with the KPI’s that I am interested in on a nightly basis. It’s awesome!
Saint: In the early days of computing there were less than a dozen providers of computer equipment. Once you chose a supplier, then the only source of software and peripherals was that provider. If your provider did not offer what you needed it was tough luck and virtually no inter-operability existed with other computers or other devices.
Today, the market has changed dramatically with virtually unlimited choices for hardware, software and services. Today, integration is the key because no single company can provide everything their customers may require. The rental software must be able to integrate to other software and services to meet the requirements of the industry.
For example, a rental company serving all states of the U.S. will find it a daunting task to keep up with changes in sales taxes throughout the country, but if their rental software can integrate with services like Vertex, AfaTax and CCH the issue is resolved at substantial cost savings compared to the employees necessary to remain compliant.
Keeping track of the exact location of equipment, especially if stolen, can be important to every rental business. Today there are hundreds of suppliers of GPS services that allow rental operators to not only track the location of equipment but in some cases also receive data like meter hours to allow the rental operator to schedule service and to bill their customer for usage of the equipment. Again, the ability of the rental software to integrate with these services offers many economic benefits to the rental operator.
Today the ability to communicate with customer and vendors quickly, effortlessly and precisely can dramatically impact the performance and profitability of the rental operator. Waiting of the Post Office is no longer an option. The rental software of today must be capable of communicating through a vast number of electronic methods including email, EDI, XML, etc. The good news is that these methods are no longer considered exotic, but have become part of the daily life in the rental business.
The rental business is a mobile business where business is conducted in the field. The ability of the user to use mobile devices like tablet computers and smartphones can be critical. Today, there are hundreds of these devices offered and the rental software must accommodate their use.
Hercus: I see real-time information across the company with business analytics and alerts. For example: Instead of the accounts receivable department reviewing daily orders for companies who are on credit hold and then emailing or calling for approval, proactive alerts could be sent directly to the management team. Proactive solutions can be deployed across all departments instead of the reactive approach that most companies utilize today. The alerts can notify executives using mobile devices such as the Blackberry. Proactive solutions increase employee motivation and reduce costs.
Spilak: The tablet and smartphone device markets are a couple that we see has provided tremendous benefit to the rental companies that utilize our applications. Putting critical data in the hands of field personnel to allow them to make educated business decisions on demand is something that we feel is key to success in the industry going forward.
Williamson: inspHire WebPortal provides the means for rental companies to service their own customers 24/7, giving them access to their own account information anytime, anywhere in the world from laptops, tablets and smartphones enabling them to reduce admin costs and helping them to provide a better service. inspHire has also recently launched its iPhone /iPad application 'inspHire-iX' giving key customer information to inspHire users on the move, in the palm of their hand. Mobile technology gives rental companies access to key customer information when they need it — whether they are on site or in the office.
Ross: We have invested heavily in Dashboard technology, making basic functions dramatically easier and faster, as well as speeding up access to key performance indicators throughout the business. Many of our clients are investing in mobile technology (such as the iPad) to stay in touch and provide more efficient on-site customer service. Web-based customer portals are also extremely popular, allowing your customers to reprint their own invoices and manage their own accounts from anywhere 24/7. GPS integration for truck routing and equipment tracking is another hot area. We will continue to invest in these areas and many others moving forward, helping our clients reduce costs and increase profits with each exciting new annual revision. (We encourage our customers to stay up-to-date by offering new revisions free with any of our four optional annual support plans.)
Shaffer: I expect to see more automatic texting and e-mailing of important triggered events to salesmen, management, operations and maintenance personnel. Data mining will be used to automatically provide alerts to management. RFID tags will become the norm to inventory individual serialized items. RFID currently has application in linen rental and it will spread to equipment rental over the next couple of years.
Boivin: What we see coming is cloud technology that will allow customers to access rental software functionalities from anywhere. In the future, this access to software features will be available among all mobile devices. Using Wi-Fi at the office or G3 network on-the-road is true versatility. This is what will allow rental businesses to validate their inventory in real-time, and allow businesses to confirm and close orders on-site.
Stilwagner: With so many wireless devices on the market, people are becoming more and more mobile. Mobile solutions that gather and provide data from the field will continue to grow and soon become necessary and common tools within the rental industry. Smartphones and tablets are replacing hand-held computers because of cost and, more importantly, user acceptance.
Explain how software is developed so that it not only meets a rental company’s current business needs, but is equipped to grow as the business continues to grow.
Shea: Our Enfinity and CounterPro software handles everything from a single user to hundreds of users and locations because the system infrastructure was designed to be scalable from the start. The same basic functionality that is available to 100 users in a large rental operation is also available to a single-user business. The only way to achieve that successfully is to envision and build a proper infrastructure from day one — not only to accommodate an unlimited number of users, but also to accept an unlimited number of third-party software applications.
Chapdelaine: There are fundamentally three different ways in which a business generates revenue:
1. Sale of products
2. Rental of products (might also include “leasing” of equipment)
3. Servicing products
During this latest down economy, many “rental only” businesses looked to find other ways to generate revenue. By using a system that covers every major revenue-generating business activity, you are perfectly situated for expanding your business into new opportunities.
We have found that rental/sales/service is the perfect “three-legged stool.” Regardless of what the economy throws your way — one or more aspects of the business will be doing well. In this latest economy, we found many businesses increase their service revenues by helping their customers keep older equipment operating. Now that we are seeing a little bit of a recovery, sales and rentals seem to be picking back up.
From a technology point of view — don’t underestimate the importance of a system that is built upon widely used industry standards. Our industry moves very quickly. Microsoft continues to be the 800-pound gorilla in the room. That is good and bad. Either way — it’s a fact of life right now so you may want to make sure that the technology decisions that you make will continue to play nice as the industry progresses.
Saint: The key here is to design the software without features in mind, but to build a framework that allows features to be added and user preferences that allow users to turn on or off features that are useful. The design must expect that over time as business needs change, that new features will be routinely added to meet the new requirements.
Secondly, the software should not attempt to make compromises to allow it to be everything to everyone. Its goal should be to be the best of breed rental software then allow the software to integrate with new devices and services as they become available and useful to each rental operator. The rental operator should be free to choose the best choices for the businesses. The software should be able to run locally or in the cloud. It should integrate with the rental operator's choice of (for example) financial software, tax services, GPS services and peripheral devices.
It should be scalable. The software should be built on a foundation that can be offered to a small startup company but yet grow through the use of faster and larger hardware, databases, etc.
Hercus: Each and every business is unique in its operations, differentiating themselves from competition. However, the underlying business processes and goals remain the same. As always, the only thing that is constant in business is change. Companies are aware of this reality in today’s world.
While making enhancements to the software, we always look at the long-term underlying goal for any company and design the software accordingly. Our development approach is completely process based. The change requested in the software is first orchestrated in the process flows, which are then carried over to the design and then to the engineering phase. Not every company has the ability of making the process flows drive the application design.
At Ramco, our underlying development platform – Ramco VirtualWorks, is a web-enabled, end-to-end, business-process-based platform that uses the process flows as inputs for application design. Among many other advantages, Ramco VirtualWorks helps in rapid software development, implementation, support and maintenance, providing us a distinct advantage over our competition in being an agile software provider.
Williamson: inspHire focus groups and user forums give customers the opportunity to have a say in what they would like to see in the software and how they would like to see the product moved forward. inspHire has a strong, experienced development team who are constantly updating their skill set to keep pace with the latest programming developments, constantly assessing and updating our packages, creating new builds regularly as we keep pace with the latest innovations and industry trends - constantly adding value. The inspHire family of products can be continuously upgraded and added to as the needs of the rental company change.
Ross: Since our clients include some of the largest and most successful rental operators in the world, we have had to develop a feature-rich system built to scale to any size company. On the other hand, even some of our largest customers among the RER 100, with 15-plus stores (for example), like to test out new concepts in a single “model store” environment first, before rolling it out to the whole chain. At the other end of the spectrum, we have always made our software modular, so that smaller companies can afford to buy what they need at the moment, adding more options as they grow.
Overall, our annual user’s group (Profitability Conference) is our strongest asset in making sure we are headed in the right direction and developing the improvements that are in the greatest demand by our most successful stores. Without it, we would be “winging it” vs. having a proven success formula for continuous innovation.
Shaffer: Are you planning to add stores, get into equipment sales or start repairing equipment you don't own? If so, you've got to be certain your rental management provider offers modules that will process those transactions! For example, some rental management software wasn't designed from the ground up for multi-store environments. If you buy those packages you may be surprised to find that your software in store two wasn't designed from multi-store as is simply another copy of the software in store one. If so, you wouldn't be able to transfer inventory from one location to another and all stores would display availability only for inventory at their own location instead of their store and others in their region.
Boivin: The integration of a CRM system within the rental software will allow businesses to grow. Being integrated with a CRM module allows for the management of the sales funnel and also the management of various customer interactions. From the initial discussion to the rental contract, you can document and get a complete view of every interaction between your customer and your employees. Orion Software’s CRM module is completely flexible and versatile, so it will grow your business and improve your customer satisfaction.
Stilwagner: Software must be able to adapt and grow with your company. Our job as the software provider is to observe industry trends and create a product that is always two steps ahead of current demands. Having a product that easily allows you to add a new language, a new currency, transition to and mold to each user will prove invaluable. All of this is based on a stable platform. Without a good foundation, the new will fall down quickly.
What advice would you give to rental businesses that are still using relatively out-of-date legacy software systems that don’t offer the latest integrations and efficiencies?
Shea: I would call that standing still while your competition is moving ahead. Rental systems are every bit as valuable as your best employee, but only if you take advantage of what’s out there. When a contractor wants to rent a new compact equipment model, or an event planner asks for the latest tent technology, it’s because everything improves and becomes more effective with R&D over time. The same is true of rental systems: rental is a data-intensive business and the benefits far outweigh the costs of staying on top of new software functionality.
Chapdelaine: Obviously, the longer you wait to update, the further behind you will be! While you are falling behind your competitors, you are losing business to them that will be hard to re-capture.
Technologies are advancing at an ever more rapid pace. I almost cannot believe some of the things that we are doing in the area of mobile devices for example. If you are still using out-of-date legacy software you are going to be eaten up by competitors that are operating much more efficiently and more importantly at a much lower cost than you are.
As an aside, another benefit to cloud-based computing is that we automatically update every customer system on a quarterly basis. No longer do we charge extra for software updates and implementation of those updates. We “just do it” on a quarterly basis!
This is actually a win/win for RMI and its customers. Before we went entirely into the cloud we were supporting upwards of 12 release levels of our software. With the cloud, there is only one release level of our software in use by all of our customers – The Current Release Level! For our customers, they no longer have to read about all of the wonderful things that we have done but they can’t use unless they upgrade. Our upgrades occur over a weekend and it is completely pain free for our customers. Our existing customers are the first to enjoy the benefits of everything we do. The same cannot be said about users of on-premise solutions.
Saint: The computer / software marketplace is changing at an incredible pace. Technology is available today that we could only dream about just a few years ago. Every business decision should offer a favorable cost/benefit ratio, so making a change for no other reason than changing is not a recommended course.
Don't remain stagnant. Remember that your customers are changing and if you fail to change with them you risk becoming obsolete in their minds. Our recommendation is to attempt to remain knowledgeable about the changes and what opportunities the changes might offer you.
1) Read articles on the subject.
2) Talk to your peers about the changes they are making.
3) Talk to your business advisors (accountants, lawyers, insurance agents and other advisors) about changes that you might consider.
Hercus: If you are using a relatively out-of-date software solution then you are not benefiting from the technology that your competitors may be benefiting from. Typically, you will benefit from having more accurate information on a timely basis as well as the ability to increase your business without having to hire an army of people to keep up. The ability to capture real-time profitability on a piece of equipment or to reduce inventory levels without risking a shortage is invaluable to a company. If you are using a relatively out-of-date software system you are working harder not necessarily smarter. For you to make those important business decisions, you will require a newer solution which embraces the latest technologies.
Spilak: Legacy systems require large investment direct from the end users to take advantage of some of technological advancements that have evolved over the last number of years whereas software companies typically include these technologies in their standard product set and roadmap. Would recommend these companies assess their growth plans over the next 3-5 years and determine the investment required to their legacy system to support that growth. The results of that assessment may provide answers to the direction in which they should be heading in the future.
Williamson: Legacy systems frequently do not allow for the same kind of flexibility offered by products offered in today's market place. Rental businesses want to see real time information delivered to them in different ways as well as being able to offer their own customers access to the same information. nigh impossible using older technology. Many rental companies are now looking at implementing strong ERP systems to run the back office accounting function such as MS Dynamics GP, NAV, SAP etc and integrating to them with a Windows application like inspHire is so much easier.
Ross: Consider at least two alternatives when you are shopping for a replacement system. Competition is good in any market, including rental software. As always, you get what you pay for, so be careful not to be lured by short-term incentives that don’t translate into long-term value. I’m always amazed by the number of companies who wind up having to replace software (even multiple times) vs. spending what it takes to get the right system in the first place, which is a far less expensive approach in the long run.
Shaffer: Eventually, something bad will happen that forces the legacy user to upgrade to a new platform such as Microsoft Windows or go back to pencil and paper. Legacy (character-based) systems are increasingly unsupported. And, even if supported, replacement hardware is becoming difficult to find. Suppose you backing up your files to tapes. In many cases replacement drives and even the tapes are becoming difficult to get. And, in many cases newer features such as direct faxing and e-mailing quotes, contracts and statements aren't available. Most legacy systems integrated to legacy accounting programs. Most of that software is no longer updated or supported so newer depreciation methods just aren't available and most don't have an option to integrate with Windows based accounting systems such as QuickBooks and Microsoft Dynamics.
Recently we've noted that some legacy rental management software with integrated credit card processing doesn't comply with the new PCI compliance standards. If so, you'll need to replace the system or go back to using a separate credit card processing terminal.
Boivin: Move to a software company that is going into the cloud, this will allow you to manage your business remotely and more efficiently. And the integration of a CRM.
Stilwagner: Sit down and really analyze whether or not your solution is giving you what you want. If the answer is yes, great! If not, take the time to determine where your money is being spent. Call different software providers to see what the industry has and where it is going. With the advancements and ease of use that come with cloud computing, it will be easy to justify the investment.