Dashboards deliver business information in a flash and with a graphic flair, making business intelligence more stylish, instant and portable.
When you go to a car dealership to shop for a new vehicle, one of the first things you notice when you get inside is the dashboard — the style and placement of the gauges, the look and feel of the buttons, knobs and levers — the way in which the critical information the driver needs is presented. It's that kind of at-a-glance presentation that inspired the creation of dashboard-style reporting by software developers.
Dashboards are designed using a variety of colorful charts, graphs and tables to quickly provide rental personnel the key information needed to drive the business forward. In the past, rental company users had to run a variety of printed reports to gather vital business data and then spend valuable time analyzing them. Dashboards present this information instantly and make analysis much more time efficient. They allow rental business managers to be proactive, by providing up-front, easy-to-read illustrative displays of their key performance indicators.
“Dashboards provide a visual pulse of a rental company's key business indicators,” says Richard Hercus, director of sales, Enterprise Solutions Group - Americas, Ramco Systems. “Real-time gauges with alerts will often signal the executives of a pending issue before it develops further.”
Software developers conceptualized dashboard reporting as a means to enhance operational control of a business by giving the user greater transparency into critical data throughout the day in an instant, empowering management to make decisions sooner.
“Dashboards equate to business intelligence, and intelligence is power,” says J.J. Shea, chief operating officer, Solutions by Computer. “The rental business by nature requires one decision after another, all day long. Pure data, while valuable, needs to be presented to the rental operator in ways that is immediately useful. Dashboards are good at that. Dashboards usually aggregate data and present it in graphical form, avoiding the ‘forest and trees’ problem.”
Orion Software customer Protec Equipment, Grand Prairie, Texas, previously used a self-developed software program for inventory management that required the user to pull data from spreadsheets and manually massage it to glean useful information. The company, which provides test equipment for rental, lease or sale, now uses Orion's Sirius Pro dashboards to calculate depreciation and an accurate inventory value, net ROI at an item code level or at a specific serialized asset level to help the company determine the best equipment to add to its fleet.
“Sirius Pro's dashboard allows us to get valuable data on multiple fronts,” says Dugan Richards, general manager, Protec. “We're able to keep track of maintenance costs down to specific assets or at the model number level, which can tell us which manufacturers are more reliable as a whole, or even down to identifying one specific item as a lemon. Additionally, we can utilize the system to see what maintenance is due and when. This allows us to better plan our maintenance periods so that we have our fleet at the maximum readiness point for our busiest times of the year.”
Data at a glance
Dashboard reports are designed to measure and track a number of different rental business metrics and KPIs such as revenue, accounts receivable, asset utilization, sales forecasting and many more. The resultant data can often be derived from multiple sources, including the rental software, and a variety of other integrated financial software and applications. Dashboards are typically configured to report information in a format that shows a result vs. the business goals established. Some examples include revenue, missed opportunities, utilization of the rental fleet, and downtime of equipment.
“Rental has become a sophisticated industry that requires real-time, quick analysis of trends to stay competitive,” says Jason Albus, systems engineer for Point-of-Rental Systems. “Dashboards fill a demand of rental people for cutting-edge technology to keep pace with their modern business environment.”
Dashboard reporting is gaining ground among rental businesses for a number of reasons, say software providers. “First, the rental industry is extremely competitive, dynamic and fast-paced,” says Lauren Dorman, vice president of product development for RMI Corp. “If you don't have your eye on the ball, you will miss opportunities to gain new business or maintain existing business by delivering superior customer service. Dashboards focus the organization on those key metrics established to monitor performance and drive growth.”
Second, the wildly dynamic growth of mobile information devices such as smartphones and tablets have aided the transformation of society into one that is accustomed to instant information and reminders, often presented in a visual format designed to prompt an immediate reaction. Fading are the days when lengthy printed reports were required to accurately analyze important business information.
“If one of your dashboard elements is a graphic depicting utilization levels by class of equipment, you can quickly decide which product lines require attention,” Dorman explains. “This is just one example of how dashboards allow the team to be much more efficient and responsive to market changes. Dashboards are often structured to monitor related metrics within a single view, affording the opportunity to spot trends, dependencies or opportunities for improvements.”
Michael Stilwagner, vice president of sales and marketing for Wynne Systems, says dashboards facilitate “management by exception,” noting that the data in a standard report is 95 percent or more of the business information that is expected, but that dashboards are meant to seek out the 5 percent exceptions that need the attention of management or that the upper management of a rental business will want employees to act on.
Dashboards are often developed to present business information to a specific job function within the rental company. For instance, management dashboards are intended to illustrate measures such as total revenue and/or rental revenue versus budget, against the previous quarter or same-year period, as well as accounts receivable for the branch manager, owner, and/or president and CEO. They also track and display daily business volume.
Operational dashboards help to manage rental activities such as reservations, equipment deliveries awaiting dispatch and inventory utilization for counter personnel, sales people, and other members of the staff dealing with daily operations issues.
Kevin Reim, president, Redtail Equipment Rental, College Station, Texas, uses an executive dashboard within his Alert Management rental software several times throughout each day to monitor accounts receivable and daily revenue, then tracks his company's progress toward financial goals on a monthly basis. Additionally, his staff uses an operator dashboard as their primary tool at the rental counter for writing contracts, checking equipment availability, handling sales calls and more.
“The operator dashboard reduces keystrokes and the graphical display gives you a more global view of equipment availability so you make better choices for assigning equipment,” says Reim. “Everything is at my fingertips, one or two clicks away, on the dashboard.”
Reim's employee in charge of collections uses the customer section within Alert's operator dashboard to make calls and collect payments, making paperless a task that once resulted in a pile of paperwork on his desktop. “He can drill down using hyperlinks to get invoice details, send multiple invoices in one email, review collection notes, set a tickler for the next call and so forth,” Reim explains. “It is one of the most powerful dashboards we use, and it definitely helps us collect money faster.”
Solutions by Computer offers two types of dashboards — financial and operational. Its Enlighten module in the Enfinity software program is designed to display customer, inventory and transaction data in a dynamic, multi-dimensional presentation that makes it easy to spot relationships and trends. The user can drag, drop and rearrange elements in the display to achieve any objective, resulting in real-time results displayed in numerical or graphical form to suit the user's preference.
“The nice thing about Enfinity's Enlighten module is that I can adapt it,” says Rusty Parr, owner of Newhall, Calif.-based A V Party Rentals. “I can set parameters to tell me which customers have rental tickets above what revenue line, on a weekly or monthly basis. We use that information to concentrate our communications on building relationships with our best customers.”
RMI's dashboards, referred to as Role Centers, are targeted toward the responsibilities of specific members of the rental staff. For example, an executive or senior manager of a rental organization is focused on financial KPIs and fleet utilization since that is an indicator of how well the company is managing its business volume to fleet investments. Rental customer service representatives are charged with keeping customers satisfied, so this person's dashboard includes items such as expiring rental quotes, expiring rental contracts, and delayed deliveries or returns. The sales manager's role center focuses on driving new business, illustrating the measurement of open opportunities and the sales team's scheduled “to-dos.”
“By delivering role-specific dashboards throughout our customers' organizations, we are effectively focusing entire organizations on the elements that drive success,” says Dorman.
The advantages of reviewing dashboard reports as opposed to full-run reports of individual business metrics are many. While most software providers agree that there is still a place in rental company management for classic business analytics, dashboards deliver the information a business manager needs much more quickly and without the time required to pore over and analyze lengthy printed reports.
“Two big advantages are the ability to see trends and make adjustments in real-time vs. working from static reports, and the ability to present data graphically, making it easier to understand and respond to critical trends,” says Alert Management Systems president Rob Ross.
Alert Management customer Chris Ferroni, manager, of Steubenville, Ohio-based General Rental, wanted to improve his store's ability to react to scheduling changes and customer requests that occur throughout the day. The problem his business had with printed reports, besides the tremendous use of paper, was that they were obsolete from the moment they were printed. To solve the problem, Ferroni dedicated a 32-inch monitor centrally located within the store to display a dashboard of daily contract activity for all employees to see. Comparing it to the monitors in airports displaying flight schedules, Ferroni says it has had a big impact on productivity and “keeps everybody moving.”
Orion Software president and CEO Patrice Boivin also points to real-time performance measurement as the most significant advantage to dashboard software, calling other types of analysis techniques “reactive” because they deliver business information “after the fact, whereas the integrated dashboard is a management tool you can use to plan and organize operations instantaneously.”
Ramco's Hercus agrees, noting that dashboards allow decision-makers to proactively monitor key areas of the business, relying on illustrative data to signal questionable areas of the operation. Once identified, the decision-maker can click on the dashboard, drill into the source of concern and proactively manage the situation.
“Reports have their place in business analysis, but they tend to be time-consuming — the rental operator usually has to wade through a lot of data to draw useful conclusions,” says Solutions' Shea. “Dashboards get you to the finish line faster; they are a graphical summary presentation of the underlying data. While it is usually possible to drill down to the actual data, the summary gives the user a feel for the important metrics of a business, particularly when trend information is included. This can make it easier to see relationships between performance in various areas of the business.”
Another key benefit to dashboard-enabled software is that it can be customized to suit the preferences of the user. In fact, tailoring business information to be delivered via dashboard is akin to customizing your Whopper at Burger King or your latte at Starbucks. Many software providers offer dashboards that allow users to choose the colors used as well as the type of graph or chart in which the business metrics are displayed. Users can also add watermarks to customize reports as confidential, for example, as well as choose the format in which they export the data, including PDF, HTML, XML, Excel or text, according to Michael Saint, president, Corporate Services.
“With a fully developed data cube, the calculation variables are quickly and easily modified to match the requirements of each rental company,” says Wynne's Stilwagner. “As business conditions change and new metrics are determined to be important, they can be added with minimal time and effort. This ability makes the dashboard tool one that will grow and change with your company.”
Ferroni created a customizable delivery/pickup dashboard for his company's delivery drivers to access using iPads supplied to every truck in the rental fleet. This dashboard allows the drivers to keep up in real time with customers calling equipment off rent, needing on-site troubleshooting or making other service requests. The mobility of both the software application and the device allows Ferroni's drivers to maximize efficiency, handling many situations while they are already out in the field, lowering transportation costs and providing faster customer service.
Redtail Rental's Reim, using Alert's Dashboard Generator, also known as the Data Pump, creates a variety of daily reports customized into a spreadsheet format to get his most critical daily financial indicators into a single spreadsheet that includes cash drawer balance, credit card payments, A/R balance and more.
Orion Software users can fully configure dashboards to match their exact requirements. For instance, using the company's transaction dashboard, a user can glean data on a certain sales representative by customizing the dashboard to view specific information such as performance or logistics relevant to that particular individual.
And no matter what KPIs the dashboard is reporting, rental businesses agree that the speed at which the information is available to them, and the ease and convenience with which it can be analyzed are very significant benefits to this type of rental management software.
“Our customers have found that it makes pulling information together much simpler, and allows them to get at their data much faster and in a snapshot format,” says Genisys Software president Ray Bonestroo.
“The key advantage is speed,” Point-of-Rental's Albus agrees. “Dashboards replace traditional methods of reading multiple reports and manually comparing the values to determine if the company is doing well or poorly in an area. Dashboards mine complex key business metric data into immediately informative visual displays that empower rental managers and employees to take action in real-time if targets are missed.”
As with all modern technology, the challenge continues to be how to deliver more information, more quickly and on smaller devices.
“We're becoming much more dependent on instant access to information — much of it graphical, interactive and mobile,” says RMI's Dorman. “The technologies we use to deliver and access information have become much more powerful, and we're able to deliver that finely tuned information on smaller and smaller screens.”
True, mobile devices have limited displays, but they are capable of presenting dashboard reporting options such as pie charts or light gauges. For instance, if a mobile user is monitoring a dashboard on his or her mobile device displaying a light gauge that turns from green to yellow to red, that user knows there is a critical issue to address, Ramco's Hercus explains.
“As rental employees adopt various mobile platforms, we as software vendors have to find ways to make certain features available on those devices,” says Albus. “The limitations on screen size and connectivity force us to carve the broad software package into smaller pieces with a focus on specific job functions.”
According to Alert Management's Ross, his company is spending more in this area than any other because dashboards have become so much more popular, intuitive and powerful than traditional reports and menus.
Indeed, huge growth in mobile connectivity allows today's workers to spend less and less time at their desks, leading to Shea's and others' expectation for continued growth of mobile dashboards, particularly in the rental business. “Dashboard applications are definitely going to become more prevalent as developers explore new possibilities,” concludes Shea.
While many current dashboards, though customizable, are standardized and generated by the software vendor, Olly Williamson, senior business development manager for inspHire, expects software developers to eventually develop tools that enable customers to write their own dashboards and integrate them into the software applications they are already using.
“This will provide the software users with flexibility to view the information that they require, whenever they require it, and without the need to revert to their vendor,” Williamson says. “This will save time and money for the customer and give them even more control of their business data.”