RER interviews major software suppliers on how new devices such as Smartphones and the iPad, cloud computing, statistical rate analysis and Software as a Service are driving efficiencies for rental companies.
RER: Tell us about the latest technological advances and functionalities of your rental business software.
Shaffer: Communication tools have become important. That is, communications by and between store management and their employees via Google, Yahoo or Microsoft Calendars, or via our proprietary “Task List” feature. Examples include: communication between employees and store customers via our built-in Customer Relationship Management (CRM) module; communication between large account customers and the rental business using the customer portal feature in our hosted websites to provide customers real-time information about their inventory on rent, inventory off rent and their accounts receivables records; and automatic communication via texting from our software directly to the store salesmen responsible for different accounts.
GPS integration with delivery and service vehicles will be a reality in the next release of our Dispatch Center option. This will provide real-time location information about delivery and service fleet vehicles.
Shea: Our fall software release R3.0 will contain several new functions that focus on productivity, specifically as it relates to inventory management. For example, we've developed an inventory-taking module that compares automated reporting against physical inventory counts, taking into account any changes in inventory during the process. It allows a rental business to accurately assess its inventory while remaining open for business, which is a major convenience.
Milcik: Rental business software has become a very mature solution over the years, so the industry and our clients are now looking for more than simple contract and inventory management functions. At Texada, we have been focusing on empowering our clients with easier and more powerful access to the Systematic software solution. We've added the advanced functionality of “Dynamic Reports,” a tool that allows our customers numerous ways to access their current and historical data, providing them with unrivaled flexibility for report generation with a simple click-and-drag interface. This in turn allows them to leverage vast amounts of business data with the ability to visualize trends as they develop, as well as measure their business activities in an on-time manner and improve their capacity to make timely and educated business decisions.
Another advance has been “Mobility Access,” which gives our clients new ways of interacting with the system outside of the four walls of the rental operation. Downtime is reduced through the use of technology that allows remote access to the information and functions that our clients need to manage their rental operation in the field, through the use of remote devices such as handheld, tablets and Smartphones.
Baron: At Result Group we recently introduced our rental management web application optimized for the iPad, and our rules engine. Our rental management web application optimized for the iPad keeps relevant information at a user's fingertips, which creates an opportunity to improve productivity and response time, two metrics that contribute directly to bottom-line growth.
Our Rules Engine for rentalresult allows companies to make decades of their best employees' knowledge available to any employee or automated business process. For example, the rules engine can be applied to processes such as rate optimization, cross selling, up selling, project scoping, and customer relationship management. The result is that top employees can focus on the more difficult tasks and less experienced staff can focus on the day-to-day challenges. Because of this, our Rules Engine has the potential to significantly impact a business' bottom line.
Ross: Over the past two years, Alert Management Systems has made dramatic improvements in its Alert EasyPro (Windows) software by reorganizing its user interface around the “Dashboard” metaphor. This is allowing us to eliminate navigation clicks and nested screens, streamline work flow, organize content by user role, and eliminate unnecessary waiting time for report presentation.
Streamlining the user experience has also made Alert EasyPro more powerful, by making advanced features easier to use instead of more complex. Presenting several reports at once in one dashboard screen, for example, makes it easier for business owners to interpret and react to business changes. The benefits are many. Most importantly, you can make decisions faster, with more current information, with little or no wait time for answers.
The latest revision of Executive Dashboard has been expanded and improved to include 60-plus screens of business results in colorful charts and graphs. Enhancements include more comparisons of goals and forecasts to actual performance for salesperson and location revenue.
The recently released Operator Dashboard provides a single navigation screen to view, print, fax, e-mail, or change rental contracts in any timeframe. Similar dashboards have been developed for managing customers and fixed assets. The new user interface reduces most tasks to a few mouse clicks, using embedded buttons and intuitive hyperlinks to execute complex activities.
The Truck Manifest System for Rental is the industry's first comprehensive system for tracking multiple equipment deliveries and labor crews for large events. It creates a visual dashboard of all transportation and crew activity for each rental contract. The paper trail includes manifests and exception reports from the time you load the first truck, through in-transit, on-site installation, tear-down and clean-up activities. This system also makes it easy to track and manage venue-to-venue product movements and outsource to common carriers.
Gilbert: Our latest add-ons were focused on simplifying what used to be complex multi-branch operations: automating the delivery on one contract of products found in multiple locations, or allowing for the return of equipment in any branch of a network in a few keystrokes. These options also follow business-defined rules such as automated equipment transfer to the originated branch, or a seamless authorization process in order to allow for another branch to pick in one's fleet.
Chapdelaine: The Advantage Live product is now the only way we are licensing our software. We have completely gone in under the cloud. There are really a couple of major areas that are driving the industry and certainly the cloud is part of what makes it possible. The first thing we're doing that's starting to take hold amongst our customers is what we're calling the role-tailored client. How we define the client is: who's using the software at an individual job level? We've made the system so that screens dynamically change based upon the person and their role in their organization and what they need to see to do their job.
It's much more graphically oriented than picking from a menu selection. It's more icon driven and, again, role specific. So if you're, for example, a rental customer service rep, you're going to see an icon showing you with some graphical depiction how much you've got working in the area of quoting versus open orders; orders that need to be filled; equipment that's due back; and you can see a very graphical look and feel to the system, which makes it easier for people to pick up the application and makes it easier to do their jobs.
Most importantly as you have turnover, and draw new people into jobs, they're able to pick it up right away. Then you start to get into the full integration with all of your office productivity tools. We're a Microsoft-based application so when we say office productivity we're talking about Microsoft Office applications, including Exchange Server, so by integrating your complete system with your office environment, it gives you the ability, for example, to do business notifications. You're able to automatically generate notifications to your service department to prep equipment or stage it for pick-up or delivery, so we're driving notifications through email more and more.
Bonestroo: We are constantly adding features to both our legacy and graphical versions of our software. Examples of this are our ability to mass e-mail closed invoices or statements at night or at the end of the month; our new dashboard screens; the web reservations and web store modules; and many additions to our Smartphone software.
Saint: What we've gotten a request for more than anything else, has been a desire on the part of our clients to communicate with other third-party applications and then take that data and communicate it to their customers. An example might be that we go out and buy some GPS devices and put them on our equipment. We want the TrakQuip rental software to communicate with the GPS software and track where that equipment is and also put that equipment on alert if it's scheduled to go on rent or if it needs to be picked up or if we need to get some data from it.
And then on the opposite end of that communication our users would want their customer to be able to log in to a customer portal and see what equipment is on rent, what open invoices exist, that sort of thing. So we built a suite of communication tools using .NET technology, to communicate with websites, web services, mobile applications, etc.
Thompson: The genesis of the Zilliant breakthrough is not so much functional, as it is in the business approach we take. From that approach springs many functional distinctives but we need to understand that approach itself, which is the use of advanced statistical science to predict market response to rate changes and use that information to drive margin gains. That's the big idea — use science to analyze the market and set rates, rather than asking humans to guess at it. That's a big leap, especially for rental companies with a strong culture of branch autonomy and experienced managers who feel they know their business better than anyone — certainly better than some folks up at corporate armed with some new-fangled software tools.
We accomplish this task of scientifically valid rate setting by identifying the real factors that affect price in the rental market (not the assumed factors, but what the data reveals to us when we put it under the microscope), which results in thousands of distinct price segments hidden within the market — each one having a different market-aligned rate expectation. Some examples of factors that influence rate are the type of job where the equipment is being used and the volume of equipment already on-rent by that customer.
What are some of the trends you expect to see develop in the coming years in terms of rental industry software and its capabilities?
Shaffer: Eventually passive RFID tags will have application but the “read range” and expense keeps this technology from “prime time” except for a bar code substitute that is mostly only useful for tracking sales inventory.
Shea: I think there will be an increasing need to make the data in rental databases accessible over the web. We offer that now through our Internet Portal, but we also see it as an expanding frontier. Specialty rental companies are leading the trend; if you rent costumes or props, for example, you're in a very visual business where customers need to know a lot about a certain product before they rent it. The Internet is the perfect vehicle for that.
RFID chips were a hot topic a few years ago but demand has failed to materialize from rental companies. The requests we're seeing are very product-specific: for example, an A/V rental company that uses RFID to scan through padded shipping cases to verify that delicate components are inside without unpacking them prior to each rental. RFID has the potential to play a bigger part in inventory management down the road because it contains functional aspects of both barcode scanning and GPS tracking.
Other trends that are likely to endure for the immediate future are integration with third-party software packages and e-transmittal of documents. E-transmittal is a very popular feature with our customers, and it's growing in usage.
Milcik: Looking forward, we believe the trend toward SaaS-hosted (Software as a Service) solutions will continue. The SaaS deployment method allows companies to focus on the core requirements of their business and avoid having to add the added weight of managing IT-related issues like acquiring and maintaining a server, performing and storing data backups, ensuring server uptime, performing server upgrades/paths, performing operating system upgrades/patches, database monitoring, performing database license upgrades as well as the costs of replacing hardware on a regular basis. This method also allows clients to roll out an implementation or add additional seats/users at an increased pace. Finally, the SaaS model allows for increased flexibility and mobility, as the customer can log in to their system from virtually anywhere using any computer.
Baron: The economic climate over the past 18 months has significantly impacted how the industry is looking to use technology. Due to decreasing rates and utilization, companies can no longer just throw more labor at a throughput challenge. The industry is going to see more functionality, such as our Rules Engine and our e-commerce solution, which helps a company's employees and customers to make better decisions and helps to make them more efficient. Companies that buy into and successfully follow this trend will reap tremendous rewards as the economy continues the recovery process.
Ross: A few trends I see are more business intelligence tools, more business/profit planning tools, more use of the web Cloud (integrating a multitude of complementary services), more mobile computing, e.g. iPhones, small laptops for field workers, and software that is even more intuitive and makes training easier.
Gilbert: Software as a Service (SaaS) is definitively one of them. Multiple rental stores do have to migrate their legacy systems on newer platforms in order to simplify their support services and to lower equipment maintenance fees, and also in order to profit from benefits brought by newer technology rental software. Hosted services, either in a SaaS model or in cloud computing (servers are not fixed nor identified per se), will allow corporations to move onto the latest systems without having to install and maintain servers, backups, or system updates. These new platforms are quite new and we will see many different offerings in the near future, ranging from homemade servers with small security or backup systems for power outage, hard disk failure, or virus attack, to world-class server farms with server replication and the latest security features. We are proud to offer the latter and thus allow our customers to benefit from uninterrupted application service with a simple web access.
Chapdelaine: We are seeing the adoption now of many more electronic transactions taking place. For example with web portals, customers can log on to see their own activity within your system, they're able to opt to pay their bills via a web portal. Credit card payments in the consumer world have always been very common, but in the business-to-business world we're seeing much more acceptance of credit card transactions. Even large corporations are paying their bills via credit cards and large rental operations are invoicing and expecting payment by credit card either instantly when you produce the invoice, or you invoice in the traditional way and rather than your customer sending you a check, they log onto your website via a secure portal and they click on the invoices they want to pay and it charges their credit card. That's becoming more prevalent. It reduces paperwork. It helps out on timing, shortening up the collection cycle. It secures the payment cycle. It simplifies life for the customer as well.
Bonestroo: There will be more and more applications developed on Smartphones giving end users real-time access to their data. There are many new operating systems that we will be porting our software to over the next year or two (such as the Blackberry, iPhone, and the new Android OS).
Saint: Rental software used to sit in the corner and do its own little thing and now there's this desire that says I want the rental software to talk to my accounting software, back and forth, I want it to talk to my GPS devices. I want it to talk to my cell phone. I want it to talk to my customers through web services and so forth, so that's the expanding trend that I'm seeing.
The second piece of it has been the desire of the rental companies to communicate with their customers through web portals. The client can see what equipment is out on rent, what charges are on it, what is the AR balance. In some cases they want the customer to make reservations online.
How have Smartphones and hand-held devices changed the way rental companies manage their businesses? How will this trend continue to evolve?
Shaffer: Several new features to our integrated website hosting services will be released soon. People accessing our customers' hosted websites via Smartphones such as the iPhone and BlackBerry will be able to browse our customers' Point-of-Rental-hosted websites a lot more effectively. Customers looking to rent or buy equipment will be able to view a stripped-down version of the store's website that has been Smartphone optimized. A “Call Now” button has been added to allow those users to telephone the store directly from their Smartphone. Other features include links to the store's map using GPS technology, store hours, and an optional electronic Coupon page. With the rising number of Smartphone users, our new mobile-friendly website features will put your rental inventory in the hands of potential customers no matter where they are.
Shea: Hand-held devices have the potential to revolutionize rental business efficiency in a number of areas, including delivery and pickup. A dispatcher who can see the location of two or more delivery vehicles at any given time can advise or re-route drivers on the fly. This has positive implications for customer service as well as fuel costs. And the costs associated with this kind of tracking are quickly becoming incidental.
Baron: Since the first Smartphones were released into the market over a decade ago, there has been a lot of excitement around how these devices can positively impact a rental company. Initially, these devices helped rental companies manage their business by streamlining communications via instant access to email. Thanks to the recent Smartphone innovation over the past three years, as well as the expansion of modern, high-speed cellular data networks, we are starting to see rental companies figure out how to use these devices to help their field service and sales representatives make more informed, real-time decisions while away from their workshops and offices.
One struggle I have still seen, however, is that many rental companies have a hard time linking up to their rental management system in a simple and meaningful way. With our rentalresult service-oriented architecture and web service layer, we make it possible to more quickly and effectively realize the promise of the modern Smartphone. Open access to the right rental management system information and business processes is crucial to future evolution of this technology in the industry.
Ross: A growing number of our clients are successfully accessing their Alert EasyPro systems from mobile devices and small laptops for routine purposes. Alert EasyPro can “plug and play” with software for controlling PC's from mobile devices, including iPads and iPhones. Over time, as this market matures, we will offer more specialized mobile applications, including special small-screen formats, web-optimized versions of reports, and new “Portals” to better support mobile worker needs.
Gilbert: These devices are currently and will continue to be extensions of the rental business computer systems. The idea is to work in real-time, at the customer's location, and this trend is going to continue.
Chapdelaine: We're developing a whole lot more mobility in the application so that no matter where you are, the system now is fully integrated, including Exchange Server so your Smartphone is picking up your notifications. You're able to access the system through a number of devices. Now we don't care if you're working off a Mac device, a Windows device, it doesn't matter because through the Cloud we're all the same.
It's really changing the dynamics of how people are working with their systems and how they're managing their businesses. I think we have a major evolution going on in the industry that is still relatively new, but it is gaining momentum. It really makes a lot of sense. The more I've learned about cloud-based computing, and the more we have developed in that environment the more I'm starting to realize ‘It's not just my gut that told me this was a good idea, my head and logic tell me this is a good idea.’ It's incredibly powerful.
Bonestroo: With our Smartphone software you can check inventory availability, check rental rates, enter reservations, see open orders, manage deliveries and pickups, enter in meter readings on the jobsite, and see how each of your locations are doing for any date range (today, this week/month/quarter/year/or any other). You can even see who is working and when through our time clock application.
Thompson: Mobile devices have changed the business in a couple of ways. Tactically, they have reduced cycle time for price quotes when a sales rep is in the field. On a site visit, if the job foreman asks for a rate and availability on additional equipment, that information is literally in-hand in a few seconds.
Strategically, the mobile devices are enabling a more proactive style of account engagement where the sales rep is not just dropping by the site and asking, “What else do you need here?” but instead he looks at key performance statistics and untapped opportunities on his mobile device before stepping into the construction trailer and leads the conversation with suggestions about what additional equipment they could be sourcing from him and how we can optimize their overall spend.
Bob Shaffer, CEO, Point-of-Rental Systems
Jack Shea, CEO, Solutions by Computer
Steve Milcik, sales executive, Texada Software
Michael Baron, vice president business development, Result Group
Rob Ross, president of Alert Management Systems
Andre Gilbert, president of Orion Software
Paul Chapdelaine, president, RMI Corp.
Ray Bonestroo, president, Genisys Software
Michael Saint, president, Corporate Services
Barrett Thompson, director of pricing excellence, Zilliant