As part of a series of interviews with software manufacturers, RER interviewed Kara Lawrence and Mary Crosslin, co-owners, Alert Management Systems about reports, mobile apps, e-commerce solutions, simplifying the rental transaction and more.

RER: Some of the most important capabilities that have developed recently are in the logistics area, such as mobile apps, viewing fleet location in real time, being able to inform customers about the proximity of a delivery. Do you offer these types of features and what else is on the horizon?        

Kara Lawrence and Mary Crosslin: Alert EasyPro has mobile reports that can be accessed on a smartphone, tablet or laptop, to facilitate outside sales and their ability to answer real-time questions for clients. We have created a graphical Dispatch Dashboard with integration to Fleetmatics for delivery dispatching, as well as several telematics interfaces that will manage your rental fleet via GPS. You can update drivers with an email, re-send updated delivery docs, re-route your driver on the fly or take pictures that will automatically attach to the delivery or pickup order.

Mobile Inventory Manager has been a popular feature in Alert for taking inventory (both sales and rental) on mobile devices, as well.

On the horizon: mobile timecard and mobile check-in.

Customers increasingly want to manage their own rentals online, access their accounts, be able to take care of business online, especially using a mobile app. Are you offering these types of services and what new developments will be coming along in this area?

Lawrence, Crosslin: Absolutely! Alert has been on the cutting edge in this area. We’ve offered both WebRequests and Customer Portal for years. Customer Portal allows clients to access their accounts, re-print invoices and make payments via a login to the store's website. WebRequests provides a 24/7 client-facing sales opportunity for stores to handle rental requests (web order processing) via their website. Both of these solutions are offered in such a way that our clients can own/control their own website and develop the look and feel with web developers of their choice, so each website can be uniquely designed with our clients’ vision and branding in mind.

We were also first to the market with Sign & Rent, a unique mobile app that allows drivers to get electronic signatures, do count sheets, take photos and make notes, all of which will be automatically uploaded to Alert and attached to the ticket that it references. That same app allows clients to sign bids on their laptop or smart device, make payments (which can automatically convert an order to a reservation in Alert), capture electronic signatures at the counter on a tablet, and much more!

Coming soon, Alert is deploying an eCommerce solution where clients will be able to completely manage their own rental experience from start to finish, without ever having to require assistance from the store.

What do you expect will be the most important development/trend in the coming year or so – in rental software in general as well as your company?

Lawrence, Crosslin: Our vision of rental software trends in the short-term: Alert Management Systems is spending an equal amount of our development resources enhancing existing functionality within Alert EasyPro, as we are adding new functionality altogether. One example is an auto-close option that will interface with our QuickCheck feature. Soon, in addition to being able to scan the barcode on a ticket to check the items in and auto-print count sheets, you will have the option to auto-close invoices that meet a specific set of criteria.

There is a growing interest in RFID for asset management, and Alert is partnering with an RFID company to interface with that technology. We expect that as RFID technology becomes more cost-effective, the uses for RFID tags will become more diverse.

Another project that we are excited about this year is Job Costing that will be built into Alert EasyPro at the ticket level. As more clients become consolidators themselves, or simply expand their operations, it becomes increasingly important that they have a grasp on the profitability of their jobs at a glance. We are hoping to make that easier/faster for our clients with this powerful new tool.

What do we see as the trend for rental software, in general? We feel that the trend that our founder put in place more than 30 years ago will quickly become the norm rather than the exception: allowing client-based user groups to drive development. We are celebrating our 32nd annual International Alert Users' Association meeting this November. When Alert started the multi-day conference, it was unheard of for software companies to take direction from end-users, but now, it's a trend others are following.

What trends do we see for our own company in the coming year? Our company will be bucking the trend of software consolidation. We believe that competition in rental software improves all of our products and makes it a more end-user focused marketplace.

We bought Alert last year, having been long-term employees and members of the board of directors. This next year will see us continue to be focused on and implementing changes to our organization that make it a more fun/creative place to work: flexible hours, telecommuting, collaborative work space, new tech tools. We want to continue to attract new talent while we retain the people that have made Alert Management Systems such an outstanding company to work for over 40+ years.

Have you made any further developments in CRM-related software? How can your software help customers with this important area?

Lawrence, Crosslin: Yes! Alert is partnering with CRM software Zoho. Our clients are eager to work with this affordable/scalable solution, and it will allow them to better manage their sales cycle and maintain better sales metrics with this integration.

Rental companies are more interested in using analytics to improve their businesses. Are there any particular ways you are able to help in this area – any particular new reports or capabilities?

Lawrence, Crosslin: With over 500 canned reports in the Alert EasyPro system, nearly every measure is readily available, and every report can be displayed in Excel with a single click. Our built-in business intelligence tool allows for easy modification of existing reports or the creation of new reports. Many of our report-savvy users have dreamed up even more reports that are available to other users free of charge on our on-line knowledge base.

For even more advanced analytics, we offer an Excel plug-in called Data Pump.  The Alert user is able to, with the push of a button, populate an Excel spreadsheet with pre-determined fields to make reporting simpler than ever.

How can your software help with fleet management, i.e., knowing how long equipment should be kept or knowing when it is more economic to replace equipment?

Lawrence, Crosslin: Fleet Management is a key reason to own rental software, not just to accurately reflect availability, but to track expenses, additional purchase costs, ROI and utilization. Alert has been helping its clients do that since 1976 with Work Order & Preventive Maintenance, rolling 12-month utilization reports, on-yard reports, target ROI & disposal dates, and more. Our partnerships with several of the leading telematics companies also allow our clients to use GPS to locate & control their equipment in the field, build geo-fences, ping for meter readings (which then feed into our Preventive Maintenance system), and more.  

How is your software updating and simplifying the rental transaction?

Lawrence, Crosslin: This has become especially critical as rental software has developed into a more complex product, going from a way to write a legible ticket for a client several decades ago to a mission-critical part of the rental operation today, touching every aspect of the organization. We are offering more and more features, conveying more information and interfacing with more third party products than ever before and therefore have added many features to streamline the ticket writing process.

Technology itself has created levels of efficiency, just in ease of processing credit cards, automating billing, recording drivers’ license information, importing to accounting software, etc. But at the heart of it all is ticket writing and even as the options that we present to the rental staff become more complex, the ease with which they can write a ticket must improve. To accomplish this Alert has added a NextStep Navigator to guide new employees through the ticket-writing process, suggested add-on items, automated change notifications, easy to see/use 'Done' and 'Accept' buttons to skip unnecessary fields and we have replaced many reports -- and the need to go to multiple screens -- with easy to use color-coded dashboards.

How is your software helping rental companies to run maintenance and repair more efficiently?

Lawrence, Crosslin: Our Work Order and Preventive Maintenance Systems were at one time used primarily by equipment stores, but now event companies also see the benefit to tracking internal repair costs, knowing when units are down for maintenance, whether equipment is hard or soft down, and when scheduled preventive maintenance needs to be done. It is true for all industries, better to schedule down-time than have it thrust upon you at an unfortunate time -- and let's face it, any time you don’t expect equipment to be down is unfortunate! 

Our Work Order Generator makes it especially easy to handle the creation of Works Orders, it will automatically create a Work Order or prompt you whether you want one created under a series of conditions (i.e. a preventive maintenance trigger or an exchange of units). It is just one example of how we try to eliminate touch-costs from our client's business. Further, the Work Order and Fixed Asset Dashboards allow you to get a visual of where units are, what projected repair times are or how long units are taking to get repaired.

Do you expect to see further developments in terms of Cloud technology and SaaS?

Lawrence, Crosslin: Alert and the rental software industry in general has been offering both Cloud Hosting and SaaS (software as a service) since the 90's, but rental stores have always been wary about 'renting' software -- they know that there is profit in renting things, so they are not eager to do so themselves. While SaaS gets bantered about and often gets asked about by the IT people helping make a software buying decision, rarely do rental stores choose that option. They prefer to own their software licenses.

As rental store owners have become more comfortable with the concept of Cloud Computing, we have seen an increased demand/level of interest. What seems to have changed is that stores are much more aware of their dependency on their rental software and their tolerance for down-time is much less than it was even a decade ago. Stores are examining overhead costs and like the idea of having servers constantly updated, anti-virus and backups managed for them, and the ease with which they can scale-up (users/CPU/RAM/etc.). It not only limits their need for expensive IT contract services, but it puts their expenses in a predictable and easy-to-budget format. We find that with each passing year, the reticence to have their data off-site and not 'in their control' is being replaced with the desire for it to be secure, redundantly backed up, not subject to environmental threats, and accessible by multiple locations quickly and easily.