RER interviews Rob Ross, president of Alert Management Systems, about the growing power of the cloud in enabling large and small rental companies to modernize and streamline their businesses.

RER: What have been the most important developments/trends in rental-related software in the past year?

Ross: The most important trend is the continuing move of virtually all software and related resources to the Cloud. This technology allows large and small rental companies alike to modernize and streamline their businesses. The benefits include the ability to reduce capital expense, especially for server replacement, and to improve security, especially for handling credit card payments and other sensitive data. A hidden benefit until recently is that the Cloud now allows rental stores to provide a truly superior customer experience. In our view, Cloud-based customer services are the next real game-changer, because they provide tangible customer benefits that help differentiate the rental store brand and enhance customer loyalty.  These services can be provided through the web site, via self-service shopping carts, customer portals, mobile apps, and other tools, and they can even be used to transform the physical aspects of your customer’s rental experience.  

Alert’s Cloud-based Sign&Rent system, for example, started as a simple way to execute ‘paperless’ signed contracts in ‘blind drop’ situations. The authorized signer for the customer receives a Cloud-based version of the rental contract, which can be reviewed and signed from any smart mobile device or PC. So this means, even if the authorized signer is not available at the job site, the contract can be secured and both parties can be confident that the equipment ‘changed hands’ successfully, with all attendant rights and obligations for its condition and custody.

In subsequent years, however, Sign&Rent has morphed into a powerful set of Cloud-based tools for improving customer service by making the transfer of equipment better documented and more professional. Equipment condition is documented via instant equipment photos that are automatically inserted into the rental contract, without manual steps. You can draw on the photos to circle pre-existing damage. You can type notes and collect additional approval signatures, such as agreement to abide by attached operating instructions, safety or other terms and conditions. Photos of hour meters, serial number plates and fuel level indicators document the exact readings at the date and time-stamped drop-off and pickup. Any exceptions can be quickly spotted and easily documented:  It all becomes integrated into the contract record automatically. An e-mail copy, including photos, notes, and signatures, is automatically sent to the customer and to the store. Any additional payment, if required, can be collected on-the-spot, via secure credit card transaction. Or the credit card payment form can be e-mailed to the customer’s back office, speeding up payment and eliminating the need for collection phone calls and staff time. Since the encrypted payment is securely executed in real-time by the customer, the credit card details are never exposed to store personnel and there are no security risks. When the payment is accepted, another automatic e-mail notifies the store and the customer of the successful transaction.      

These are just examples (and there are many more), but they show how dramatically Cloud-based customer services can improve the impression your rental company makes when it really counts, such as when rental equipment changes hands.   

What do you expect will be the most important development/trend in the coming year or so?                

Some of our (Alert) rental store customers are now advertising their Cloud-based customer services as a way to differentiate themselves in the market-place. No more lost rental contracts or sketchy delivery scenarios. Everybody is on the same page, literally, with permanent records that are transparently available to the customer via the Cloud at any time. Self-service capabilities, such as the ability to reprint a contract or make a payment through a customer portal, are not just popular with your over-worked back-office staff. They are now an expected minimum level of customer service for your more savvy commercial rental customers. They are expecting you to provide automated ‘Alerts’ via text or e-mail, for overdue contracts or credit issues, or to automatically schedule e-mail reports, such as a weekly report of all equipment out on a job site. Again, these are just a few examples, but rental companies who can effectively leverage their use of the Cloud have a new competitive advantage that helps build loyalty without having to descend to the lowest price, which is today’s real battle in many if not all markets.

The retail rental experience is being similarly transformed by Cloud-based technology. Monolithic rental counters are being replaced by one-on-one ‘rental advisor’ kiosks, breaking down the barrier with your customers and opening up to new technology. Tablets are replacing printers as the default method to produce a (paperless) contract, which also means the transaction can be mobile. The rental advisor or a yard person can accompany the customer to the equipment for the final inspection (while taking documentary photos and noting any exceptions on the tablet) before the equipment is accepted. The contract can be signed right in the yard or loading area. The date and time-stamped contract copy is automatically e-mailed to the customer, including all photos, annotation and notes. The (optional) paper copy is not only unnecessary: It is simply obsolete.           

How can software help rental companies do delivery more efficiently?

Dispatch and delivery management has become the most significant area of new investment for many rental software companies, such as Alert. We have combined it with Cloud-based capabilities, such as automatically e-mailing delivery tickets in route-order to drivers, and uploading the delivery route to an on-board GPS guidance display which can then speak the turn-by-turn instructions to the driver. 

The first thing we had to tackle, however, was the reluctance of many of our customers to abandon their manual ‘white-boards’ which they had used for so many years. This is why we made our Dispatcher Dashboard into the industry’s first ‘virtual’ white-board that graphically represents a manual display, only more colorfully and in a way that is much easier and more efficient to maintain. For example, we have creatively deployed drag-and-drop capability, so the dispatcher can build a route without typing skills. You simply drag-and-drop the needed resources from the displayed lists in different window panes, all on the same screen. The resources available include drivers and trucks, the unrouted contracts, and even graphical representations, such as a symbol of a sandwich to indicate a lunch break, and other symbols for ‘return to warehouse’ or ‘miscellaneous stop’. As each resource is selected, the dispatcher is prompted with an appropriate form, indicating the length of the stop or lunch break, expected arrival time, and any other contextual details. 

The Dispatcher Dashboard is accessible by everyone in the store, although security prevents accidental or unwanted route changes. So this means, in a typical situation, your rental counter staff doesn’t need to put the customer on hold while calling the dispatcher to find out when the equipment will be delivered. Combined with our GPS dashboard, which shows everyone the exact location of all your trucks, your counter staff is empowered to provide the instant answers your customers demand.

We have added dozens of new features to every new release of Dispatcher Dashboard based on customer input. It is easily the fastest growing part of our system, with many more improvements pending.              

How can software help with fleet management? 

Whether you have a few delivery vehicles, or more than 50, like some of our larger customers, managing your transportation fleet is an increasingly complex and costly enterprise.  (Some of our customers lament that they might as well be in the moving and storage business!)  First, we recommend using our built-in preventative maintenance software to maintain service levels and intervals, keep up with inspections and licensing, and other basic needs. Our Dispatch management system includes the ability to assign delivery vehicles to the correct route, and integrates with fleet management software to get comprehensive fleet tracking features, such as real-time or historical vehicle and driver behavioral data. In 2017, a new federal mandate will require many fleet operators to maintain an Electronic Logging Device (ELD- which is already supported in our system) to prevent Hours of Service (HOS) violations and potential fines and sanctions. If this trend continues, it is safe to assume that most rental businesses operating a fleet of transportation vehicles will be forced into fleet management software of some kind, just to comply with the regulatory environment.                     

How can software help with running the shop more efficiently?

Like some other rental software systems, Alert has a robust work order management system that tightly integrates with rental availability, and it also automates tracking of customer repairs. That being said, one of the biggest management challenges in running the repair shop efficiently became clearer to me on an on-site visit recently. First, the general manager explained just how valuable his top mechanics were to the operation. In many cases, even a large operation can be dependent on the skills and productivity of a unique individual, who has a meticulous understanding of specific equipment and a passion for keeping your equipment in top shape. On the other hand, it is often very difficult for such individuals to keep up (physically and emotionally) with the constant flow of interruptions and emergencies that make up their typical work day. The last thing a manager wants to do is add to the stress by demanding verbal updates throughout the day on the status of the down-line and exactly when your valuable revenue-producing equipment is expected return to the fleet. So this is a delicate balance, to say the least. Emotions can fly. 

This is why some of our customers have implemented a new strategy:  Using large flat panel TV screens as Work Area Displays. In the shop area, you can display Alert’s Work Order Dashboard, which shows the status of all your work orders in a color-coded graphical display. Red means ‘Hard Down’, Yellow means ‘Soft Down’. Special software refreshes the display every few seconds, allowing you to see the progress of work orders on a timeline, as they are added and completed.  So the manager’s job is a little easier: He or she can manage by ‘wandering around’ vs. interrogating each mechanic. The mechanic and the manager (as coach) can look at the display together, to re-prioritize and avert crisis through give-and-take, as needed. Since the display is available for all eyes to see (productivity experts call this ‘natural surveillance’), it is a self-motivating tool. No mechanic wants a sea of red visible on a public dashboard with their name on it. On the other hand, with full transparency, it is easier for the mechanic to make the case when they need more help.   

Another Work Area Display in use by (Alert) rental stores is a version of a scheduled maintenance report designed for the equipment return area, indicating units that need to be pulled for maintenance as soon as they are returned. So a quick glance is all it takes, vs. going to a computer workstation or printing out a report. Creatively placed Work Area Displays are in use in Will Call and even behind the rental counter for similar purposes. They can combine multiple sources of data, such as a weather web site, store advertising and promotions, safety information, or even a store manager’s ‘Twitter Feed’ to add up-to-the-minute commentary and humor.