RER conducted a series of interviews for our October issue on software technology and has been publishing a number of them in RER Reports. The sixth installment is with Rob Ross, president of Alert Management Systems, based in Colorado Springs, Colo. Ross discusses a whole slate of new products offered by Alert, and takes a look at trends to come. Ross was interviewed by RER’s Michael Roth.
RER: What are some of your new software offerings?
Ross: All of the products listed in answer to this question were formally introduced for the first time in 2009 as part of our current annual revision, which is already deployed in hundreds of sites. As you can see, it has been a busy year!
We are responding to our client’s need to have real-time operational information at their finger tips in easily grasped, dashboard formats. For example, our new Dispatcher Dashboard is a real-time infinite calendar of deliveries, pickups and will-call activity, which allows drilling down to any reservation or contract for all the details in one click. A dispatcher can use it to manage and plan daily labor and transportation resources, and to look ahead to forecast future needs.
We are developing more multi-line dealership and multi-location functions for our clients who rent and service what they sell. For example, our new Work Order Generator automatically generates properly coded work orders when preventive maintenance intervals are achieved. This solves one of the most perplexing problems in the industry: getting mechanics to do paperwork!
We have introduced more Business Intelligence improvements, including our new Executive Dashboard, which provides instant analysis and summarization of key performance indicators. This is allowing many companies to get the business management information they really need without the delay and cost of maintaining complicated spreadsheet models.
The need to reduce the high cost of training inspired NextStep Navigator, which is our new work flow management system. This is a programmable “wizard” to make it easy to learn routine tasks that require multiple steps, since the program takes you to the next screen automatically. You just press a single green “NextStep” button to get to the Work Flow Menu and to each successive step. It dramatically reduces training time. It can also reinforce company policy for equipment exchanges and other tasks which need to be closely regulated.
Our clients who have made significant investments in their own web sites are taking advantage of our new Web Services Integrator program, which provides a free developer’s tool kit for customer portal and on-line order integration from any rental company web site. It is designed with portability in mind, so your professional rental customers can use a Blackberry or iPhone to request equipment and keep up with account activity on the go. We also provide free trouble-shooting and secure access to a free starter system on a hosted server, so your web site company or in-house developer can build, test and add new features safely.
One of the trends accelerated by the recession is the move towards pay-for-performance versus static comp plans for sales people. Our new Sales Commission Manager system was under development for two years prior to its release in 2009, after working with over a dozen members of our software user’s group (IAUA) on the requirements. Consequently, the finished product is extremely flexible and complete, allowing multiple comp plans with lots of levels, qualifiers and payment rules that are handled automatically. In the past, many of our clients have been put off from implementing pay-for-performance simply because of the administrative burden. Now, the new system even lets them over-ride commission allocations down to the invoice level, withhold for timely payment, track exceptions and provide auditable (“no argument”) sales reports in an instant.
Many of our clients are managing and reducing purchasing costs for rental asset, sales item and service part replenishment with our newly over-hauled Alert Purchase Order System. It incorporates e-mail notification into a new Requisition/Approval Work Flow, which includes an approval tree with authorized approver levels. So, even a remote store manager can be held accountable for managing to budget and get a quick approval (or not!) from headquarters.
ERP (accounting system) integration is becoming a bigger part of our business. We have developed and implemented robust integrations for Microsoft Dynamics-GP, MAS 90/200O, and other accounting packages popular with larger rental businesses or for larger companies where rental is just a department and tight integration with the corporate ERP is a high priority.
What are some of the new developments you have planned?
One of the most innovative projects we are working on is our new Rental Manifest System to manage transportation for large projects that require multiple deliveries to multiple venues. It even supports site-to-site tracking of rental inventory. We developed this for one of the largest suppliers for the PGA Golf Tour, but we believe it will be exciting for any company who works on large construction projects, sports events, multiple venue festivals, and the like. It will be available for general release in January, 2010, along with our next annual revision.
We are introducing a new version of our built-in report writer, to provide even more intuitive features for novice users. It also increases feature depth and performance for our most IT-savvy clients.
We have a new offering for our clients who use Excel to create spreadsheets. Instant conversion to an Excel spreadsheet has been a popular Alert feature for many years. Now, we will be incorporating our exciting new Alert Data Pump program that makes it possible to update complex Excel models from live Alert data automatically. We have already developed a prototype for one of our large corporate clients. It will eliminate costly custom code and dramatically reduce admin time.
In general terms, we are continuously improving Alert EasyPro, our flagship product, versus asking our clients to endure all the costs of converting to a completely new system or platform. This is possible because our software already runs over the Internet and is certified as a Windows product by Microsoft. It also runs on LINUX, the popular new operating system adopted by Google and millions of other companies world-wide. So this means we are not dependent on any one supplier as the future of computing unfolds.
From a software perspective, what do you see as some of the important things a rental company should be concentrating on in the current economic environment? What are some of the ways you can help rental companies deal with the recession?
Our company mission statement is to “maximize our client’s sales and profits.” We have found this to be an enduring mission, in good times and bad. When we do a good job of getting our clients to incorporate the latest technology to reduce their costs and increase their sales, we both remain profitable. There have been times in the past when rental businesses could, arguably, afford to delay keeping their software up-to-date. This just isn’t a good time to do that.
That being said, it is also in our business plan to provide a variety of services to help rental businesses react to trends and maximize growth and profitability regardless of the software they are using. For example, we subscribe to industry reports (such as the Global Insights “State of the Rental Industry”) to stay informed. We write a quarterly newsletter, maintain a library of articles on our web site (www.alertms.com, under the Profit Tools tab), speak at BAG groups, write articles for industry publications, participate in forums such as this one, and sponsor an annual 3-day conference focused on profitability. This year, we will even be inviting some special guests who are currently using other systems to join in the IAUA Conference.
Do you ever find yourself thinking: “If only I had $20 million (or pick a figure!) to spend on such and such, what would that such and such be?”
We are already spending upwards of a million per year in R&D when you include everything we do to produce and implement annual releases. This spending pace is dramatically larger than ever. That being said, the Internet poses both an endless opportunity for innovation and an unlimited challenge. We are constantly mapping and re-mapping our three- and five-year plans to keep up with it. We could easily spend even more.
What are some of the new capabilities you expect from software looking ahead five years?
We expect to see more and more rental software functionality migrating to the web. We have already started the process, with the incorporation of cell phones and other mobile devices, GPS integration, web-based mapping and routing, Web Services, and some of our other initiatives. This is just the beginning. There are at least three main forces driving this;
a) increasing demand for self-service,
b) the need to reduce time and cost on both sides of every transaction,
c) the need to continuously improve customer relationship management, which includes providing timely information and feedback. This facilitates customer growth and loyalty and drives development of new rental-related revenue opportunities.
There are other important technology trends we will be addressing, including the adoption of search engine optimization and social media for marketing, incorporating environmental values, and helping to manage the growth in government regulation and taxes. Software is always a “work-in-progress.”
One thing is for sure: It will require substantial programming resources, a willingness to partner with others when necessary, and the ability to provide a high level of service and support as the new technologies emerge. As a mature, well-managed company, we feel the “best practices” we have developed, and our strong relationship with our current clients will be the keys to our future success.