In RER’s July issue, we interviewed software providers about how the cloud computing concept continues to penetrate the rental industry, and we will be reprinting them in the coming weeks in RER Reports. In this interview, Rob Ross, president, Alert Management Systems, talks to RER managing editor Brandey Smith about benefits to the cloud, monitoring and publicizing customer satisfaction and the ability of Dashboard technology to make basic functions easier.
RER: The cloud computing concept has steadily grown as its benefits become more apparent to businesses and individuals alike. Do you think the popular release of Apple’s iCloud will further enhance awareness of the cloud computing concept and make offsite storage of data more comfortable for rental business owners?
Ross: Cloud computing has been around for some time now. Salesforce.com offered this service some 15 years ago. For the most part, it took from then ‘til now to reach a high level of awareness. A distinction has to be made between cloud computing and cloud storage. Apple’s recent announcement (iCloud) offers cloud storage to the masses. It is designed to store music, photos, applications, documents, iBooks, contacts, etc.
And then there’s cloud computing. Cloud computing is what we do at Alert Management Systems. AMS has taken our rental application, Alert EasyPro, and deployed it in a cloud environment for a number of our customers, using their own off-site facilities or third-party data centers. With Apple’s entrance into cloud storage, awareness will definitely increase. Everyone likes to follow a winner. On the other hand, cloud computing still has a way to go to achieve the same expected popularity and low cost.
Does Apple’s iCloud offering mean that smaller rental businesses with fewer locations will soon be best served by utilizing a similar cloud model for their software implementation and data storage? In other words, since iCloud is designed for individual users, do you expect similar cloud offerings to follow that offer affordable cloud benefits to small businesses?
The iCloud is being marketed as a “personal” cloud storage option. Microsoft’s announcement of Microsoft Office 365, on the other hand, reportedly will more directly influence small- and medium-sized businesses. The price model that will go with it (starting at $6 per month per user), which includes Outlook for e-mail and other mainstay applications, will definitely be an affordable option for small businesses who want to reduce their IT investment. (Here is a report on Steve Balmer’s announcement: http://www.crn.com/news/cloud/231000595/microsoft-goes-live-with-long-awaited-office-365-cloud-apps.htm;jsessionid=Tmtv7L90Pt8y+2YbvOp0lg**.ecappj03?cid=nl_special)
We have just successfully beta-tested a new technology that allows us to deploy Alert EasyPro in the cloud for any of our customers, large and small. It can be seamlessly expanded to support literally thousands of simultaneous users anywhere in the world, including iPads and other mobile users. The small business operator can set up a network of five PC’s or less at a relatively lower cost, since it eliminates the cost of a server and reduces ongoing IT maintenance expenses. It does not even require a browser on each PC (“zero” client). We believe this could be a viable alternative for many of our customers, since it is based on reducing IT expense and simplifying implementation, as well as opening the door to the best in cloud computing.
Explain how all the outside data management that the cloud provides will affect a rental business’ IT costs. How much of an annual savings do you think a small- to medium-sized rental business might expect to achieve when it no longer requires onsite IT personnel?
Our clients who have larger, multi-store operations often have a significant investment in one or more IT personnel, so there is no question of the possible impact there. Typically, it could mean the difference between a full-time vs. a part-time person, so a savings of $25,000 per year and up is quite conceivable. This is more difficult to estimate for smaller companies, since their costs vary so widely. Since we provide “first call” support to our customers, regardless of the issue, most of our small- to medium-sized clients get by with only “pay-as-you-go” IT consultants, who come onsite occasionally for maintenance or to replace obsolete equipment in an emergency. Some level of on-site support would still be needed even in the cloud environment, but small companies who have annual on-site support contracts might be able to drop to a lower level of service.
Many rental management solutions providers tout their superior customer support capabilities. How important is customer support to consider when selecting a new software provider? Give me an example of a situation when support was invaluable.
We believe providing superior support to our current clients is our most important function. In fact, in order to make sure that we achieve the highest possible customer satisfaction, we survey all our clients each month with a detailed set of questions. We get high levels of voluntary participation and publish the quarterly results on our website. Currently, we are achieving a satisfaction rate of higher than 96 percent.
Taking support a step further, we have offered a three-day Users’ Group Conference for 25 years now. (We have renamed it our Profitability Conference in recent years.) We find that our clients get more value from their software investment by continuously learning how to use it to be more profitable. Quite a number of our clients take advantage of this conference, as well as the invaluable networking that goes with it. In addition, our users are able to actively participate in the development of new software revisions, including voting on new features.
Describe the very latest technologies that rental businesses are benefiting from both in terms of hardware equipment/devices and software features. What do you see coming?
We have invested heavily in Dashboard technology, making basic functions easier and faster, as well as speeding up access to key performance indicators throughout the business. Many of our clients are investing in mobile technology (such as the iPad) to stay in touch and provide more efficient on-site customer service. Web-based customer portals are also extremely popular, allowing your customers to reprint their own invoices and manage their own accounts from anywhere 24/7. GPS integration for truck routing and equipment tracking is another hot area. We will continue to invest in these areas and many others moving forward, helping our clients reduce costs and increase profits with each exciting new annual revision. (We encourage our customers to stay up-to-date by offering new revisions free with any of our four optional annual support plans.)
Explain how software is developed so that it not only meets a rental company’s current business needs, but is equipped to grow as the business continues to grow.
Since our clients include some of the largest and most successful rental operators in the world, we have had to develop a feature-rich system built to scale to any size company. On the other hand, even some of our largest customers among the RER 100, with 15-plus stores (for example), like to test out new concepts in a single “model store” environment first, before rolling it out to the whole chain. At the other end of the spectrum, we have always made our software modular, so that smaller companies can afford to buy what they need at the moment, adding more options as they grow.
Overall, our annual user’s group (Profitability Conference) is our strongest asset in making sure we are headed in the right direction and developing the improvements that are in the greatest demand by our most successful stores. Without it, we would be “winging it” vs. having a proven success formula for continuous innovation.
What advice would you give to rental businesses that are still using relatively out-of-date legacy software systems that don’t offer the latest integrations and efficiencies?
Consider at least two alternatives when you are shopping for a replacement system. Competition is good in any market, including rental software. As always, you get what you pay for, so be careful not to be lured by short-term incentives that don’t translate into long-term value. I’m always amazed by the number of companies who wind up having to replace software (even multiple times) vs. spending what it takes to get the right system in the first place, which is a far less expensive approach in the long run.