Facility Management Software
|Copyright 2014 by Virgo Publishing.|
|By: Jeff Sacks|
|Posted on: 05/01/1998|
Facility Management Software
A Great Idea Gets Better
By Jeff Sacks
There's a helpful tool out there called the computer, and if you're not using one to run management software designed to take care of many of your daily tasks and make your life easier, you may be more married to your site than need be. Indeed, marriage is a great institution, but when was the last time your self-storage site cooked dinner or helped with the dishes or gave you a massage after a hard day's work?
Do you ever lie awake in bed wondering if everyone using your self-storage units is paying on time or getting extra days free at your expense? Did all the appropriate tenants receive the most recent rent increase? Are employees dipping into the till? Does the unit mix need adjusting? Which marketing methods are bringing in the most tenants? Good self-storage management software programs can answer these questions and more.
As a matter of fact, there are industry software packages that will efficiently manage many, if not all, important aspects of a facility, thereby freeing up a manager's time. There is accounting software that does on-site tenant accounting, the printing of the leases and deposit tickets, the processing of late-charge notices, the issuing of profit and loss statements, as well as tracks everything from an accounts-receivable standpoint for a self-storage business.
There is management software with features such as automatic, overnight posting of rents; printing of late letters; pre-liens; liens; issuing any bills and reports that need to be run on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis; as well as recording every transaction during a customer's history and tracking where everybody is assigned and how much money they owe.
What's more, software companies also offer gate-access control systems that offer pay-at-the-gate and automatic rent collection by credit card, so that tenants who are delinquent and come to the gate can pass their credit card through and have their rent automatically deducted from their account and deposited directly into the facility's bank account.
The overall benefits of the three different types of software available for self-storage facilities generally fit into five categories: increased accuracy of operations, increased revenue, theft deterrent, more detailed management reporting and more efficient use of time.
Increased Accuracy of Operations
Computers don't accidentally reverse numbers or make mistakes in calculations. In addition, they provide consistency. For example, during move-ins, software ensures that managers go through the same steps and ask the same questions of every tenant when keeping track of their history at the facility.
When a manager goes around on an inspection, he carries around with him a report that details the units that should be vacant, moved into or will be vacated soon. By using an accurate management report, a manager will know exactly what their occupancy should be, down to the very unit.
"We made sure that our software was designed with proper checks in the system that would make it impossible to have people putting money in their pocket instead of in the cash register," says Ron Plamodon, president, Integrity Software Systems Inc., a Traverse City, Mich.-based firm providing accounting software to the self-storage industry. "With our system, by doing some very minor checks, you can be real comfortable about all the cash staying where it belongs, either intentionally or accidentally. It is impossible for somebody to make mistakes that don't get caught because there are financial reports that need to be balanced with what goes in the bank.
"By doing these checks on a daily basis, the owner narrows the window for a mistake to take place," adds Plamodon. "It makes it much easier for him to control the facility."
Another feature that ensures software provides up-to-the-minute accuracy is tracking a facility's business in real time, meaning you don't need to wait until the daily close to get updated numbers and figures. Therefore, if you had two computers running at the same time, and people were renting units, your vacancy numbers and occupancy rates would change as the transactions happen.
Increased revenue can come from a variety of sources, including rent increases and late fees, as well as analyzing the facility's profit centers. With late fees, the computer makes the manager seem like less of a villain when trying to collect. It's easy to say, "The computer charges a late fee. There's not much I can do about it." So the burden is taken away from the site manager and placed on the computer, enabling the site manager to collect more late fees.
"Computer-controlled access allows entry only to those people who should be on your property," says Doug Carner, marketing director of QuikStor, a Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based management software provider. "Our gate readers include a 12-button keypad and a long-life magnetic card reader similar to those used at gas stations. This provides the familiarity of keypad access and the hassle-free flexibility of tenants using a personal identification card. Tenants can have more than one access code, several units on one code, and access days and hours on a per-tenant basis. With this type of setup, managers can take control over delinquencies, allow extended hours for select customers and set or change gate-access hours and days on a per-tenant basis."
With gate-access control, tenants are announced as they enter the facility, and the time and duration of their visit is added to their permanent record. "When delinquent tenants try to access the gate, they are kept out of the facility," says Carner. "The QuikStor gate can accept the tenant's credit card for payment. No headaches for the manager, and instant payment of rent and late charges for the owner."
Poulsbo, Wash.-based Umbrella Systems Inc.'s software package, "was originally written to reconcile cash-base revenue with accrued revenue, to track potential income all the way down to cash in the bank and to tell the manager what each point of difference is between the actual money that wound up in the bank and the potential income," says Phil Rasmussen, president. "It allows you to audit each category along the way and reveal why your late fees charged are different from your late fees collected or why your sales taxes charged are different from your sales taxes collected."
"Our focus is not only offering the best software for records management, but offering people business tools that help people make money," says Jim Teske, sales manager for O'Neil Software Inc., an Irvine, Calif.-based software company specializing in records storage. O'Neil helps people in the self-storage business get into records storage. "We've probably got nearly 100 customers who were in the self-storage industry who have gotten into commercial archiving. We have regional classes worldwide where we teach them about the industry and other profit centers that are related to the self-storage business."
When it comes to theft, with a manual system, it's all too easy for a dishonest manager to manipulate the numbers. "I could tell you 100 different ways to rip off a manual system," says Mike Richards, president of Kailua, Hawaii-based Hi-Tech, a firm specializing in self-storage management software. "Most software comes with controls built in for stopping those problems."
With Plamodon's software, an owner can discover quickly if they've got a manager who is allowing some of his friends to use space at no charge, or if they have somebody putting stuff into a unit that they weren't aware of and not paying for it.
One Southern California facility discovered that it could use its software features to lessen its vulnerability to another type of theft. After being robbed twice on the first of the month, the facility switched to anniversary due dates. The owners believed that the theives knew the facility collected a lot of money around the first of the month, and with the switch, even if they were robbed again, the culprit would make off with a substantially lighter haul.
"Operators use a first-of-the-month billing system because that's all they have time to handle," says Carner. "They do not appreciate the benefits of an anniversary system, which would allow them to not have a lot of cash in the office at one particular time and save them a lot of money if they were to get robbed."
In addition to having a software package that affords owners the luxury of going to an anniversary system for billing, QuikStor offers wireless alarms, which are easy to install in both new and existing facilities and require no special tools for doing so. "There is no wiring to install, and thus nothing that will corrode or be tampered with," says Carner. "These are the same wireless door sensors already in use at the U.S. armed forces, Secret Service, Federal Bureau of Prisons, CIA, FBI and over three million other doors worldwide."
With a solid security and control system tied into a solid management software package, a self-storage facility can protect itself against tenant theft and break-ins by forcing tenants to pay on time, locking out those whose accounts aren't up-to-date, keeping current on the status of individual units and offering wireless alarms.
More Detailed Management Reporting
Management reports are one of the most useful tools management software provides. They're quick, they're accurate and they can point out the weaknesses and strengths of a facility. They can be especially useful to multi-facility operators. "Owners and managers make their business decisions on all of the pieces of information they get throughout their days, whether it's occupancy information or pricing information or receivables status," says Richards. "So the more information they get and the better organized that information is, the better they're able to run their businesses."
Good management software allows owners and managers of self-storage facilities to know exactly how their business is doing vs. the way they thought it was doing. With interfaces to the gate-access control software and the accounting software, management programs can issue useful reports of many varieties. "It just helps the manager keep track of exactly who's where, who owes them, who's late, how many days they are late, what the late charges are and so on," says Bruce Pollack, co-partner in Lafayette, N.Y.-based Automation Tech- nologies, which provides management software. "You can print statements from the system. You can send late letters. You can add late charges."
Other management software allows its users to "track multiple contracts within one account, including individualized late and letter cycles, fees, invoices, access and security levels, and unlimited reporting capabilities," says Mike Skrentny, president of Scottsdale, Ariz.-based MSTC. "Our Account Manager System configuration offers great flexibility for operating your business the way you like. Hundreds of different combinations allow you to dictate the specific characteristics of your property, as definable, multi-leveled general ledger accounts that allow you to pull accounts-receivable data from the same source for generating reports for different partnerships or management companies.
What's more, since operating a facility means more than just collecting fees, firms offer software that issue computerized reminders for special tasks. "The reminder module can be used for a variety of different situations requiring a little extra assistance," says Skrentny. "This may be routine events like scheduling landscapers to scheduling specific management functions on site, such as a facility walk-through and preventative maintenance checks."
More Efficient Use of Time
In almost all the work that the manager does--whether it's creating reports, crunching numbers or writing late notices--time is of the essence. In all those tasks, computers have an unshakable edge over manual systems, completing what can amount to hours of work in just minutes. "It puts on the computer all the things that they used do by just leafing through their card files and taking hours and hours," says Pollack. "Now they can do all of those tasks very quickly.
"Managers can make sure that their tenants are billed correctly," Pollack adds. "They get the information very quickly because they don't have to go through stacks of papers and what not. They can punch up units, people and customers very quickly to find out what the status is."
In addition, managers can analyze such things as unit mix to adjust pricing. If the larger units are in higher demand with lower turnover, they may bear larger or more frequent rent increases than the other sizes. While such determinations are possible manually, they are far more time consuming. With a computer, it's a matter of pushing a few buttons and letting the program do all the work.
"Reports can be generated the night before the scheduled date on which they are to occur, so that the manager doesn't even have to show up for work," says Carner. "Delinquency control, rent collection and reports happen unattended."
Absentee owners can be assured that their on-site managers are doing a good job because of the security and accuracy of the software. "You don't have to be there all of the time watching things as closely as you might need to if you were using a manual system," says Plamondon. Imagine being able to enjoy life away from your facility for the price of a software program.
Other programs have designed their customer areas so that all managers have to do is pull up the customer once to take care of anything in the account. "You don't need to go in and out again and ask them their names and enter their unit numbers," says Capozzoli. "You can take multiple payments. You can move them into other units. You can move them out. You can transfer them. You can give them credits. You can print their history. Everything is managed from that area, which speeds up the front end enormously."
Windows Open Onto Your World
DOS still dominates self-storage software, but most companies have a Windows 95 version of their software available, and many more are about to launch their Windows applications this year. Given that a Windows 95 operating system is pre-installed on just about every PC that hits the mass market, everyone who's using a computer for the first time is learning to operate it within the Windows environment. This also means that most software developers are designing their programs to work with Windows, and self-storage management software vendors are moving in that direction, as well.
"Most everything in this business from a self-storage standpoint has all been DOS," says Dave Reddick, president of Sentinel Systems, a Lakewood, Colo.-based firm specializing in management software. "And there are now a couple of Windows programs on the market for self-storage. Windows truly will bring more features and capabilities to running a storage facility than you were able to do with DOS."
A tell-tale sign that the industry is moving toward Windows and away from DOS applications is indicated in Phil Rasmussen's customer information: "Two-thirds of our new customers are purchasing Windows, but 90 percent of our total customers are using DOS. People are converting."
"We have a lot of customers still using the old DOS program who have chosen not to upgrade to the Windows," says Michael Kelley, president of New Braunfels, Texas-based Dilloware Inc., "but our new sales are 90 percent Windows."
Meanwhile, Ramona Taylor, president of Walnut Creek, Calif.-based Space Control Systems says Windows accounts for 75 percent of her business.
One of the most useful functions of the Windows environment is multi-tasking--the ability to run more than one program at the same time. "I personally have a very strong belief in Windows because of the fact that it can run your gate in the background while you do other things," says Carner. "As an example, let's say that you run a Ryder truck rental or U-Haul at the same place you're running your software. If you're in a DOS program and you switch over to this other program, your mini-storage software may no longer be listening to the gate activity, whereas a true Windows program runs seamlessly in the background."
What's more, much of the computer technology that managers may want to use--such as faxing via computer, e-mailing rent reminders and Internet access--are possible only through Windows.
Die-hard DOS fans will find that Windows takes some getting used to. Even finding the right touch for moving the mouse pointer around can be challenging for some people, but it's inevitable that they will have to learn to use it.
"The Windows environment is just different," Reddick says. "The programs run differently, and you can do different things all at the same time. It's an easier and, to some degree, a more efficient way to run your business. People who have grown up on DOS and haven't done anything on Windows are going to struggle a little bit. But the reality is if they want to go out and buy a program for other kinds of uses to put on their computer--Quick Books or whatever they might decide to buy--it's probably only going to be available to them in Windows. And they're going to end up buying Windows programs anyway."
It goes without saying that hardware requirements for running Windows instead of DOS are vastly different. The best way to ensure you have the necessary computer power to run the management software of your choice is to consult with your software vendor. He can tell you minimum and recommended hardware requirements for programs, and can probably help determine whether your existing system is up to snuff. Basically, any new PC purchase with Windows 95 comes with enough memory to run any self-storage management software, but it's always best to ask.
"I think most of the DOS stuff that's out there would require less than 10 megabytes on the hard drive and would probably run fine with 1 megabyte of RAM," Reddick says. "But you're not going to run any Windows program with probably less than eight megabytes of RAM. Because there is so much overhead in Windows software, you also need a machine that's fast, otherwise you're going to sit there and wait and wait and wait."
Despite the Windows brouhaha, all vendors emphasize that they will not abandon their DOS customers. As more Windows programs hit the market, they will continue to sell and support their DOS programs.
Where's the Beef?
One of the side effects of all this computer power is that it gives programmers a wide-open door for beefing up features. That may mean improving existing functions or creating new ones that the older machines cannot support. "The requirements to operate the Windows 95 platform means increased computer power, and that increased computer power in terms of the RAM memory and the hard-drive memory means that we have a lot more capability and flexibility that we can put into the programs," Skrentny says. "There have been a lot of functions and features that people have wanted with DOS applications that frankly we were either not able to provide or not able to provide in an adequate manner to really meet the customers' needs. Changing the systems over to Windows is allowing us to do that."
Windows isn't the only technological advance software suppliers are working on. Vendors are flexing their programming muscles in a variety of directions. Some new features are still being bandied about, while others have already made their debut. New and forthcoming options include the following:
The concept of a universal interface has bounced around the industry for several years. Such an interface, which would allow any security system to interface with any management software system, poses obvious benefits to the storage operator. But, perhaps the best way to describe it is much ado about nothing. While not a new concept, it certainly is noteworthy. It seems that everyone thinks it's a commendable idea, and theorizes on how best to implement it, but turning theory into reality thus far has met with little success.
Although most vendors say they have advanced the idea of a generic interface, the reality is that security providers and management-software providers still have to work on a one-to-one basis to make their systems compatible. "It would be a wonderful idea if we could just get all the software management firms and security firms to agree," Taylor says.
"The problem is it's very difficult to get multiple companies with multiple mindsets and multiple egos to agree on anything," Skrentny explains. "Part of the problem is everybody has different ideas, and there's never been any real meeting of the minds as to what the proper way to approach it would be. You run into problems when a group of people decides that universally, this is how an interface should work, and it hampers or deters your application from doing what it needs to do."
For now, most software companies have separate interfaces for each security system they work with. And some companies offer both management software and security. The upside to that is guaranteed compatibility. The downside is that both systems may not have all the features the operator wants.
Taylor says that one of the questions people need to ask when shopping management-software vendors is what security systems they interface with. "People ask me all the time at trade shows," she says. "So we have a little list we hand out of which security systems Space Control interfaces with."
Keeping in mind one thing: If you buy a security system from a local company--one who designs systems for estates, etc., it shouldn't be assumed that the system will interface with your management software. "In order to have an interface like that work, the two companies involved have to work very closely together, and it just isn't very practical on a one-shot thing," Taylor says. "So if you want it interfaced, you want to buy both sets of software with vendors that service the self-storage industry. Space Control Systems introduced a generic interface. If all management software used this same file, a customer could purchase any management software and any security system and they would work together."
But Taylor adds that lacking that management/security interface "is not the worst thing in the world. It's just that if you're getting computers and automating the process, most people prefer to automate as much of it as they can. People who have bought that local gate system, are not about to rip it out and start over."
Basically, it's up to the facility operator to decide how important it is for his needs to have that integration between management software and security, and to keep that in mind when shopping for software. As for Carner, he envisions a day when mixing and matching management software with security will be as easy as buying electronics. "I have a dream that one day there will be a consistent format where you just literally take pieces, in the same way that a VCR and television set (work together)," Carner says. "You never think, do these two work together? You always presume they will. I'd like to see the same thing in the self-storage industry. I'm hoping technology pushes it there."
Selecting the Right Programs
Operators who are convinced that management software can benefit their facility face a difficult task in selecting the right system. Chances are, once a system is purchased, the user will stick with it for a long time. After all, who wants to input data on 700 units only to learn that the program doesn't do everything it was intended to do? Then you're stuck either settling for the existing system or investing in a new program and going through the input progress all over again.
Therefore, it's probably best to start by analyzing your individual needs. It might be a good idea at this time to get some brochures to see the variety of features available. This not only provides a starting point for comparing the various systems, it can also help operators separate needs from wants. All those extras can be enticing, but aren't always useful to every facility.
"I think that when you're buying any product, you have to make some decisions about what's important to you." Skrentny says. "For some people, price is more important. For other people, functions are more important. For some people, the way something looks is the most important. For other people, the perceived quality is the most important. But for most people, I think it's a combination of these items."
To determine the most important needs of the facility, Richards suggests making two lists: must-haves and nice-to-haves. With those lists in hand, it's time to look at the vendors. Most importantly, limit the search to companies that make software specifically for the self-storage industry. The operator who tries to adapt apartment-management software, for example, is bound to be disappointed.
Gather as much information as possible. This can include brochures, demo disks and references. If possible, visit a trade show and speak with a salesperson face-to-face and get a first-hand demonstration of the product. This also allows operators to compare products side-by-side and meet with most of the companies within a two- or three-day period.
Longevity is another deciding factor. Is this company going to continue to be in business to provide upgrades, enhancements and support in three, five or more years? Does it have a reputation of providing reliable products and tech support?
Ask lots of questions and ask to see how each relevant feature works. "I take a little Missouri attitude and say, 'show me,'" Reddick says. "If the company claims the software can handle multiple units for the same tenant, consolidate a billing statement for that tenant or customize reports, ask to see the program do those specific things. Any feature the operator plans to use, he should see in action before buying."
Also, don't overlook the system's documentation, which may include a manual and on-screen help. If the vendor isn't available when a question or problem arises, the manager may need to rely on it to get back on track. How detailed is the manual? Does it include pictures? Some people prefer using the on-screen help rather than the manual. If this is the case, does it provide sufficient information? Whichever method is preferred, make sure it's thorough and easy to understand.
As the list of potential programs gets shorter, take the time to visit facilities that use the systems to find out how they work in the real world. Although demos are a useful comparison tool, it's pretty easy to make anything look good for five minutes. "I would tell the customer that they need to make their own comparisons and that the vendor is not in the right place to make comparisons between his product and those of competitors in the marketplace," Reddick says. "The vendor doesn't know enough about the other products to start with, and secondly, they're always going to have a biased view. I think it's the responsibility of the purchaser to make a comparison."
Plamondon's firm provides its software on the Internet for people to download. "It's a fully functional copy of the software," he says. "Customers can actually download it, play with the demo, configure their own facility and actually then run their own facility for up to 90 days before they buy it. It's a good feature, just for seeing if it works for you."
Selecting software requires thorough research about each system and complete picture of the potential vendors. After all, "you're not just buying a product," Skrentny says, "You're buying into a relationship with that company."
In the Windows environment, pertinent information is just a click of a mouse away.
Don't just look at the software programs; find out about the company itself. Mike Skrentny, president of MSTC suggests getting answers to the following questions:
Questions to Get Answered Before Purchasing Management Software
One of the benefits of management software is that it allows its users to track information on many aspects of a facility.
Automation Technologies' goal is to become the standard for the self-storage industry, believing that through the experience of owning and operating a storage facility along with experience of working with software customers they have an excellent background for serving this industry. The company's focus over the next year is to make its software compatible with many other products (e.g., accounting, gate access, credit-card billing) in the industry. Automation Technologies currently offers The Storage Management System in both DOS and Windows 95 applications.
Dilloware Inc. has been supplying small businesses with easy-to-use billing software for eight years. Dilloware's president, Michael Kelley, originally marketed tax-planning software. As his company grew, he found that the one area in greatest need of automation was billing. The Billing Clerk, Kelley's solution to the problem, is an easy-to-use program that includes not only billing features, but complete accounts-receivable functions as well. It is a full-featured billing package that includes regular and recurring billing.
HI-TECH Smart Systems
HI-TECH was founded in Hawaii in 1983. In conjunction with the development of its core software business, HI-TECH started a computer-rental business that became the largest company of its kind in the state of Hawaii. In 1991, HI-TECH sold its computer-rental business in order to enable the principals of the company to concentrate more on expanding and growing the firm's core business--management software for the self-storage industry. Besides its Mini-StoragePlus management software package, HI-TECH provides technical support services, Internet Web-site services, computer and business-form sales, newsletters, education seminars, credit-card processing and computer hardware equipment.
Integrity Software Systems Inc.
Integrity Software Systems' Mini Storage Personal Accountant has been designed to offer self-storage facilities an accounting system that is easy to use and to provide strong financial controls. Such controls prevent locking out customers who have paid and helps prevent manager theft. Chris Ray, a practicing CPA and a professional system developer, along with Ron Plamondon, are well qualified to design, develop and support installation.
MSTC, Mystic Systems Technology Corp., is now in its 14th year of providing management software to the self-storage industry. MSTC was one of the first companies to create an automated property-management software system; conceptualize billing-sensitive keypads; develop a PC-based access-control system; and offer 24-hour, seven-day-a-week customer service. MSTC has announced the forthcoming release of its Account Manager property-management software system, a 32-bit descendant of its flagship DOS-based Mini Manager program.
O'Neil Product Development Inc.
Founded in 1983, O'Neil has developed software and hardware solutions for hundreds of records centers in nearly 30 different countries worldwide. Through the development of portable printing solutions for records centers, O'Neil maintains a fully-equipped staff for on-site repairs of scanners, portable printers and computer hardware. In 1995, the firm opened O'Neil University, which offers education to its partners in areas such as profitable business strategies and operation of their software.
QuikStor has supported the self-storage industry since 1986. Two years ago, QuikStor sold one of the industry's first self-storage programs written for Windows 95. The company has also pioneered other industry standards, including pay-at-the-gate, automatic overnight processing, digital photography, automatic credit-card processing, user-changeable site graphics, and 100 percent wireless door alarms. QuikStor software is written and supported by self-storage professionals. Founder Dennis Levitt owns and holds interest in several self-storage facilities. The software has been running in more than 1,000 self-storage facilities around the world.
Sentinel Systems Corp.
Sentinel Systems has been a leader in providing security electronics and property management software to the self-storage industry for more than 22 years. What began as a way to eliminate break-ins for a group of self-storage facilities has grown into one of the largest security and software suppliers in the industry. The firm now serves more than 11,000 systems worldwide, with a tenant-user population in the millions. "Our mission is to provide superior products and outstanding customer service through innovations in technology, people, systems and marketing," says Dave Reddick, president.
Space Control Systems Inc.
In January 1984, Ramona Taylor and Larry Winnerman formed Space Control Systems. Taylor's background was in software, and as manager of a self-storage software product, she gained considerable insight into product requirements and user needs for the industry. Winnerman owned 16 self-storage sites in New Jersey. Their goal was to combine their experiences to create a software package the could "speak" to the self-storage industry and, therefore, be instantly understandable to anyone in the field. Market research indicated that there was a huge demand for a product that could provide control to absentee owners; hence the name of their software--Space Control.
Umbrella Systems Inc.
The Umbrella System is a complete software package for the management of self-storage facilities. Programmed from the ground up, the Umbrella System is not an adaptation of an existing software package, but is designed to be a powerful, flexible and simple product to use. The strength of the Umbrella System is that it maintains a line-item record of all transactions, giving the user an accurate account history, preliminary lien notices, an itemized rent statement and fully auditable cash-flow statements.