What makes the process so complex is not the change in the software itself, but the impact that change has on all of the processes that make up the business of self-storage. Management software--DOS or Windows--is a facility's primary information source. When the presentation of the information is changed, you have to alter your procedures to match. Some examples include audits, overlock/unlock routines, accounting-system reporting methods, payment processing and banking.
Since sites often have their management and security software linked, the change from DOS to Windows can affect security procedures as well. Then there are hardware issues: Do you need new computer equipment? Internet access? Finally, what about training for your employees?
Reading this, you might wonder why you should even make the switch if it involves so many potential pitfalls. There are several reasons, but one very compelling one is the richer content you get with Windows software. Here are just a few examples:
- Screens are more readable, with your attention drawn to the most important information.
- Information can be presented visually, as in an on-screen map of your facility or graphs that show marketing and occupancy statistics.
- E-mail and Internet access can be integrated into the system. This allows you to e-mail reports to the home office, verify customer addresses on the Internet, e-mail a client a statement of his account and more.
Here's another reason to change: DOS is dying. It's only about 20 years old, but that's about a gazillion in computer years. Soon will come a day when you cannot even purchase computers that will run DOS software. Each version of Windows Microsoft releases makes this more inevitable. Many printers are already incapable of printing from DOS programs, and that trend will only continue.
"OK," I hear you say, "but my equipment is working just fine." However, when your equipment eventually fails (and it will), you may find it very difficult to replace. A new computer will come with Windows XP or some later version, and it won't run your software. "No problem," you say, "I saved my Windows 95 CD and I'll just put that on." That's a good idea, but you will probably find you cannot install Windows 95 on your new computer because when you do, it is incompatible with the mouse or the video or the CD-ROM drive, and you are unable to use the system at all. Or you may buy a replacement printer and find that while it is compatible with DOS, you have to go to the company's website and download the correct driver. Then you find the company doesn't offer a DOS driver for your new version of Windows.
Finding yourself faced with these problems, you decide to make the change from DOS to Windows management software. The good news is the problems associated with a change can be virtually eliminated with proper planning.
Planning the Change
There are a lot of variations in how these changes affect each self-storage business. You can use the following as a guide. Look carefully at all your daily procedures and think about the information on which they rely.
Windows. One of the great benefits of Windows is all its compatible software works pretty much the same, so learning how to use a new program is generally easy. The exception to this can be when an operator has no previous Windows experience. In that case, sign up for a general Windows class, such as an inexpensive one-day training class at a local computer store or community college.
Management Software. Familiarizing yourself and your staff with the software before you actually start using it is essential. Most software vendors provide demonstration or practice systems that allow you to learn the software without the pressure of using it for real business. This is a very useful training tool, and you should take advantage of such as system as a starting place in the transition.
As you go through the software, first learn the basic daily operations: move-in, move-out, taking payments, bank deposits, etc. Much of our daily operations consist of lots of "little" things--reversing payments, voiding late fees, or changing a customer's address, billing status or access code--so make sure you learn how to do those as well. Don't worry yet about things you won't do that often. You don't have to learn it all right away. Now you need to look at the procedures that are the life of the self-storage business.
Banking. The reports you use to compile your daily bank deposits will change, so make sure you review those reports and are aware of the differences between them and the ones supplied by your DOS program. If a list of checks is involved, is the new one acceptable to your bank? Or will you have to write out bank-deposit slips by hand?
Often, part of the banking procedure is reporting to a home office. If so, review your reporting procedures and update them to reflect the new reports and take advantage of any new capabilities. For example, your new Windows software may allow you to e-mail the banking report to the home office as opposed to printing and faxing it. And don't forget to review your procedures at the home office--you may be receiving these reports from multiple sites and will need to revise how you compile and audit the banking information.
Overlocking and Unlocking Units. If you overlock units (and, therefore, have to remove overlocks when customers pay), review the overlock/unlock report in the new software or the unit listing that shows the status of each unit. If there is a significant difference from your old software, make sure your overlock/unlock procedures are up-to-date.
Collections. Most of us use a past-due (receivables) report as a worksheet from which we make our collections calls. Compare the report in the new system with the report from your DOS software. Note any differences and review how they can affect your procedures. For example, your new report may include the phone number of the customer so you no longer need to look up that information before beginning your calls.
Bonuses. Often, bonuses for managers and other staff are calculated based on a number of different factors: receivables, occupancy, inventory sales, etc. You probably calculate the bonus by running one or more reports in your DOS software and then applying some formula to the numbers. Review the reports used to make the calculations, then make sure you know which similar reports have to be run in the Windows program.
Accounting (Check-Writing, Reporting). If you do some or all of your check-writing in your DOS software, you must make sure you can do the same in your Windows software. If you are unable to do so, you should plan for a new procedure. Many self-storage facilities use QuickBooks or another third-party accounting software. If you do, review the procedures you follow for importing your information into the accounting software. It is likely you are entering the information into QuickBooks manually.
Many Windows systems for self-storage include the ability to export to QuickBooks or other programs, eliminating the need for manual input. However, you must update your procedures to reflect this. For example, you may have to create a procedure that says the manager must run the export program every Saturday at the close of business and then e-mail the export file to the home office. Exporting to QuickBooks or another accounting system may require you have your new system set up with the same general ledger account numbers as those in use in the accounting software. If so, be sure you know how to set that up in the new system.
Compare the accounting reports in your old system (income/expense statement, balance sheet) to the reports in the new one. Make sure the new system provides the information you need. If you are required to send the reports to a home office or partner, you probably can take advantage of the e-mail capabilities of the new system to e-mail reports. Again, don't forget to update your home office procedures to reflect these new methods.
Interface With Security System. If your DOS software is interfaced with your security system, you should plan to upgrade to a Windows version of your security-system software. Contact your security vendor for information on this upgrade and its ability to interface with your management software. This will ensure you are taking advantage of all the new features available.
Plan your change. The process will usually take two to four weeks for an average facility. Here's the process in sum:
- Purchase Windows software.
- Purchase adequate computer hard-ware, if necessary.
- Purchase security-system upgrade, if necessary.
- Obtain training (Windows, management software).
- Set up the practice version of the software to your settings.
- Practice with the new software.
- Refine the system settings in practice as needed.
- Determine and document procedure changes.
- Determine how Windows software will be loaded: data entry or data import?
- Select a date and begin with your life system.
- Keep old/new systems up-to-date with all daily activities (move-ins, move- outs, payments, etc.) until data entry is complete.
- Run the old and new systems side by side for a week or two.
While it is tempting to run systems simultaneously for an extended period to ensure the new system is accurate, I do not believe this to be beneficial. It is an undo burden to operators, and data-entry errors are bound to occur, which, in turn, take too much time to track down. The differences in the systems often make it difficult to match numbers anyway; for example, late charges reported in two categories in your DOS system are in five categories in your new Windows system.
The change to Windows can, and should, be a smooth transition. Like all endeavors, the change from DOS will be successful if these two basic principles are followed: Plan for it, then train for it.
Michael Richards is the president of HI-Tech Smart Systems, maker of RentPlus® and Mini-StoragePlus® software for self-storage. Mr. Richards has been involved in the self- storage industry for more than 20 years, and has been a frequent speaker at industry events and a contributor to industry publications. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 800.551.8324; visit www.hitechsoftware.com.