This article reviews the basic features to look for when evaluating records-storage software packages, reveals some red flags to watch for, and discusses some of the "wow" factors in new technology that will allow you to compete with the big guys.
You're new to the records-storage industry. Now you need to find the right software package to help you manage your business. Odds are, if you do your homework, you will purchase one that will not only help you get started in records storage, but will allow you to grow into a big player in the future. The key is to be a savvy consumer. Don't get lost in features and techno-talk. Understand what you are buying and take a test drive. This is a long-term investment and should be purchased that way.
As a new records center just starting out or transitioning into records storage, you are probably thinking small--tracking, storage, a few deliveries and printing an invoice. But what happens when those deliveries go from 10 containers to 1,000, and your storage inventory goes from 500 containers to 500,000 containers, files, tapes and documents? You need to think big right from the start. You need to map your entire warehouse, not proceed row by row as your inventory grows. Similarly, you should strategically purchase a system right from the start, not just a piece of software. To begin, look for a fundamental feature you probably don't even know you need: business rules.
Business rules are the foundation of a piece of software. They drive the system and, if written correctly, provide flexibility while preventing costly errors. Some will tell you business rules are limiting. The fact is, well-written business rules limit mistakes, not flexibility. On the most elementary level, business rules will prevent you from having two containers with the same barcode. They will also ensure locations only hold a certain amount of boxes, every item belongs to an account and so on. These variables give you control of your inventory, ensure nothing falls through the cracks and, most important, that you get paid for everything you do. This is ultimately why you got into this business!
RED FLAG! One red flag to watch for is a program sold with many add-ons or modules. Software can be written two ways: completely integrated or piece-meal. A fully integrated package ensures each feature adheres to the fundamental business rules. This is a far more complex form of software development but will ensure the user is protected from critical mistakes. The add-on approach offers a quick fix. Many records-storage software providers have created add-ons to their products to handle web access, etc. This is a dangerous approach. Any add-on not driven by the core business rules leaves the end user open to errors. Don't take this chance.
When looking at the purchase price of your software, include all of the modules. Do not have an "I don't need them today" attitude--you will need them tomorrow. Think of this like buying a car--it looks inexpensive until you added the air conditioning, power locks and other extras. The same goes for record-storage software. Right in the beginning, add in the web access, reporting package and routing package. Then compare apples to apples.
Now that we have the fundamental elements out of the way and you know to include any modules into your system price, you can look for the necessities: work orders, invoicing, account set-up, tracking, scanning, searching, reporting, etc. Looking at features is a baffling, mind-numbing process. Your best bet is to take a virtual walk through the system. Ensure you understand how you can use it. Try using menu items, look for simple tools such as icons and scroll bars. Make sure these items are consistent. Does each screen follow the same pattern? This will cut down on the learning curve
Next, lift the lid and take it for a test drive. You might think you are going to set up an account, set up a department, set up rates, add boxes, deliver boxes, complete data entry, try to run an invoice--the things you will do every day in your business. There is one problem: This assumes you know what you are doing. If you are starting from scratch, it will all become a blur and, at the end of the process, you will be more confused than when you began. Ask your vendor to see a few processes. For example, pick up a scanner and say, "So, I want to scan boxes. Show me what to do." Then try it yourself.
Most important, you need to ask a lot of questions--questions about automation. Do charges and services tie together automatically or is manual data entry required by your employees? The more manual billing required, the more money you will lose, guaranteed. You want complete automation. The same goes for warehouse scanning. Do you pick up your scanner and go, or do you have to upload or download programs? Again, you want automation. What does the scanner capture and what do you have to hand key? Each vendor will tell you what will appear on an invoice, but how does the information get there and how do you ensure it is accurate? The best way to understand it is to see it firsthand. Don't let a salesperson sell you what he thinks is the best piece of software--let the software sell itself.
The next thing to look for is item-number pricing. The larger software providers sell their packages based on number of items. This means you pay one price if you have 5,000 items and another if you have 500,000. This type of pricing allows the new user to get into records storage fairly inexpensively and compete with the big guys.
RED FLAG! The danger lies in the term "item." An item in one system may mean a box, file, tape or document--any item you may track. In another system, it may mean just boxes. This little variable makes a huge difference. It could mean your price going up in two months or two years. Make sure you understand the true definition of item.
There are two features you must have that are not glamorous but remain necessities: automated backups and technical support. With the nation's red and green alerts, disaster and recovery is on everyone's mind; and at a records center, if you lose data, you are out of business. Your records-storage software must have the ability to back up, and this feature should be preferably automated.
In a nutshell, you want the ability to back up your system when it is live and also maintain transaction logs. A live backup allows you to complete the process while users are still working vs. stopping your operation. Transaction logs capture all the activities performed throughout the day automatically. If you go down, just apply the last transaction log and you are up and running. This is quick and easy.
With regard to technical support, you've got to have it--it is that simple. Life is just not predictable. Technical support is, therefore, not an optional feature. Budget this into your cost of doing business.
Now you get to the "wow" stuff, the features that make you stop and say, "now that's impressive." These are the features that will impress you as well as your prospects. They will make you look less like you are selling storage space and are truly an information manager. Your larger customers are most certainly looking for the latter.
Take a look at your clients' web access. What is the limit of what you can do? Is it a link into a live database or a replicated database--in other words, a copy of the database? Take a look at the point-to-point tracking, referred to by different names by different vendors. Customers are always impressed when they see a list of all their specific boxes come magically out of the printer. Today, printing and scanning has gone one step further. Picture this: With the use of the new 2-D barcode and a Windows Pocket PC scanner, a driver can scan the barcode on a tote and each of the items within it is listed and verified for delivery. One outer scan can list the 200 items in the tote, all without ever lifting the lid.
These same scanners also use wireless communication. With wireless access to a network, users no longer have to place their device in a cradle for communications. Access points that support radio communications will allow users to send and receive scanned information. Multiple users can communicate at the same time through access points at distances of 100 feet or greater. This means no lines to send or receive data and increases in labor efficiency. As you can see, technology has gotten pretty sophisticated, and there is a large range of options out there. Look at the price of each. Are they included? Are they add-ons?
With all software, technology changes rapidly and you never want to be left behind. Ask each vendor about upgrades. How often are upgrades produced and how much do they typically cost? Are they included with the price of technical support? Upgrades can turn out to be an unforeseen expenditure, so do your homework in advance.
Generally speaking, there is not a major records-center software company out there that does not have a quality product. But the features, pricing and all around support will make the difference. Talk to current users to cut down your learning curve. You might consider attending a conference hosted by PRISM International (www.prismintl.org), the association to which the majority of records centers belong. Attend one conference and you will learn more about the available software products than you could ever find out on your own. Finally, visit software-vendors' websites. Look at what each company has to offer and what resources are available to you. You can do a lot of homework before ever talking to a salesperson.
Purchasing records-storage software is one of the most critical decisions you will make with regard to getting into the business. This one item will be just as important as your real estate. Lose a box and you diminish the integrity of your services. Do it more than once and you will tarnish your reputation. Therefore, doing research is paramount.
It is difficult to compare vendors. Many will do what is called "feature dumping," or listing features that often do more to confuse than inform. Call the vendors. Let each perform a live demo for you. See it and then try features yourself. Ask key questions, look for red flags, and understand the pricing and technical support you will receive. Then take the time to learn how to use the software in the beginning, not when you are too far down the road. Once you know the facts and have test-driven the software, the purchase will make itself. Now if only you could find someone else to help pay for it--for that you are on your own!
Anne Sommi Edmonson is the director of marketing for O'Neil Software Inc. For more information, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
O'Neil Software Inc.
Contact: Ian Thomas
Product(s): RS-SQL, RS-Web, RS-Mobile
Software Type: Management software, records-management software
Price Range: From $1,195
Designed specifically for storage? No
Current version on market since: 2000
New version to be released: Within the next six weeks. Will introduce a document-management feature, 2-D barcodes, wireless communication and more.
Demo: Available through website, via e-mail, or by calling 949.458.1234, ext. 280.
Tech support: Now includes company's exclusive E-support. Cost is $370 per year. Available 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. (PST) in United States; 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. (GMT) in United Kingdom; 6 a.m. - 6 p.m. (QLD) in Australia.
With more than 20 years of experience in records-storage solutions and offices worldwide, O'Neil users number greater than 700 in more than 46 countries throughout the world. The company's comprehensive RS-SQL records-storage software includes consistent upgrades, enhancements and unmatched features. It is also available in a small-business edition that includes software, hardware, how-to guides and training. Other O'Neil solutions include barcodes, laser scanners, printers, industry education and more. Subscribe to the company's free industry magazine, The Strategic Partner, via e-mail or the website.