Recent growth in self-storage development has spawned the birth of new software packages. Our industry is perceived as lucrative for the software provider and new vendors appear often. Many soon find out they cannot make the big money and quick gains they anticipated, and they quickly disappear. Some discover software for other industries can be a more profitable venture. Unfortunately, these companies will have made some sales in the interim, thus leaving those customers "hanging out to dry" with no support or enhancements.
The advent of new companies has contributed to the wide range of cost differences in management-software packages. Prices range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Low-end packages are just that--low-end. They sell for $400 or $500. What they provide is little more than billing software. The fact of the matter is the rest of the programs out there should be able to run the operations of the storage-rental office.
The decision of how much to spend on software should be based on the individual needs of the business. The information the package provides should be what the owner needs. Features should be weighed against cost. If I have one facility with 400 units, I probably do not need a web-based system with five networked computers in the office. On the other hand, if I am responsible for 50 storage sites, I may want to consider the features more intricate programs provide.
Cost differences are sometimes tied to the amount of features and benefits the product provides, but not always. Some high-priced programs warrant the price tag, based on all that is contained within. However, some may not. It is also quite possible mid-priced packages may provide all the owner requires and more.
It should be kept in mind that for a software company to supply a quality product and support, it needs to charge enough to cover its costs of running the business. If the purchase price is so low the company is unable to stay operational, everybody loses. It should be a win-win relationship between purchaser and provider.
Be on the lookout for gimmicks and freebies. That old adage, "You get what you pay for" holds true here. Like Shakey's Pizza founder, Sherwood Johnson, used to say, "Those who sell their product for less know what their product is worth."
Choosing the Right Package
Begin by building a list of unique needs. Start with the basics. How does the program take care of the day-to-day operations, such as taking payments, move-ins, move-outs, transfers, etc.? If you are not sure what to look for in a package, talk to operators who use different software. Tradeshows are a great place to find out what other people do. Keep in mind that what's right for one of the big self-storage conglomerates may not be right for your smaller operation. Also be aware that software sellers will try to tell you what is important based on what is contained in their programs. What is truly important is how you want to run your business, not how they say you should.
Some packages will accomplish specific functions slightly different than you expect. Do not necessarily rule these out solely for that reason--unless you feel the differences are crucial. No package will function exactly as you envision. You have to decide which features are deal-breakers. Look for overall flexibility and functionality in the program.
Identify the packages you want to review, then request demos and literature from each manufacturer. As you review trial software, compare it to your list of needs. Document questions to ask. Evaluate those items that are important to how you want your rental office to operate.
Compare the system operation with your lease agreement. Does it print at the appropriate time during the transaction? Can you print more than one copy? Is it customizable so you may have your own lease inherent in the system? New facilities should make sure their lease agreement complies with state self-storage laws. Consult an attorney.
Choosing the right package should be made based on your skills, knowledge, experience and involvement as an owner. If the package is right for the business but is not your manager's first choice, the needs of the business should take precedence. Make your own comparisons. If you have an existing site, find out how current customer data will be entered.
Finally, make an implementation plan. Set a "magic date" to go live. Make it comfortable, not hurried. The users of the program will need to get up to speed. Some owners will make the change at the end of the financial period, that is, at the end of the month, quarter or year.
The Vendor Relationship and Tech-Support
It is imperative to identify vendors with tenure and experience in self-storage. Some companies market to other industries. Others are small or new, and do not have the resources to support their product on a full-time basis. In some cases, growth happens so quickly support staffing does not keep up. Core institutional memory can be lost as personnel changes. This can affect the quality of tech support.
As your operational needs change, the program will need to adapt. Make sure changes can be easily made at the site. Ask for and review the system documentation. The quality of the manual can tell you a lot about the company. Has it taken the extra time it takes to finish the task?
The amount of training offered can also tell you how committed your vendor is to the overall success of your business. Is there a tutorial or training database? Scheduled school or training classes are now being conducted by many suppliers. Some can recommend outside help for training as well.
A quality software provider will help you with the initial setup of your site. This will make your life easier--and theirs, too. Updates should be offered on a regular basis. Many of the new features will be suggestions from existing customers. This shows the company recognizes the importance of having software that keeps up with the times.
As mentioned previously, you want a company that charges enough to be around for the long haul. This is true for support, too. In most cases, the companies who charge more for it provide better support. Beware of those who claim 24/7 technical support. The quality of help during nonpeak business hours will suffer. It may even affect the overall quality of technical help. Do not forget to ask about the original warranty period included with the purchase. Methods of support and hours are also important. Do they offer online help or users' groups? In which time zone are they located?
The software vendor should be well-respected in the industry. Talk to its customers. You want to have an ongoing, working relationship with the company you choose and the specific person with whom you deal. You can benefit from the self-storage experience of that person. The individual you work with should truly care about making your business more successful, not just about writing an order.
John Fogg is general manager for Sentinel Systems Corp. of Lakewood, Colo., which has been manufacturing self-storage software and security systems since 1975. Though he has worked in self-storage since 1986, Mr. Fogg has been with Sentinel for the past 11 years. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; call 800.456.9955; visit www.sentinelsystems.com.
SENTINEL SYSTEMS CORP.
Contact: John Fogg
Product(s): WinSen Property Manager
Software Type: Management software
Price Range: $1,500-$2,600
Designed specifically for storage? Yes
Demo: By request or via website.
Tech support: Cost is $200 per quarter. Online support is available 24/7; phone support is available Monday-Thursday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. MST, and Friday 8 a.m. - 4 p.m. MST.
With the WinSen property manager, everything an operator does to manage his self-storage business is integrated, creating a comprehensive management and security system. WinSen Property Manager and WinSen Property Sentinel combine management and access systems into one easy-to-use program. For the first time, managers can operate from a single database for security and management, providing broader capabilities, more organized site information and greater flexibility in reporting functions--which add up to a more profitable business. WinSen comes with its own report-generating software called Crystal Reports, so data reporting can be customized and personalized to meet any accounting requirements. WinSen versions v2.11 and higher also incorporate automatic credit-card processing via IC-Verify. WinSen, produced by a company with more than 28 years in the business, is easy to use and comes accompanied by quality technical support.