First Things, First
Like any smart shopper, take your time, do your homework and don’t give into high-pressure sales tactics. This is ever-so true in the software venue. The last thing you want is to begin a relationship with a software company that will only cause you frustration in the future.
Sit down and evaluate what you want to accomplish. Make a list and prioritize your goals. I know this sounds silly, but do yourself a favor and get out a pad and pencil. Talk to all those in your organization who have direct or indirect experience in tasks currently handled, and include anyone who will be working with the new software.
Is billing and accounts receivable your main objective? Do you need to incorporate a gate system, security, automated credit-card processing? Once you have your list, highlight the top-three to -five items—and don’t ever forget them during your research.
Just about all software packages available to self-storage are going to cover basic processes such recording customers’ names and addresses, and automating regular billing, late charges and aging reports. Just like Chevy and Ford trucks, each will have similarities and differences. Nevertheless, packages will have varying features and prices.
On the Money
When evaluating software packages, you will find prices that run the gamut from inexpensive to cost prohibitive. One of the biggest determining factors is going to be what you can or are willing to afford. If you have a small 100-unit operation, it’s unlikely you could realistically justify spending $2,000 to $5,000. By the same token, if you have multiple 1,000-unit locations, $5,000 is not necessarily a large amount if the software resolves your issues.
Be aware of the myth “price equals quality” because it’s not necessarily true with software. When evaluating price, you should always be aware that price may not be an indicator of quality or features. I have personally seen $2,000 to $3,000 programs that have fewer features and are harder to learn and use than some programs under $1,000. I have also seen a number of less-than-$1,000 packages so limited or difficult to use they actually become a hindrance to business operations.
Another bit of advice: Some software companies have a “full” version and a “lite” or “junior” version, with prices set accordingly. Make sure you know which features you are giving up with the lite version. Don’t buy based on price only to find you have to upgrade to the full version (at the full-version price) just to accomplish what you need to do.
Some software is sold based on the number of units housed at the facility. For example, many junior versions are limited to 100 units and priced very affordably. Inquire how many units and customers a software system is designed to handle adequately and evaluate the price. If you plan to expand your operation, take this into consideration.
Generic accounting programs like Quicken and Quick-books are affordable and may be an option for facilities with fewer than 100 units. Just understand these programs are typically generic and won’t handle some processes such as automatic recurring billing. Also, with generic software, if you have 100 units, you will have to individually post 100 customers every month. Many of these software providers subcontract customer-support services internationally. If you have a question about programming, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that your toll-free support center is based in India. Have you ever experienced the frustration of support from overseas? Furthermore, these generic programs are updated every year and users must change with them.
Computer networks are becoming very commonplace in small businesses and the home, allowing resources like printers, high-speed Internet and storage space to be shared. In the past, most networks were hardwired, which means a physical wire ran between each computer. Today’s wireless networks, though, are becoming very popular since they can be easily set up anywhere. Plus, they’re less expensive to set up when you consider the cost of labor and wiring.
Many programs are network-aware and/or multi-user. Know the difference. Network-aware means the computer can access network resources (printer or hard disk); it does not mean it is also multi-user. Multi-user means two or more people on different computers can access the same data at the same time, which means it is also network-aware.
For example, Lillian can be on her computer entering payments, while Devin is on his computer entering a new customer, at the same time that Lauren is editing a customer’s address. If you are considering this type of arrangement, or think you may in the future, be sure to ask each software company if its programs are multi-user, as well as what the cost will be for each additional computer. If you have multiple locations and want the same program in each, ask about additional location costs. Do you also want the program on your laptop you take home or take on business trips? Be sure to ask how much the added service will cost.
The Learning Curve
A couple of the least-understood costs related to buying software are training and ongoing-support issues. Some people need more help than others when learning a new program or dealing with problems after the training is complete. When you choose to computerize part of your business, you should have an ongoing relationship with the software company. Trust me, everyone—even the most computer-savvy customers—will have some problem crop up after the program is installed. That’s when a customer-support program becomes vital.
Is your software provider going to be around when you need customer service the most? Think about it: Not having access to your financial data can be a real inconvenience at a minimum, and a disaster in the worst case. If you are trying to get your customers’ bills in the mail and are having problems, you need help right away, not a week later.
Do your research. Find out how long software companies has been around; how many customers they have; what their hours of operation are. Does the company answer support calls in-house, or will your call be forwarded to a support team in India? Can you talk to a live person or is support only via e-mail? Can you speak with a person immediately, or do you have to wait on hold forever or leave a message in a voicemail system? When you have a problem, you need help, not frustration.
Has the company weathered some slow times in the past, but bounced back? If it is a relatively new company or has a limited number of customers, consider that it may not be around in a couple years. Remember the old Y2K problem? A lot of companies were deserted by software providers that had dissolved, and they had to scramble at the last minute to find, install, convert data and learn a whole new program.
All of the significant, legitimate software companies charge for help. Free help is a thing of the past. Ever hear the saying, “you get what you pay for”? Some companies will include a certain amount of time/calls that will be included in the purchase of the software, while others will charge separately. Not all will tell you the policies and pricing for support up front, so it’s your responsibility to ask. Many have moved to an annual fee that is all-inclusive for support, maintenance releases, discounts on updates, etc.
This all-inclusive annual fee has been the standard in major company computing since the 1950s and is becoming the standard in small computing. Even Microsoft has moved to annual fees for some customers and will likely do the same for all customers in the very near future. Expect this to become the standard in the coming years, similar to the way the cell-phone industry has moved to fixed-monthly fees with free long distance, roaming, etc.
The single-most important issue is to do your homework; you are the one spending the money and having to live with the decision. Make your hit list. Ask questions. Take notes. Remember, no matter which program you pick, there are going to be things you will have to change in order to adapt to the package, so be flexible. Don’t forget your budget, either. Most of us would love to have a Ferrari, but we settle for less-expensive reputable vehicles. And don’t get carried away with features that you’ll never need but will pay dearly to own.
Finally, play detective and find out everything you can about the software company. Find a provider that has a software program that suits your needs and a customer-support system that promises to keep you afloat in desperate times. Don’t rely too heavily on customer testimonials. After all, would you give out the name of someone unhappy with your product? Probably not. With a little sleuthing and some good common sense, your software purchasing decisions should be as solid as a rock.
Michael Kelley is president of Dilloware Inc. and a partner in MiccaSoft, positions he has held since their inceptions more than 25 years ago. Dilloware’s premium software package, The Billing Clerk, provides recurring billing and accounting software to the self-storage industry. For more information, call 800.880.0887.