Computerizing Your Facility

Tom Litton Comments
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One of the most important business decisions you can make in self-storage ownership is which software to buy; but it can be overwhelming to choose from the many different options. Learn what you need to effectively evaluate programs.
 
When shopping, it’s important to evaluate your facility’s management style and how software will complement it. For the most part, all vendors provide the same basic offering: an integrated accounting system that keeps track of the daily deposits, individual accounts, letters, etc. However, while most software packages are designed to be user-friendly for onsite managers, some are designed to be “report oriented” for the number-crunching owner.

Before investing in a program, determine the criteria that mean most to your business, and find products that best suit it. Software can be evaluated in the following key areas:

  • Base price
  • Support costs
  • Equipment needed to use the software
  • User-friendliness
  • Vendor longevity
  • Upgrades
  • Strategic change

All packages have strengths and weaknesses in these areas. Let’s look a closer at each evaluating point to navigate our way to an educated decision.

Base Price

The first thing to remember about purchasing any software product is price and functionality are almost always interrelated. In other words, the higher-priced packages generally have more bells and whistles.

Self-storage software can range from $695 to $5,450 depending on add-on components such as credit card processing, fingerprinting, digital-camera interfaces, number of units accommodated, etc. Most vendors now price their software as base packages with add-on pricing for specific features.

Bulletproof software designed for a specific application like self-storage management is priceless. For example, dentists purchase management software for their practices and pay much more than $10,000. They still consider this a bargain because the software pays for itself through better business management. To put things in perspective, spending up to $5,450 for software on a business like self-storage that deposits $250,000 to $1 million per year and may be worth up to $7 million is worthwhile if the software serves its purpose well.

Support Costs

Software support is designed to help you when you need it. Weird things happen: Databases get corrupted; software bugs surface; managers make mistakes; and hard drives crash. But support is misunderstood by most self-storage owners. Many support calls are the result of users not reading the manuals provided with the program. New managers need help while they are learning and often need the assistance of the vendor to unravel mistakes.

Monthly support costs for self-storage software run from $25 to $250 per month. These fees are critical to the long-term survival of any software vendor, who must charge them to solve your problems in the future. These days,vendors are forced to keep up with changing hardware and operating systems, even if their software doesn’t change very much.

Equipment

The good news is purchasing computer equipment is the easy part of the decision. Today, reliable, function-rich, full multimedia hardware is inexpensive and plentiful.

The best approach in making your hardware selection is to buy the fastest machine on the market, preferably a pre-packaged system. For example, HP and Dell sell systems including a central processing unit, multiple CD, DVD and RW drives, USB ports, multimedia stereo speakers, microphones, large monitors, an optical mouse and keyboard all for one price.

When purchasing a printer, opt for a fast laser version. Never purchase a cheap one. A self-storage printer receives constant use and prints thousands of pages each month. Purchase the best you can find.

User-Friendliness

All software vendors say their software is easy to use and, for the most part, this is true. The only way to know for sure is to try it.

The best way to test software for user-friendliness is to use it without referring to the manual. If you can navigate your way by simply using your knowledge of self-storage terms and intuition, you have user-friendly software. An experienced manager can use virtually any package in just a few minutes. All packages have complex features, but primary tasks such as renting, vacating, transferring, selling merchandise and generating reports should be effortless.

Software providers are willing to send you a demonstration disk or will direct you to a website where you can download the software to use on a demo basis. In addition, ask for the name of a facility in your area that uses the software you’re interested in purchasing. Ask the user what he likes and dislikes about the package and why. If you find a manager who has used several packages, give his input more weight. Invest the time in making a good decision.

Vendor Longevity

Self-storage is a small industry and can only support a finite number of software vendors. Suppliers come and go, making longevity an issue. Once you commit to a vendor, you’re making a much bigger commitment than just the actual cost of the software. If you choose to change packages in the future, the transition can be expensive, taxing and stressful. Conversely, if your vendor goes out of business, you’re left without support or upgrades.
Ask the following questions of potential software vendors:

  • How many years have you been in business?
  • How many clients do you have?
  • Do you serve any large self-storage clients?

Vendors that have been in the business for a while will probably be there tomorrow, and companies with more clients are likely more viable. Ask questions and listen for clues.

Upgrades

Technology is changing every day, making it difficult for vendors to keep up. Companies responding to changes are constantly improving their software. Ask vendors how often they upgrade their product. Remember that upgrades are not just fixes of glitches or bugs; they often include more features and will cost more money. If you want the latest and greatest, you must be willing to pay for it.

Strategic Change

What are the long-term plans for your potential software vendor? Some companies use a Windows-based platform to support their software. Others are looking toward Internet-based software to survive.

Internet-based software is designed so program files reside on a server maintained by the vendor. To use it, the operator goes online as if visiting a website. The package allows for online payments, address changes, notices, etc. In addition, when an upgrade is made to the software, the change is made on the vendors’ server and, instantly, hundreds if not thousands of users benefit from it.

This is a radical departure from the current methods of constantly sending out fixes, patches and upgrades to individual users. This method of delivering software lowers support costs.

Some software vendors already offer web-based solutions. Others are diligently working on Internet-based packages to stay competitive. Ask a potential vendor what strategic plans are in line for the future. Is the manufacturer changing to web-based software and, if not, why not?

Making the right purchasing decision involves an investment of time, effort and analysis. If you make the right choice, the facility operates smoothly and efficiently. If you make the wrong choice, changing to a different software package is stressful, costly and disruptive. Most self-storage owners who change software discover that the expense and turmoil are usually not worth it. Therefore, it’s critical to make a sound decision the first time.

Tom Litton is president of Lodi, Calif.-based Litton Property Management Inc., which specializes in manager training, seminars, manuals, instructional guides, development, feasibility and management consulting. For more information, call 209.334.3800 or visit www.littonmanagement.com. Mr. Litton is also a consultant for Domico, a provider of accounting software to the self-storage industry for more than 20 years. Domico’s programs include interactive site map, automatic certified mail, graphic reporting, advanced yield management and award-winning technical support. For details, visit www.domico.com.

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