Smooth Sailing With Storage Software

Pamela Alton-Truitt Comments
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“What self-storage management software do you recommend?”

This is one of the questions I get asked the most by people just entering the business. It's difficult to answer, especially as new software packages enter the market each year.

Backward Glimpse

When I first started in the self-storage industry in early 1991, many facilities were still using ledger cards; only a few sites had computers or electronic entry gates with keypad entries. I remember spending a couple days inputting unit sizes, rates and tenant information into a “blank” computer database to convert a facility from manual bookkeeping to a computerized method. All the programs were DOS-based and fairly easy to use, but had problems with nearly every conversion to Windows. Next came programs exclusively designed in Windows. Today, we even have programs accessible through the Internet.

Choosing which program to use back in the good ole days was fairly easy since a handful of software companies existed, with one or two main companies dominating the market. As the industry flourished, more and more facilities began purchasing computers; the software industry thrived, and owners had a harder time deciding which program to purchase.

With dozens of software companies offering self-storage specific software, not to mention companies offering security software that may provide tenant-maintenance programs, the selection process can become daunting. It may help to remember that, in general, facility software is just a database maintaining tenant information, i.e., move-ins, move-outs, rents due, late fees, letters printed as needed, payment tracking, and monthly reports of income and occupancy levels. Most of these programs barely track cost of goods vs. sales price, and you may have to import the information into an accounting program such as QuickBooks for other accounting needs.

Overview

Many new owners attend various tradeshows and examine the vendors’ software but usually have no idea how programs correlate to self-storage daily activities. Some may purchase a tenant-maintenance or security program without even understanding how they work. Do you purchase both from the same company? Preferably because it certainly makes it easier when something goes wrong, and there’s less finger-pointing. Having said that, most gate and accounting or tenant-maintenance programs now interact with each other without any problems.

All tenant-maintenance programs will offer features for tenant move-in and move-out, accept payments, chart occupancy and income, however, how user-friendly is the software? They all seem to be to some degree, but seemingly all have glitches that make it difficult to sometimes do the simplest of tasks.

For example, in one program, when you give free rent or “promo” (such as a free lock), it’s still included in the “income” column totals along with being in the “promo” column. This means your accounting staff must deduct the “promo” column from the total income for that specific day to arrive at the real income number.

Another software program will not show pre-paid rent as a “credit” in the tenant’s screen; instead, it shows zero balance and the paid-to date is advanced. In still another program, you have six steps to make a payment, where another only takes two.

Most programs have a “demo” or practice program to use as a training tool to learn the software. One program I know of had a demo program that you could go in, change all the site setup information in the demo program to reflect your facility information.

The unscrupulous manager used this program for taking cash payments and printing receipts, then went into the real program and just changed the tenant’s paid-to date or used a promo to pay the tenant’s rent, then pocketed the cash taken from the tenant. So, always be on guard use these programs!

Reports and Support

As an owner, you’ll rely on software to provide reports for tracking the income, occupancy levels, sizes of units rented, etc. Some programs create programs that are easier to read than others. Ask for examples of the actual reports of the software from the vendor. Can you understand the information on these various reports?

Show them to your accounting staff and ask for opinions. I have found many accountants have difficulty understanding self-storage programs and may need minor training to interpret and use the software on a daily basis.

Another aspect to consider when choosing software for your facility is the support offered by the software company. When a manager runs into programming problems—whether it be the tenant maintenance program or the security/gate program—he needs help immediately! How responsive to your “emergency” will the software company be? If you are located in the West and a gate problem arises at 5 p.m., will your East Coast company have someone available after hours to help? I always suggest purchasing a support program from your vender, especially for that first-year learning curve using the new program.

Setting Up

Once you have decided which program to purchase, it’s time to think about set-up. Many owners haven’t a clue how to do this. It takes skill to answer all the software questions for operating a program accurately. You must know unit sizes and groupings, and have scheduled all your fees. (Note: Check your state’s lien laws so you don’t violate these fee amounts and protocol.) 

What about when the gate deactivates a delinquent tenant’s code? When do you over-lock past-due tenants? How about pro-rating tenants? Will rent be due on the first of the month or anniversary? How will this affect the information on your delinquency report? Will it be easier to track the income with rents due on the first vs. anniversary date? Will you allow partial payments to be made? If not, how does it affect you? Will you send an invoice to every tenant? Have you considered the monthly cost of doing so?

Without hands-on experience, you could make some major mistakes when setting up the facility information in your software program. Attend education seminars, talk with seasoned operators, or consider hiring a consultant to walk you through this delicate process.

The Final Truth

Many software companies have program developers who aren’t actual users operating the end product on a daily basis. They know software but not storage.

Find a company that builds programs with end-users in mind. All self-storage software programs will cover the same basic programs; the trick is finding one that does it best for your facility and your pocketbook. Research until you find the package that provides information you, your managers and accountants need and can understand.

If you’re an industry newcomer, ask a lot of questions of the software companies. Get references and call those managers. Visit facilities and ask seasoned facility owners about their software experiences—which programs they’ve used in the past and why they chose their current program. Many managers work programs on a daily basis and are the best source of information for evaluating purposes, yet they’re least likely to be asked about a software program’s abilities or ease of use. Most people ask vendors. Make sure you ask both.

We all operate in technical world. Despite the headaches of shopping for the right software brand and overlooking the glitches, I wouldn’t go back to using ledger cards for anything! Spend your time and your money wisely, and you’ll be sure to make a purchasing decision that will send your facility to smooth software operations. 

Pamela Alton-Truitt is the owner of Mini-Management, a nationwide manager-placement service. The company also offers full-service and operations-only facility management, training manuals, inspections and audits, feasibility studies, consulting and training seminars. For more information, call 800.646.4648.

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