By Dallas Dogger
Disclosure: Dallas Dogger is CEO of Centreforce Technology Group, which is the Australasian representative for SMD Software Inc.'s SiteLink Web Edition, a Web-based self-storage management software.
Choosing management software for your self-storage facility is one of the most important tasks you can undertake. Its the tool you use every day. So how do you pick the one thats right for your operation? Here are some things to keep in mind.
You don't need to be a computer expert to work out what you need, but you do need to work out how you want to do business. Do you have major competitors close by? Are they multi-national operators? The reason this matters is because they might not deal with customers the same way you do. They may use call centers or even kiosks. If you're going to compete with them, your management software of choice may need to be able to interact with these types of services.
Are you a single- or multi-site operator? Do you intend to add more facilities to your portfolio? This can also affect whether the software purchase you make today will be suitable if you expand your business.
Client/Server vs. Web-Based
One of the most important questions self-storage operators need to answer is whether theyre looking for a client- or server-based software program or one thats Web-based. Even older software vendors are starting to deliver a Web-based solution, and theres no doubt the growth in the industry in the last five years has been in Web-based arena. These programs have rich tools to interact with websites, kiosks, call centers and much more, including real-time reporting.
However, standalone software is still available and marketed by a number of suppliers. It may use a variety of database architectures but most commonly use Microsoft Access. A number of vendors sell client/server management software, and many offer up-to-date features.
One of the biggest advantages of client/server software is you dont need an Internet connection. Not all areas enjoy adequate Internet connection or speed, which can greatly hamper a self-storage facilitys operation.
If you choose to use software that runs on your local PC, make sure it has Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS) certification. This helps you maintain credit card security and compliance. Also be sure the client/server software runs on Windows 7 and Windows 8 in both 32- and 64-bit versions.
Guaranteeing security could be one drawback of standalone software. If your computer is stolen, a moderately smart computer person could extract credit card information, and you can guess the rest. It does still happen.
Data security is of paramount importance, and this is where standalone systems and Web-based systems differ the greatest. PCI certification and Service Organization Controls Report (SOC 1) certification of software provides an additional level of data security and accuracy. Not all self-storage software data is accurate. Certified products have been independently tested to make sure the numbers add up the way they should.
Standalone systems rely on a local backup to a CD or thumb drive. This is satisfactory only if the device is stored in a remote location at the end of each day. In disaster areas, self-storage facilities without good data protection have been vulnerable to data loss. The last thing you want to worry about is the security of your customers information when dealing with a fire or flood.
Fortunately, backups have become a lot easier with USB-type drives, ensuring data is protected. A good backup strategy for client/server software is very important, so don't take it for granted. Test it regularly.
Web-based systems back up data up on secure offsite servers. These data centers are very securemore than any self-storage facility could ever consider. However, not all Web-based software works the same way. Some programs operate from an Internet browser with all data stored in the data center; others operate by way of a downloaded client, with the data stored locally and regularly synchronized to the data center. You need to consider how you will access data such as a customer's account balance if the Internet is down.
While Web-based packages can take advantage of new technologies faster, and the deployment of those technologies is easier via the Web, theres still a place for PC-based software in the self-storage industry.
Which features are the most important in a self-storage software program? For many, the daily tasks of processing move-ins, move-outs and paymentsand the ease with which they can be accomplishedare the most critical. The daily grind is one aspect of using the software, and most packages operate in a similar way. The ability to log inquiries and reservations and easily transfer them to rentals is also a very important feature, as is Web interactivity and the ability to take online payments.
Rate management is now a significant tool in helping self-storage operators execute rent increases. The sophistication of rate management in a software package varies greatly, so if you plan to raise rents on a regular basis, check the vendor offerings very carefully in this area.
Most common software programs interface with electric-gate systems. Youll need to make sure the program you choose offers an interface for the access-control system you plan to use or currently use.
Forums like selfstoragetalk.com contain many posts about self-storage management software. People are very passionate about the brand they use, and this is generally fueled by familiarity rather than any one particular feature. A question like Which software is the best? will be answered by many contributors, each pushing his favorite. Sift through this information carefully but, more important, speak with the vendors personally. Don't expect them to respond to you on forums, as many wont and shouldnt be expected to.
By all means, listen to recommendations. It's one of the most powerful forms of selling. But be aware that what works for one operator doesn't always work for another. In addition, an operator's experience with computers and software may not match yours, and that will affect the usefulness of his advice. Even though one person may say hes had a poor experience with a vendor, that doesnt mean you will as well. Trialing software is a good start, and your potential vendor should be happy to help you through this process and even spend time with you to ensure you understand the features of the product.
Converting from one software program to another is another key area where a choice has to be made. Some vendors retire, discontinue products or fail to keep up with the times, so you may have to change your system to ensure continued support.
Ask your vendor about the data-conversion process and how the company will help you get through it. Theres no perfect conversion in the self-storage industry, despite what anyone may tell you. Work with a vendor whose software tools can handle the adjustments that need to be made on client accounts after the transition. More often than not, youll discover errors in your previous data that you didnt know were there, such as missing spaces or transactions, and wrong names and addresses. Data conversions often give the opportunity to cleanse your data.
Tech Support and Upgrades
Just about every software package needs some kind of technical support. Ask your potential vendor about support and how its provided to you. Is it an annual upfront fee or covered in monthly subscription fees? Look for a supplier that offers online training or videos explaining the core features. Taking the time to watch these will often pay big dividends in using the software, as you might have missed a major feature that can help you make more money.
Ensure the software can run on the latest operating systems, and ask if the license to use the software is an upfront fee with a maintenance contract or by monthly subscription. There are arguments for and against each model. Software via a subscription model has become very popular. While it might appear that you pay more money over a given time for subscription-based software, there are many factors you need to take into account.
Many operators purchase software upfront, enjoy a year of technical support while they iron out the way they operate, and then drop off the support program, often to save money. The real outcome is that after a few months, theyre behind in technology. The software purchased is a version in time, a bit like a 73 Buickgreat on the day, but now it's pretty old and doesn't get the same gas mileage as a Prius.
Attending industry tradeshows provides opportunities to meet with all the major vendors and discuss your self-storage software needs. Do your homework, take your time and ask suppliers about their plan for the next five years. After all, you're making a commitment to be their customer for the long term. It's important to know that theyll be there to serve you. Happy choosing!
Dallas Dogger is CEO of Centreforce Technology Group, which has been trading in Australia for more than 10 years. The company specializes in self-storage software, websites and security, and offers a third-party application called RapidStor, which has been responsible for more than 500 online self-storage move-ins. Centreforce represents SMD Software Inc.'s SiteLink Web Edition in Australasia and is the developer of AccessEzy, a digital access-control system. Dogger is a moderator on the Self-Storage Talk online community and a contributor to the annual "Inside Self-Storage International" digital edition. To reach him, e-mail [email protected].