Management software isn't just for bookkeeping, and it's no longer optional for self-storage facilities wanting to stay atop the industry curve. Software allows a facility owner and manager to streamline operations and improve efficiency. The time saved frees the manager to look after other aspects of the business, such as maintenance or fielding phone calls. And that's just on the site level. Today's software allows owners or management companies to keep tabs on all sites across their facility networks, often instantaneously.
Programs can generate dozens--sometimes hundreds--of detailed reports for analysis of specific trends. Reports, letters and notices can be spit out at the touch of a button or even automatically. Most day-to-day functions still require the initiation of a person--the manager. But management software helps a manager perform his duties much quicker than he could manually.
Few people will argue management software doesn't help a facility's efficiency across the board. But resisters are out there. Ramona Taylor, president of Space Control Systems Inc., says she's constantly amazed when she meets people who own multiple self-storage sites and operate them manually. "Sometimes it's just that they resist change," she says. "The business is running, and they don't want to change how it's running. Sometimes they're worried their people won't be able to manage a software system. I think that's completely contradictory, because anybody who could manage one of those manual systems would fly on a software package."
Owners are creatures of habit. "Once you're comfortable with running a facility--even if it's off a ledger card--you tend not to want to change that," says Tom Smith, president of Empower Software Technologies LLC. To those comfortable facility owners, Smith says, "Change is inevitable. You have to make that commitment at some point. You cannot continue to grow your facility on ledger cards and be able to maximize its efficiency."
Another reason for resistance is an owner who fears losing control of his operation or who generally mistrusts the manager to do his job. Taylor doesn't buy it. "You can have much better control through software than you can manually," she says. "Because if you've got somebody keeping manual books, they have lots more opportunity to fudge the books or change what they're inputting than they would if they're putting it into software."
Not only does management software aid in the identification of malicious intent, it helps eliminate legitimate mistakes as well. For example, the likelihood is reduced that the wrong tenant's goods are sold at a lien sale, says Ron Plamondon, president of Integrity Software Systems Inc.
When mistakes are made, however, management software also has the ability to correct them and leave an audit trail. If a manager enters an incorrect dollar amount for a unit rental, for instance, he should be able to go back and correct the original entry later rather than adjusting it with another entry, says Markus Hecker, marketing director at SMD Software Inc. "Sometimes it's erased from the customer's ledger, but it's never erased from an auditor's view," he says.
Picking a Package
Software companies largely agree that just about every management program performs the same basic functions. With all things being equal, then, how does a self-storage owner begin the quest for the right software to fit his needs?
"It's difficult to tell one from the other because, on the surface, they all do the same basic things--you can take a payment, move people in and out, and so forth," says Michael Richards, president of HI-Tech Smart Systems. "The real value of a program to an individual is in its details, and there are thousands of those details." Discovering the details in software is probably the same for all other aspects of the self-storage process, from feasibility studies to selling: Do the homework. Research companies. Compare products and features. Perform due diligence. Project needs into the future. Ask questions.
Everyone has their own processes of software selection, but here are some suggestions:
Survey fellow facility owners. Talk to people in the industry, other than a direct competitor, who use management software, says Gary Trook, vice president of the Acorn Products division of DCAL Computer Systems. Find out which programs they use and whether they like them. Begin to narrow the list.
Make a list of needs. The best way for an owner to begin is to decide what he wants the program to accomplish. Taylor suggests making a short list of needs--one that contains what really matters to a facility. Only then should an owner check out material or demos from each vendor. Hecker takes the idea a step further. He says it's a good idea to look to the future, too. "Most people struggle with projecting their operation in the program six months down the road," he says. "That's not difficult, but takes a little bit of thought to figure out beforehand."
Watch presentations and get demonstration disks. Whenever possible, watch a demonstration of the product's features, such as at a company's tradeshow booth. "It shouldn't be a long presentation," Hecker says. "Because if the program is good, it shouldn't take long to demonstrate the strengths and different points that are important." Judging the aesthetics of a program may help some to further eliminate certain packages.
Demos are a good way to get inside a program, test its features and functionality, and get a feel for what is liked and disliked. Most vendors agree a five-minute glance is not sufficient. "Virtually all of the software companies provide a working demo of their software," Richards says. "The problem there is you have to work them. They're called 'working' demos for a reason.
"You have to have the discipline and make the time to go through and work each one sufficiently. I generally recommend people have a standard workload--so they might go in and move 10 people in, take 20 payments, move 10 people out, do a bank deposit, run the reports, look at the accounting data that gets created. That will give them a general feeling for how all those things work and what the details are."
At least one company that doesn't provide a demo disk has its reasons. "A lot of people are not willing to sit down and commit to learning three or four different programs to make a decision, because you've got to learn them to operate them," says Michael Kelley, president of Dilloware Inc. Since Dilloware provides an entry-level package, it doesn't get involved in demo disks anymore because of its target price point--it's simply not cost effective for the company.
Check references provided by each company. Be prepared to get a glowing recommendation of the software, because that's why the vendor gave you the reference's name. Gregg Genualdi, a programmer at PTI Integrated Systems, suggests asking a reference if he's ever had a problem with the software. "If he says no, hang up immediately," he says. "Every user out there has had some problem of some type. That person's not being totally honest." If there was a problem, Genualdi says, ask the reference what it was, how it was handled, whether it was resolved and whether he was satisfied with the result.
Pay particular attention to a company's service and support, as well as any hidden costs. "If you don't get any service, it doesn't matter what package you got," Trook says. Doug Carner, vice president of marketing for QuikStor Software, adds: "Are there hidden costs to have the management software integrate with the access keypads and the video cameras? Are there any limits on how often they can ask for help? Maybe they get a year, but they're told they can only call a couple times a month. That should raise a flag."
Heather L. Gullickson, executive vice president of American Computer Software, echoes the sentiments of the software industry when she says today's owners and managers are looking for software that provides ease of use and increased efficiency. "Software should have well-organized, user-friendly navigation that enables the user to easily enter property, building and unit details for location, terms, and tenants in a fast and efficient manner."
Most programs offer these basics, so a decision between programs often comes down to the major options. Owners need to ask themselves whether they're willing to spend the money for a program with specific options. "I've got to sit down and say, 'Am I willing to spend $3,000 for a program plus $500 for credit-card interface? Am I willing to spend $3,500?'" Kelley says. "If the answer is, 'I'm not willing or not able to,' then I should forget credit-card billing, no matter how bad I want it. If the answer is, 'Yes, I can do that,' then how do you distinguish between two equals? There is no real way."
For better or worse, many decisions may still come down to preference. Sometimes, all it takes for an owner to pick one program over another is a gut feeling. "Someone may find one company's approach easier to understand than another's," Kelley says. "For whatever reason, it hits with them--just like some people prefer Chevys and some people prefer Fords. They're both pickup trucks, they both get about the same kind of gas mileage and they're both cool, but somebody clicks with one or the other."
Who's It For?
As if selecting software weren't daunting enough, an owner needs to have in mind who the program is for as he goes through the process. Should the owner buy the program for himself, or should he buy one that fits his manager's style? The answer is not as simple as it might seem.
According to Richards of HI-Tech, the No. 1 software customer is the facility owner. He's the one who visits tradeshows and compares packages. He's the one who performs the due diligence on the company, including checking references, and he's the one who should pick the features he likes. "Managers may come and go, but the owner's going to live with the software forever," Richards says. "It's not something he can completely delegate to the manager to choose."
A revolving manager door is not the only reason for putting the owner in control of the selection process. Perhaps the manager likes the program's functions for day-to-day operations, but doesn't realize the generated reports are worthless to the owner at the corporate office. When asked to choose, a manager may also pick a particular program because he's familiar with it from a prior job, or maybe because he knows its loopholes or security weak points, Richards says.
John Fogg, general sales manager at Sentinel Systems Corp., agrees. He relays a situation where the owner and manager reviewed the software, but the manager forced the owner to pick a certain package because he was familiar with it from a past experience. "I think it's a dangerous situation for an owner," Fogg says, "because that tells me this manager knows enough about the program that he could know more than the owner does, and there could be a reason he's choosing that one."
Even though owners talk to companies, compare demos and pick a package, they still need to be mindful of their managers, who will work with it on a daily basis, says Taylor of Space Control Systems. "I think they need to keep in mind what that site manager is like, how familiar he is with computers, and how easy the software is going to be for him to use," she says.
But there are those who say software is flexible enough that the manager should have no trouble changing his style to fit the program. Richards is one such voice. "My feeling is that all the programs are straightforward enough that anyone can learn the daily operations, be it a 14-year-old kid or an 84-year-old retiree," he says. "So basing your decision on which one is easiest by the manager's opinion of which one is easiest is not a good thing to do."
Management software automates essential business functions and altogether makes owners' and managers' lives easier. Programs are designed to appeal to the most general of industry needs, but sometimes don't fit with an individual facility's applications. A package should be flexible. But, then again, if too much of the program can be altered, it undercuts an owner's peace of mind.
There are two types of flexibility to consider, says Steve Hyman, president of DHS Worldwide: 1) that of the owner to configure the software per his facility's specific needs and 2) that which allows him to give individuals flexibility at the user level. "We are very open to tailoring our software to match a particular operation's needs," Hyman says. Software should be enhanced to fit an operator's vision, rather than the software vendor's vision of how the facility should operate. Hyman says if 90 percent of his program works for a certain facility, his company will program the remaining 10 percent to match.
Not everyone feels that way. Taylor says there should be give and take. "Any software vendor that's selling to everybody in the industry can't possibly make the software do every little thing everybody wants it to do," she says. "A lot of people out there have some quite different ideas about how they think their business should be run." Programs should be flexible in areas such as late fees, especially those areas affected by varying state laws. "To that extent, the software companies have to--and do--adapt." But, Taylor says, "Owners have to realize that they may have to change a little bit when they change software."
Integrity Software Systems' Plamondon agrees with Taylor, but is a bit further down the spectrum of ideas. "We have a style in our software, and we recommend that the owners adapt to that style--not to say that there aren't options," he says. "I think when a person looks at a piece of software, he really shouldn't try to bend the software to fit his schemes if it's possible to adopt those of the software. A lot of times, I think you can create a lot more problems with pieces of software, trying to bend them to fit your particular quirks." Owners without prior knowledge of software--such as those in startups--will admittedly have an easier time learning the intricacies of a new program than those switching from an old program.
Gordon Quayle of Quayle Computer Concepts is another in the "learn to adjust" camp, but his software also caters to small facilities that tend not to need too much functional variety. "No matter what management software you buy, you're going to have to change the way you do your work to match the way that management software's been written," he says. "There's a limit to how flexible you can make the software. You can't make the software do everything for everybody."
Support and Upgrades
Software vendors use words like "crucial" and "essential" to describe the roles of technical support and upgrades in the entire package. Owners and their managers spend countless hours and energy to build databases into their new management systems. If something should happen to that database, the facility could be crippled, resulting in lost records, lost business or compromised security.
A good software company works closely with its clients to ensure downtime is minimized; likewise, facility owners and managers need to rely on that support. Quayle says owners more or less become married to the software provider once they purchase a package. "You want to make sure you've found a company that's going to support you," he says. "You want to be able to call them and get help, you want to be able to find people who are available to help you when you need to be helped, and who are willing to help you."
To date, Quayle's software package comes with free, unlimited technical support. His reasoning is simple enough: "If you're having trouble with my software, then I haven't done something right," he explains. "Either I didn't write the software well enough or I didn't explain it well enough. The onus should be on me to help you get past that problem--not the other way around. A lot of companies won't even talk to you until you put some money on the table."
Often, though, software companies keep support staffs on hand to answer user questions in a timely, professional manner. Many vendors agree self-storage owners need to be willing to pay for that level of dedicated support. "I have technical people on staff all day. That's their job," says Acorn Products' Trook. "They deal with these customers individually when they call, and they respond to them immediately. So, would I be prepared to pay for that if I were a customer? You bet. I don't think it's unreasonable at all."
Example: For a fee, DHS Worldwide offers unlimited technical support and free upgrades, which is a common approach among software vendors, Hyman says. Other companies include free support for a certain period of time with the purchase of their products, and in those cases further support can be purchased.
The subject of upgrades gets more mixed emotions than does support. Some companies strive to upgrade their products several times a year. Others believe upgrades should be reserved for major changes and should be released every few years or so. For example, SMD Software's Hecker says his product has gone through hundreds of upgrades, while QuikStor's Carner says upgrades simply aren't needed if the software is well-written. It depends on the philosophy.
"Software is never finished," says Smith of Empower Software Technologies. "Software is constant. The day a software company announces it's made its last change to the package and it's now complete is the day that company starts to slide downhill." There are always new features and new opportunities owners or users want to see in a software package, Smith adds.
Richards says he gets suggestions all the time from self-storage users on how to improve his product, many of which are reflected in future upgrades. "Those suggestions make their way into the program sooner or later, and then everybody gets the benefit of those new features," he says.
What the Future Holds
With so much of the future's technology hitting the market, it may be hard to pinpoint what the self-storage industry can expect tomorrow in management software. Still, software vendors do a respectable job of giving the industry a look into the crystal ball.
The Internet's role will be huge, says Hyman of DHS Worldwide. Increasingly more owners are using the web to seek out vendors in cyberspace and do business with them over wide-area networks, he says. The next step from the self-storage perspective is the ability of a centralized location to house one database for information from all of an owner's sites. "It makes it much easier to track performance and results and also react to the market efficiently," Hyman says. Richards agrees. "Obviously, with the large trend in self-storage companies doing multiple sites now, this is probably the fastest-growing area," he says.
As technology becomes quicker over time, it will also involve more players over a wider area. That is why Richards sees companies working together for the good of self-storage in a way not yet seen. For example, his company is currently working with roughly a dozen other companies to interface with his software for tasks such as taking online payments, credit-card processing and automatic clearing house, or ACH, where payments are automatically debited from a specified checking account. Many companies, including HI-Tech, already have these capabilities, but it's the shift to a symbiotic attitude that is noteworthy. "Each of us does our own thing, but we do it in a way that works with other people," Richards says.
The availability of high-speed communication lines, such as DSL and T1, to the industry will allow more data to be transferred, Smith says. "Software companies definitely need to be ready to meet that demand as it becomes available," he says. Security and tracking on the Internet will tighten as well. Managers will soon no longer be able to surf the Internet indiscriminately without someone knowing about it, Smith says.
Increased web capabilities will also give rise to improvements in real-time access. Companies on the edge of online technology and some management-software vendors have already instituted remote site access, where an owner can log into any site from anywhere in the world, check data and, in some cases, take a virtual tour of the facility. It is also possible for customers to pay online or at the gate and receive instant access to the facility, as well as view their own unit via surveillance cameras from any web browser. Look for more companies to come on board.
Carner sees a trend toward voice recognition, where a computer listens to callers and synthesizes replies for a full, interactive experience around the clock. "Tenants will be able to find answers about their account, purchase service upgrades, even arrange box pickup and delivery, just by talking with the computer at the site," he explains. "This is the management software being another employee--a 24-hour, tireless employee."
That tireless employee is an all-knowing, all-seeing, infinitely quick assistant to the facility manager. It is capable of handling basic tasks such as move-ins and move-outs, generating letters, receipts and late notices, and calculating rent and late charges in a fraction of a second. Good programs analyze price and occupancy trends and suggest action as needed, lock out past-due tenants, itemize office inventory, and print additional receipts when requested by tenants. High-end programs take credit-card or ACH transactions, house databases from multiple sites, integrate with security and gate-access systems, and enable for remote site access in real time.
In short, software saves time. Plamondon says owners with as few as 20 units tell him they need management programs on their computers. "It really cuts down on the work, like closing the books at the end of the month, producing leases when somebody moves in, producing late notices and doing the mailings that are required in the business," he says. "Basically, a software package is a must for self-storage."