By Mark Smith
“Choose well. Your choice is brief, yet endless.”
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
After witnessing thousands of self-storage management software purchases and migrations over the last 15 years, I’m constantly reminded of this quote from von Goethe. Choosing a software solution can be a relatively quick decision, but the impact of your choice can ripple through your company for years. It will affect your policies, practices, procedures and, ultimately, your profit.
Choose well, and your business grows efficiently and unconstrained. Choose poorly, and your software might severely hamper growth potential and disrupt your operation for years to come.
Even though I work for a management-software company, when asked by industry newcomers to name the best platform, I often reply, “It depends.” Because what works well for most might not fit your unique business model and objectives. Many providers consult with potential clients to ensure there’s a good fit between needs and solutions, even referring a client to another company if necessary to achieve the optimal outcome. At the end of the day, finding the right solution for each individual operation is in the best interest of our industry as a whole.
Choosing the software that properly fits your needs requires a great deal of foresight, as well as homework on your part. To that end, here are six do’s and don’ts to help you correctly identify the management software that best fits your needs.
DO: Understand Software Platforms
First, understand the fundamental technology differences between software solutions. With more than 20 providers in our industry, a wide array of packages and approaches are on the table, each with its own pros and cons. It’s important to understand some basic variances.
Every management-software application stores your critical data within a database. Some products use databases that physically reside on your laptop or PC, giving you full control over the data but leaving you wholly responsible for all backup and maintenance. This usually works well for a single-property operator, but sometimes has limitations, especially if you acquire more properties or need to interface with other systems.
Alternatively, there are products that store local data at each property but sync that data with information from other properties using a centralized database in “the cloud.” This allows for easier data consolidation and integration with other systems such as websites and call centers.
Finally, there are software solutions that fully operate from a centralized database via the Internet. These typically use a Web browser to access data and perform business functions. This database allows for the most flexibility when you access, analyze, share and integrate data in real-time with other systems.
DON’T: Forget Future Needs
Don’t fail to hedge against future needs. A vital step is planning where you want your business to be three, five and 10 years down the road. Will you expand your portfolio? Will you be less involved in the day-to-day operation? Will your software be scalable and adaptable to new technologies?
Also, make sure your software provider has a clear roadmap for its own future. For example, over the last few years, sales of smartphones and handheld tablets have far surpassed the demand for desktop computing. The smartphone in your hand today likely contains a number of apps that conveniently perform very specific functions.
Your customers’ expectations are constantly evolving as they interact with other businesses that implement more convenient innovations. Making a payment via your website is acceptable today, but customers will soon demand a simple app or even a text message that lets them make a payment in a fraction of the time.
DO: Consider Features
Prioritize which features are most important for you. While most systems share many common functions, you may have a specific ones that are critical to your business needs. Don’t assume that any software can do something exactly as you want it—put it to the test! Clearly identify gaps between how you want something to work and how it actually works, and determine whether there are configuration options or other ways to achieve your desired results. If the lack of certain features is a deal-breaker, make sure you’ve identified those before you commit to a solution that could leave you wanting.
All software packages perform the most basic tasks related to self-storage operation (move in, move out, transfer, rate changes, etc.), but I recommend determining the top five “must haves” that are mission-critical to your organization. This will help to quickly narrow the number of options that might be best for you.
DON’T: Prioritize Price Over Value
Too often I see operators select one software over another based solely on the bottom-line cost, which typically amounts to only a few dollars. Your software platform will serve as the hub of what’s likely a multi-million-dollar business, allowing you to leverage your entire investment exponentially. Consider the overall value your software provides and compare that to the price tag. It shouldn’t even be close. Looking to save a few dollars today could lead to greater costs and disruptions in the future.
DO: Plan for the Switch
You’ll need adequate time to implement your new software. On the surface, most people believe operating self-storage properties is a pretty straightforward process. We all know better! From lease verbiage to lien laws to late fees and everything in between, there are a lot of moving parts. No two companies operate the same.
While all software providers can import your unit and tenant data quickly, the rest of the configuration largely depends on you. Consult with your provider and budget all the time and resources necessary to get everything set up and properly functioning prior to your “go-live” date.
DON’T Forget the Value of Training
I see many operators spend energy and money on their software package only to skimp on user training. Proper training can mean the difference between a successful implementation and a rollout disaster. Ideally, software should be user-friendly and intuitive, but that can only take you so far. Having a solid training foundation empowers users with confidence that your customers will notice. A well-trained user will be far more productive throughout the day and more satisfied while at work.
Management software for the self-storage industry now encompasses a wide array of features and technologies that were barely concepts 10 years ago, and it continues to evolve at a rapid pace. The future points toward increased automation and integration with all varieties of customer-facing services. The end goal is to provide customers with simple and convenient ways to interact with your business. A concerted and focused bit of research now can yield years of value and efficiencies when purchasing a software solution.
Mark Smith is a director at Yardi, a provider of software for real estate investment and property management, including self-storage properties. He has more than 25 years of experience in the design, development, marketing and implementation of management systems, ranging from single-site operations to Fortune 500 companies. For more information, call 801.527.3930; visit www.yardi.com.