May 5, 2008

7 Min Read
Choosing Software to Meet Self-Storage Business Needs

Self-storage software is continually evolving. And because ours is a unique market, it must be specific to the operation of the business. Whether you are new to the industry, shopping for your first program, or seeking to modernize an existing operation, the dynamics of the software world will have an impact on your business sooner or later.

The task can seem daunting. If you do not make a sound buying decision, you may be affected more than once over the next few years as the technology changes.

Begin by identifying what your business needs. Are you simply interested in tracking your store’s revenue? Or would you like to provide your manager with a useful tool to stay organized, print notices and automatically charge late fees? Maybe you’re interested in a more complex program capable of doing a wide variety of useful and time-saving tasks.

Build a list of features that you believe will accomplish how you want your operation to function. Start with the basics. How does the program take care of the day-to-day operations, such as taking payments, move-ins, move-outs, transfers and so forth? All of the bells and whistles in the world will not do you well if the program is cumbersome to navigate, and frequent tasks are not easy to perform.

If more than one person will be using the software, you may want to consider restricting access to certain areas of the program for different personnel. Your relief managers may not need to view financial data, but still be able to access vacancy information to rent spaces. Will you allow staff the ability to adjust rent or deposit amounts? Should your manager be able to change unit numbers and sizes within the software, or reconfigure the cycle schedule for late letters and notices? Settings that are tied to your lease—and state law—should not be easy to change.

Certain packages will accomplish certain functions slightly different than you expect. Do not necessarily rule these out solely for that reason, unless you feel they are crucial. No package will function exactly as you envision. Be aware that software sellers will try to tell you what is important based on what’s contained in their programs. If the software sales representative is telling you it should only function his way, then go find another vendor. What is truly important is how you want to run your business, not how they say you should.

Whatever your needs, it’s important to find the right program for your business and property manager. The needs of the business should take precedence. If you are successful with this match, the manager and software program will complement each other and your operation will be smoother and more profitable.

Once you have compiled your list, request demos and literature from each manufacturer. As you review trial software, compare it to your list of needs. Document your questions. Evaluate those items that are important to how you want your business to operate.

You may want to assess how you, as an owner, will receive or access data from the site. Some software programs have the ability to automatically e-mail reports to your home office every evening. You could even have a copy of your store’s entire database waiting for you on your computer at your office when you arrive in the morning.

Vendor Relationship

The software industry has become very lucrative for manufacturers. New self-storage suppliers appear every year. Many quickly come and go. Maybe they work in other industries that demand more of their attention, or perhaps success in the self-storage market is more difficult to achieve than they anticipated. They will likely sell some packages to operators during their short tenure, leaving some owners in the lurch.

With that in mind, seek vendors who have been around in the self-storage industry for while. If they have, and they have conducted themselves ethically, you will have no trouble finding customers who use their products and approve of their practices.

Ask yourself, "Does this vendor have enough industry knowledge?" Industry knowledge gives them the ability to write helpful software for your self-storage office. It needs to be rich in features specific to this industry. While QuickBooks is a valuable accounting program, comparing it to software written for self-storage exposes its shortcomings. The package written by a self-storage vendor would have so many more features to benefit your day-to-day operations, like rental activities, automatic lien processing, late-fee and mailing capabilities.

It is probably not a fair question to ask vendors how many software sets they have in use. Changes such as buyouts, different owners, new partners and management companies affect the program being utilized. A better question to ask might be how much of their business comes from existing customers and referrals. This will reveal the level of customer satisfaction with the product and supplier.

Beware of companies who make a living by trying to convince you to change your current program. They are desperate to make a name for themselves instead of going out and finding new business. Buy based on the needs of your business, not based on the needs of the vendor. Because programs are ever-changing, one vendor will not know everything about competitors. And no vendor should try to speak on behalf of a competitor’s product.

A while ago an owner attended a tradeshow with the intent of shopping for new software. He already had a program, but wanted to see what was available to better his operation. In one seminar he attended the speaker urged attendees to upgrade their software to the most recent version available, regardless of whose program they were using.

The owner took the advice to heart. He went home and updated all of his facilities’ software. To his amazement, most everything he had been searching for was already right there in his current program. The simple task of upgrading his software saved him from spending thousands of dollars on something new.

Upgrades, Support and Training

Program enhancements, through version upgrades, should be expected and implemented regularly. Improvements to the program, corrections, revisions and added features are necessary to keep up with the industry and technology. Asking your vendor about the recent changes within your program might give you an idea of how much that company pays attention to the industry.

Of course, in many cases, if you sign up for your vendor’s service agreement/support, not only will your vendor send you all of the latest revisions to software, but it will entitle you to unlimited telephone support. This is a really great way to keep your software updated and provide your manager all the support he will need.

Speaking of support, remember to ask about the software-support options. Do you know who to call for assistance, and do they have a toll-free number? Some companies like to show a little appreciation for their customers by paying for the telephone call. Also, check on support hours and what time zone you will be calling.

Reputable software manufacturers will offer training classes, usually at their headquarters. In most cases, the programs are easy to learn. With the help of a good manual and a few quick calls on the vendor’s help line, your manager will quickly be on his way. If onsite help is what you need, consider hiring industry consultants and trainers.

Make an implementation plan. Set a "magic date" to go live. Make it comfortable, not hurried. Too often store managers are given a new program on one of the last days of the month, and are expected to be up and running by the first. If this process is hurried, the chaos may frustrate employees, lead to mistakes, or the totals for the first month will not be accurate, leaving everyone involved feeling terrible.

Cost vs.Value

Everyone is looking for the best value for dollars spent. Cost differences are sometimes tied to the amount of features and benefits the product provides, but not always. Some high-price programs warrant the price tag, based on all that is contained. Some may not. Mid-priced packages may provide all of what is required and more. Your purchase price not only pays for the development of an existing product but technical support expertise to support that product, as well as future development of newer updated products.

Last but not least, evaluate the potential relationship you will have with the supplier and your representative. In the end, people still buy from people. Fortunately, this industry has not outgrown that. Rely on the expertise of the representatives you are dealing with, and their time in the business. The people you work with should truly care about making your business more successful, not just about writing an order.

David Essman and John Fogg are part of the management team at Sentinel Systems Corp. Sentinel Systems has been supplying software and security products exclusively to the self-storage industry since 1975. To reach them, call 800.456.9955; e-mail [email protected].

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