There once was a time when selecting management software for a self-storage business simply meant choosing from a handful of vendors. They all did a good job of offering similar features at similar costs. Now, the number of providers has increased considerably. There are more features, and the cost difference between the many types of software on the market are a bit broader, making the choice more complicated and time-consuming.
For those embarking into this industry for the first time, consider your needs and business practices before purchasing a software package. Is your objective to simply provide your manager an organizational tool with which to track tenant names, unit numbers and addresses? Maybe you’d like a more practical and efficient way to print notices, charge monthly rents and late fees. Or, you might be a report addict and require reports for everything.
Construct a list of features you feel your business may need, keeping in mind the skill level of the managers operating the program. The right manager and software combination will complement each other and increase efficiency with the least amount of problems. This could mean fewer telephone calls to you and more accurate reporting for your accountant.
First, you need to consider the PC requirements of the management program. If you plan to use an existing PC, consider its age, operating system, onboard storage devices and the storage media it currently uses to back up data. If you intend to purchase new equipment, you should still review the program requirements and know exactly what is expected of you and your computer.
You should also determine the difficulty of the program configuration. Some reputable providers will help with the initial setup and customization of their products. This could be accomplished several different ways. It’s critical for your provider to offer help with this setup process. I have come across numerous operators who were left alone during this process and crucial settings were never completed. The results included missed late fees and mailings and, the most common oversight, taxes incorrectly accessed.
Growing Your Business
Another critical consideration is whether the chosen software will grow with your business. If you change unit rates, numbers, late fees or lien configurations because your occupancy increases or your state laws change, can your software adapt? How complicated will it be? These answers will depend on the program you purchase.
This brings us to my next point: What kind of security is built into the program to prevent someone from arbitrarily changing crucial settings? When your property assesses late fees or places a tenant in overlock or lien status, this configuration is usually regulated by state laws and described in your lease agreement. Password protection within the program should only allow authorized personnel to make these changes, while at the same time preventing someone from accidentally or intentionally making system changes and placing you and your business at risk.
If accessing your software remotely is on your shopping list, there are several third-party solutions, including GoToMyPC and LogMeIn. These proven solutions make remote access easy and affordable. There are also several Web-based management software programs designed for the self-storage owner. Both methods allow you to access your system, draw desired information, review reports and make changes. Two details to keep in mind:
- The expense. A third-party solution will be a minimal expense, if any, compared to a Web-based product, which can involve a healthy, reoccurring monthly fee.
- The database. Who has possession and access to your tenant database and who is responsible for data backups?
What technical support options are available with the software? While discussing features and pricing, remember to ask the provider about support. How much comes with the original purchase? What are the hours of operation, and in what time zone is the support staff? Software vendors are spread across the United States, so if there is a problem with your system, how long will you have to wait until help is available?
Also, be cautious about a provider’s promise of “24-hour support.” You may find someone on the other end of the line any hour of the night, but it doesn’t necessarily mean he will have the tools or expertise to solve your problem. Another important question is if there is a charge for technical support. If so, will you need a credit card when you call or will you be billed after the call is completed?
Reputable software providers offer training for their products. In many cases, the programs are easy to learn, and with the help of a good manual and a few short calls to the provider’s help line, you and your manager will quickly be on the way.
However, allow yourself and your staff time to practice with the product. I have seen a few well-meaning individuals purchase products during the last week of the month with the intent to be up and running by the first. Unfamiliarity with the new product, potential mistakes and added stress of being rushed will quickly create negative feelings toward the new software. Allowing a few weeks for training and practice can make all the difference in the world.
Finding a Vendor
The software industry has become lucrative for manufacturers. New self-storage suppliers appear every year. Many quickly come and go, so find out how long the software vendor has been in the industry, then limit yourself to those who have conducted themselves ethically. If they have, 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? This gives the vendor the ability to write helpful software for your business. The software should be rich in features specific to self-storage. For example, while QuickBooks is a valuable accounting program for many businesses, comparing it to software written for self-storage exposes its shortcomings. QuickBooks is a general-accounting program, not self-storage-specific.
The package written for a storage business will have many more features to benefit your day-to-day operation, such as rental activities, automatic lien processing, late fee and mailing capabilities. Both programs can track money, but software for self-storage will save thousands of staff hours each year.
You probably already know what I’m going to say: You get what you pay for. Software providers price their packages based on system features, market value and their competition. Behind the scenes, your vendor must support the product with any software fixes, produce upgrades, provide qualified technical support and pay handsomely for future development. If the provider doesn’t charge accordingly for the product, it simply won’t be around to help you.
Instead of focusing on the dollar amount, consider the value that comes from using a solid management program. The product will assist in collecting every penny owed to your business and save hours of manpower. Your new program will undoubtedly pay for itself over time.
Obviously, a program light on features will cost less than one with more features. Some providers have a base price for their product then charge for add-ons and specific features. If you choose not to purchase add-ons, you can save money and still get a quality management software program.
Each management software program will be different in appearance, operation and cost. They may operate differently while doing the exact same thing. One product might require more steps to perform a move-in, accept a payment or transfer a tenant compared to another product. A good management program is powerful enough to benefit your operation but accessible for your managers’ use.
Remember, the choice of management software should not be based on a single feature. Look for the best overall product for your business, the vendor’s tenure, integrity and customer service, and how you will be treated after the purchase.
David Essman is the director of marketing for Sentinel Systems Corp. of Lakewood, Colo., which has manufactured self-storage management software and security systems since 1975. For more information, call 800.456.9955; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.sentinelsystems.com.