Oct. 1, 2009
The industry may be stalled, but software roars into the virtual fast lane.

If rental companies don't improve their business efficiencies in 2009-10, there may be many compelling economic reasons, but lack of available software will not be one of them. Even if there wasn't a broad range of new products and functionalities available to rental companies from software suppliers — and some of the new products and capabilities are downright impressive — rental companies have already had a wide range of capabilities available to them that they haven't used.

While rental companies have struggled mightily in 2009, software suppliers continue to push the limits with ideas and applications few could have imagined 10 years ago.

To start if off, Irvine, Calif.-based Wynne Systems moves forward its hand-held applications of its RentalMan software. “Hand-held applications facilitate the workflow of capturing the outgoing and incoming equipment information,” says Mike Stilwagner, vice president of operations. “Asset number, meter reading and fuel, along with accessory quantities, are all recorded and instantly communicated throughout the company. The number of times a document is handled is reduced, allowing people to concentrate on higher-level, knowledge-user tasks. We also added RentalMan Dashboard to our product line, allowing users to quickly analyze process and share real-time information. Distributing information in a timely manner is critical to making the best decisions and enhancing business performance across the organization.”

RentalMan also adds Asset Adviser to help with the decisions of transferring, selling and replacing rental fleet. It improves credit-card processing, complying with the latest credit industry payment requirements and standards. It adds unicode database features to support installations in China, Japan, Russia and places where other character-based dialects are commonly used. The latest version of Customer Portal allows customers to view contracted pricing for equipment, labor and merchandise, and searches sorted by estimated return date. Wynne also enhances its bar graphs and pie charts for rental history.

Wynne will be releasing version 11 of RentalMan this fall, which will include tiered rates to discounts based on time on rent; the ability to suspend billable hours or days by line item or for holidays, inclement weather and furloughs; an international banking module; additional European accountancy certifications; the number of transaction copies at the customer level; and the ability to record weather conditions and a roll-based user portal.

Stilwagner says his customers are asking for new ways to cut costs. “Even though saving time and money has always been important, there is an even greater emphasis on becoming as resourceful as possible this year,” he says.

Baton Rouge, La.-based Corporate Services has focused a lot of effort on “integration to extend what the software can do for [rental companies], such as integrating with a GPS service or a tax service such as Vertex,” says president Michael Saint. “Some of our clients are operating nationally and it's a nightmare to try to keep track of all the tax changes. They can subscribe to Vertex's service where that tax information is constantly updated. So when they create an invoice, it's providing Vertex with the information about where it's being rented and then Vertex does the tax calculations and reports those back to our system.”

Saint says CS has helped customers build ASP pages in response to customer requests so they can see live what's on rent and the status of their accounts, a process that is no small challenge. “Every client has a different environment, and a different concept of what they want to communicate to their customers with,” says Saint. “Making that information that they always had but had no easy way to communicate to their customers has been a lot of the emphasis this past year. We've expanded the capabilities of our reporting dashboard to make it easier for users to extract information that's not part of standard reports.”

Saint adds that the recognition that many users don't use the software as effectively as they could has led CS to put more emphasis on training this past year. Acknowledging also the spending constraints of rental companies that might discourage them from travelling for a seminar, CS is developing online training classes. CS has also increased the web-enabled capability of the software, while also adapting it for pocket PCs as well as desktops.

Grand Prairie, Texas-based Point-of-Rental Systems recently introduced a Customer Relationship Management feature in the 12.0 release of its Enterprise product. Communications with customers, vendors, employees and others can be documented and scheduled with the CRM alarm feature, and the product is designed to automatically interface with Outlook, Microsoft or Google calendars.

“Communications are indispensable for efficiently running a busy business and CRM coordinates it all,” says Point-of-Rental CEO Bob Shaffer. Other recently added features and upgrades include the ability to import inventory from CAD drawings, adding weight and set-up time fields to the item records, and adding new fields and reports to help California rental centers meet new California Air Resources Board requirements. Point-of-Rental users can now tag any system report to have it automatically e-mailed or faxed for defined frequencies. Other recently enhanced modules include preventive maintenance, remedial maintenance, work orders and depreciation.

Believing that marketing is the lifeblood of any business, Point-of-Rental adds functionalities to the websites of its users. “As we've added features such as shopping carts, pictures, specs, instructions, customer portals, and importing of web-generated quotes, the number of our customers opting for this feature has increased.”

Shaffer believes that in the current economy rental companies need to use their software to be more proactive than usual in the marketing sense. “Party stores need to look into transaction history to find big orders that are likely to repeat year after year to see if they can book this year's reservation,” he says. “Tools specialists need to learn how to market to governments of all sizes. Smaller and mid-size tool stores need to actually welcome cash customers instead of pushing them out the door.”

Springfield, Mass-based Solutions by Computer's most recent item, Enfinity 2.0, includes a Customer Internet Portal to give end-users access to their account information online and to create quotations or reservations.

“On a more targeted level, we've been engaged in developments for specific customers as well as for customer types who can benefit from Enfinity's integration with third-party software,” says Solutions CEO Jack Shea. “We're also working on custom-development projects. For example, we recently completed a custom order entry function requested by a rental business that has a propane delivery service. And a customer's own order-entry system is being integrated with Enfinity.”

Shea agrees that smaller rental businesses tend to under-utilize their databases in marketing to customers and prospects. “A great deal of valuable marketing information is captured automatically in the course of transacting rentals,” Shea says. “This can be extracted for direct mailings, coupon promotions and frequent renter rewards, and to guide advertising expenditures.”

Shea believes that any functionality that improves inventory management, CRM and cost control is important. “This includes tracking technology such as RFID, barcoding and GPS, as well as optimization tools at every stage of the transaction.”

Orion Software added project billing to its Sirius Pro software, allowing customers that deal with large construction sites or in scaffolding to send only one invoice per month. “Our preventive maintenance and logistics management modules have been significantly improved thanks to feedback from our customers, who then in turn work closely with our chief developer,” says Steve Milcik, sales manager for the Montreal-based company. “A new distribution module helps our customer efficiently manage special orders, equipment assembly and sub-rentals.”

Genisys Software is adding the ability to do online reservations over the Internet, an easier-to-use customer work-order program; automated updates of parts pricing from outside vendors, new features within its dispatch module, and a new equipment tracking system similar to what UPS and FedEx have for tracking repair orders or transfers between stores. The company is adding enhanced document imaging to help customers reduce paper copies of vendor invoices, credit applications, sales tax certificates, employee applications, W4s and more. The company is also improving its Windows Mobile application.

Ray Bonestroo, president and sales manager of the Minneapolis-based company says customers are asking for more integration to other Windows-based products such as Quickbooks and Peachtree accounting software.

Bonestroo says during the recession rental companies should concentrate on identifying which items are not renting enough to justify their carrying costs and which items require more maintenance than similar models so they can dispose of fleet more cost effectively.

It has been a busy year of product introductions for Colorado Springs, Colo.-based Alert Management Systems, starting with its Dispatcher Dashboard, a real-time calendar of deliveries, pickups and will-call activity, used by dispatchers to manage and plan daily labor and transportation resources.

Alert president Rob Ross says the company is “developing more multi-line dealership and multi-location functions such as the Work Order Generator, which automatically generates properly coded work orders when preventive maintenance intervals are reached. Business intelligence includes the new Executive Dashboard, which provides instant analysis and summarization of key performance indicators, which Ross says is more efficient than “complicated spreadsheet models.”

The high cost of training motivated the development of Alert's NextStep Navigator, a new work-flow management system that facilitates learning routine tasks that require multiple steps.

Alert's Web Services Integrator provides a developer's tool kit for customer portal and on-line order integration from any rental company website. The program is designed for portability and can be used on an iPhone or Blackberry. Alert also developed a Sales Commission Manager, which allows multiple compensation plans with various levels, qualifiers and payment rules that are handled automatically. Alert has also overhauled its Purchase Order System, which now incorporates e-mail notification with a new requisition/approval workflow “approval tree.” Alert also offers a new Rental Manifest System to manage transportation for large projects, and is working on solutions for the adoption of search-engine optimization and social media for marketing.

RentalResult, based in Tempe, Ariz., recently released a new Asset Controller module, bringing in key fleet information instantly into one place, and instantly creating new work orders, process existing due services, allocate or de-allocate an asset to a rental contract or sales order.

Future developments

Software development is dynamic, not static. These providers and others not mentioned here continue to enhance and tweak existing offerings and develop new ones. Software developers are constantly looking into the future to consider what they need to prepare for.

Point-of-Rental's Shaffer, for example, sees the importance of “the convergence of phone and Internet applications on portable display devices.”

“Salesmen will not only have real-time access to data, but they will automatically be made aware of situations that could be significant including warnings such as collection problems,” he says. Wynne Systems' Stilwagner agrees, and also notes a greater desire from companies to be more hands off with their IT needs and opt for software-as-a-service (SaaS) offerings. Stilwagner expects more companies to move towards “cloud computing” in the future, allowing users to avoid capital expenditure by renting usage from a third-party provider. “Why provide your own water, electricity or natural gas?” Stilwagner says. “The same applies for computing power. Concentrate on your expertise and let the others provide expert service.”

While many agree with this trend, some, such as Corporate Service's Saint say that it's true of some applications while some rental companies prefer to control their infrastructure by owning systems, thus keeping data inhouse and having a faster system for the customer. However, software suppliers agree that having more computing power in the field in the hands of more personnel is vital.

Stilwagner adds that laptops, PDAs and telecommunications will continue to merge, which will be important as software providers try to collect and deliver information to and from the field efficiently. No matter the direction, speed of delivery will be paramount.

For more information on these and other software developments, visit Michael Roth can be reached at [email protected].