Alert has always been a prolific software supplier. In this interview with RER, Rob Ross, president of Alert Management Systems, speaks about fast-loading graphical dashboards, its “Web Services” platform, its new “Sign&Rent” field management system and a lot more.
RER: What is new technologically with your company’s software?
Ross: Alert EasyPro Version 16 (V16) was built from the ground up. Faster-loading graphical dashboards, more robust kits and hundreds of new features are among the many benefits. Underlying components of Alert (including the programming language) were updated to their latest revisions. The result is a highly stable and even more graphical system, which also provides a refreshed platform for future software development.
Alert has also created a comprehensive “Web Services” platform to securely extend Alert EasyPro for third-party software development and integration. This has enabled a variety of developers (such as Volatile Studios, who developed our Sign&Rent system) to offer capabilities far beyond the base system, adding custom Mobile Apps and web site features. Examples include unique Customer Portals which provide reports and other self-service features for professional rental customers, as well as detailed Shopping Carts and other web site features for the general public.
Is strengthening the mobile functionality an important current emphasis?
Ever since winning the RER Innovative Product Award (2012) for Mobile Inventory Manager, one of our first Mobile Apps, we have continued to invest in new mobile capabilities. We now have Alert EasyPro deployed remotely via Mobile Apps from job sites and field offices to delivery trucks to the salesperson’s or manager’s iPad. We see mobile functionality as central to all our new software development efforts.
What are your company’s capabilities and strengths in that area?
Alert’s web-based reporting system, Mobile Reports, lets you access and run virtually any Alert EasyPro report right from your Safari ‘Favorites’ on an iPad, for example, without any software loaded on your device. All you do is click a URL to get instant reporting results in real-time.
Sign&Rent, which started out as a remote signature capture application, is evolving to become a complete web-based Field Management System. It incorporates photos, annotation, field notes, contract exceptions, and more. All activities that are noted or recorded in the field, including photos, are immediately stored on a secure web server and automatically copied into the Alert contract file for easy look-up by the back office.
The Sign&Rent ‘console’ can now be expanded to include all kinds of important documents relating to the job site or account, giving managers and sales reps a ‘one-stop’ mobile resource for accumulating and accessing everything from on-line forms to job site photos and credit apps.
Rental stores are even using the in-store version of Sign&Rent, called CounterSign, to ‘go paperless’ right from the rental counter. The customer signs an iPad on the rental counter and the signed version of the contract is sent via e-mail to the customer’s back office or A/P department. A print version of a contract or invoice is always an available option, but more and more rental customers are accepting ‘green’ transactions as the default. Even some of our largest customers have dramatically cut paper usage and improved efficiency by gradually transitioning their customers to paperless transactions.
What are some of the advancements your customers are calling for that you’re working on?
Each year, we spend upwards of a million dollars on customer-driven improvements, including features that are ‘voted in’ at the annual International Alert Users’ Association Conference, or IAUA. (This year is our 30th Anniversary: We haven’t missed a year yet.) In addition, we develop enhancements based on market demand and technology advances, and we incorporate software written for individual customer projects. Our latest new revision for 2015 (Version 16), includes literally hundreds of such improvements.
Later this year, we will be releasing Version 17. In addition to many other advancements, it includes support for EMV (electronic chip) credit cards, as well as a number of advancements in processing serialized sales inventory, parts, and handling warranty repairs. This year, we worked with some of our largest (RER 100-sized) accounts to incorporate the new sales and multi-store features, which will now be available to all Alert customers.
What about payment by smartphone, how is that capability progressing?
The latest version of Alert’s Customer Portal already offers the option of web-based credit card payments via any smart phone or Internet connected device, such as an iPad or Android-powered device. At this time, we have not had demand for Apple Pay, Google Wallet or any other proprietary payment systems which are emerging in the retail/consumer world. As they take hold in the commercial (business to business) market in which most of our customers compete, we will be ready to go.
Are customers concerned about the safety of their data, protection against hacking or other invasions of privacy and information theft? What is your company doing to protect your customers?
Among several security-related initiatives this year, we have rewritten our integrated e-mail system to meet the latest encryption standards. Our automated cloud-based backup system (Alert EasyVault) uses encryption and all back-ups are monitored daily by our support department. Our new hosting and co-location options offer state-of-the-art security through our HIPAA-Compliant data center partner, Springs Hosting. All our credit card payments are securely processed through VeriFone, the world’s largest credit card payment processor.
We also encourage our customers to be vigilant with respect to ‘social engineering’. Generally, this means changing passwords frequently and coaching your staff to repel ‘phishing’ scams (via e-mail) and ‘vishing’ scams (phone-based inquiries) which are used to fraudulently obtain user credentials.
Fraud perpetuated by trusted employees is also an important threat to any computer system. Alert EasyPro currently logs 32 critical actions that require security but are sensitive and should be monitored, such as deleting a contract or customer, deleting a fixed asset, or changing bulk item quantities. We also provide coaching on numerous ‘best practices’ to help our customers avoid losses and detect fraudulent activity, even when it may have been perpetuated by a long-term, trusted associate.
How important is it to be able to integrate with other types of software, for example, integration with SmartEquip and other software-related service providers?
We are excited to learn that SmartEquip has begun a program to increase its appeal to mid-market rental businesses. In the past, our customers have had difficulty cost-justifying the service due to SmartEqip’s prior lack of sufficient coverage of our customers’ inventories. We have already begun a new dialogue with SmartEquip. We have relationships with a variety of other software-related service providers, such as Fleetmatics, TopCon, and ZTR, and we are open to integration with any such providers. Our customers are our ultimate ‘deciders’, however, primarily through the input of our active user’s association.
How can your software help a rental company better analyze its cost structure and determine which equipment is profitable and which isn’t? How can your software help a rental company determine at what point a piece of equipment becomes unprofitable and should be sold?
Alert EasyPro provides all the information and reports necessary to determine profitability for each piece of equipment. We recommend that our clients run our Earnings Summary and Excess Inventory Reports at least annually; it is best to run them quarterly. Consistently underutilized equipment needs to be sold to help pay for new equipment in high utilization areas. Two other critical reports track Missed Rentals and Sub-rentals. As a rule of thumb, equipment should be sold when either maintenance costs exceed 10 percent of rental income or when equipment goes unrented for a year or more. At that point, sub-rental, if necessary, makes more sense. Several of our most profitable customers also line up their income statements with the ARA’s Cost of Doing Business reports so they can quickly compare their revenues and expenses, line by line, with the top 25 percent most profitable rental operators in the country.
How about fleet inspections and diagnostics/interface with telematics systems, what is your functionality in this arena?
We have relationships with a variety of GPS and telematics-oriented systems, primarily via our AEMP Standard Telematics integration. These products provide invaluable information about the status and needs of our customers’ fleets. Our integration with ZTR, Topcon, and others, for instance, allows our customers to track their equipment where ever it is. This can help you get an early warning on potential theft or unauthorized movement of equipment, and well as assist in its recovery. It also lets our customers know if the equipment is being used sensibly and when it requires maintenance. All fixed assets and the associated rental contracts are automatically updated. Our billing interface will automatically update current meter readings for all equipment out on rent. This valuable data is available immediately for cycle billing, servicing and reporting. When a pickup is called in by a customer, the time and date of the call is logged into Alert EasyPro and an off-rent number is allocated to the customer. The Alert contract check-in process will also warn our customers of a variation in meter reading, calculating any additional charges that may need to be applied.