RER conducted a series of interviews for our October issue on software technology and has been publishing a number of them in RER Reports. The fifth installment is with Michael Saint, president of Baton Rouge, La.-based Corporate Services. Saint discusses new developments in Corporate Services’ offerings, the importance of training customers to understand the capabilities of the software systems they have, using software to streamline service, the future of software and more. Saint was interviewed by RER’s Michael Roth.
RER: What have been some of the new developments in software over the past year or so from your company?
Saint: One of the questions I was looking at is “Is buying software or upgrading software a good decision?” And I start with the premise that if I’m a poor driver, going out and buying a new, more technologically advanced car is probably not by itself going to make me a better driver. We’ve seen some fantastic successes with the software, but we’ve also seen some pretty miserable failures.
Because people don’t utilize its capabilities?
That and if the business was a poorly managed business before the process began, software by itself is not going to turn it around. If we think about 40 years ago, there were no computers, there was no software, and yet there were good, well-managed businesses using paper. And there were businesses that failed using paper. So the software by itself is not, in my opinion, no matter how technologically advanced, the key decision for businesses. The key success factor for all of these technology issues should be, “Does it help me do what my customer expects so that he pays me?” People need to begin analyzing their business and say, “OK, we want to make a profit, we need to have a revenue stream so what do we have to do to make that customer happy enough to pay our invoice.”
When they start at that level and then they back up and set really clear objectives that they need to accomplish and then they develop good processes to achieve those goals, then their chances of employing technology to help them do that are very good. That’s not given enough thought. There are too many people enamored with technology, and think that any time you add technology you have improved your situation.
We have a sincere commitment to this win-win concept. It is frustrating when you see somebody invest significant money into a solution and then they don’t use it. We’re all guilty of that to some extent. I use Microsoft Excel frequently and yet I don’t know more than about 10 percent of what it can do, I just know what I need it to do. If I knew more, I could probably utilize it better, but I haven’t invested enough time to learn. Our focus this year has primarily been our existing customers because the number of new customers has been low. We’ve been working with our customers to help them re-implement what they’ve already got and help them better utilize it. Jack Shea recently talked about integration being a big part of technological advances lately. And so in our case, we’ve done the things necessary to accommodate Windows 7, and Windows Server 2008 xx and Signal Server 2008 all the normal maintenance type upgrades. And we’ve also been heavily involved in converting all of our software to .net.
What kind of integration efforts have you focused on?
Integration to extend what the software can do for them. For example, integrating with a GPS service or something like Vertex, a tax service. Some of our clients are operating nationally and it’s a nightmare to try to keep track of all the tax changes, so we built an integration this year to Vertex, so that those clients 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 what’s being shipped and so forth and then Vertex does the tax calculations and then reports those back to our system. So that’s been, for some clients, just a tremendous benefit and relieved maybe one or two clerks that used to be involved with nothing but taking these notices from different states and trying to keep their tax tables updated.
A number of our clients have looked for better ways to communicate with their customers, so we’ve helped them build ASP pages and all that additional content to their customer portals where they can see live what’s out on rent and what’s the status of their accounts and that sort of thing. And that’s not been necessarily a production thing because every client has a different environment, a different concept of what they want to communicate with their customers. 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, and will continue to be. 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 somewhere.
And finally, from our perspective, there has been the recognition that our users probably don’t use the software as effectively as they could because they don’t have enough information. A lot of our clients have been with us 15 years or longer so the people we trained 15 years ago in some cases aren’t there anymore, they’ve been replaced by other people who maybe the company did not send to us for formal training, or didn’t request formal training and the only thing they have is on-the-job type training. So we tried to put more emphasis on training this year.
Are a lot of customers taking advantage of the training opportunities?
As we talk to customers about training, what they’ve been coming back with is “we reduced our staff and our people are actually busier even though our business is slower” because they don’t have as many people; and “our budget for travel has been restricted.” An airfare a few years ago wasn’t a big deal, now it is. So we’re putting a lot of effort into offering online training classes. These aren’t just recorded webinars, we invested with Webex in a special training version that does things like during the training process it pops up little tests for users to take, and the instructor is able to help evaluate whether or not the user is getting anything out of it. It even takes attendance records so that if the user slips out of class to check his e-mails it shows up. Therefore we can provide a report to the manager of that person being trained to let him see whether or not the person really stayed involved in the interactive training, did the exercises, that sort of thing. So that’s been a big emphasis for us, to try to find ways to help our customers get more value out of what they already have.
You mentioned converting software to the .net environment.
The other critical part of that focus is to make the software available through different platforms, right now it’s primarily a Desktop or Citrix-type environment, so we’ve been moving some of the software to Windows Pocket PC devices, and we will continue that development. Smart phones and so on.
The surprising thing is I thought that our customers would have far more interest than they do in a couple of areas: one was hosted solutions, where they didn’t have to maintain their own infrastructure. It turns out that, overwhelmingly, they don’t want to do that, they want to keep their data in their own hands and their own house. I also thought there’d be more interest in the applications being deployed over the web. Surprisingly that’s not important to our clients.
I wonder why.
Primarily because web capabilities in terms of a user interface still suffer technologically in terms of performance. For example, an order-entry person would still rather have a desktop application because the functionality is better and faster. The salesman in the field would like to have a web-faced capability because then he can do it from anywhere. So what we are discovering from talking to our clients is they want some pieces of the software web-enabled but not all of it. That’s been an interesting insight we’ve received in the last couple of years. So our plan, like some of our competitors have already done, is to move it optionally to a web environment, but not force it down their throats. Our intent is to offer a Pocket PC environment, a web environment as well as the desktop. We haven’t completed doing that and that’s something we’ll be focusing on as we move forward.
Is there anything you can do to help customers deal with the recession?
For most rental business, outside of the capital cost of the equipment itself, clearly the most expensive thing is people. So we can help them improve their processes so that the software can be operated and maintained by either fewer people or distribute the load. For example, Potter Concrete did a project last year where in the past mechanics turned in paper documents, whenever they did repair work on their equipment, and then there was a clerk that transcribed that information. So what they did this past year, they had us put more of the information and application on a pocket PC and those mechanics entered that data as they completed repairs. It eliminated the need for that clerk to transcribe. I think that was a very effective use of technology on their part. And those opportunities exist clearly for others.
Is what the mechanics need to do on his PC simple? They aren’t all computer experts.
It’s a great question because that was one of the challenges. There’s an overall shop manager that dispatches these jobs to the mechanics. Then it simply appears as a list of things to do on a piece of equipment, so from a mechanic’s standpoint all he does is pick which job he needs to do and starts timing it from a labor standpoint and then if he has to put repair parts on it, he scans those repair parts, so doesn’t have to type any of that data in. Then when he moves to the next task it automatically stops the labor timing on the previous task and starts it on a new task, unless it’s to go to lunch, which would clock him out. So what they’re able to do is feed both payroll data and also updates the repair work order with both the parts consumed and the labor consumed. The mechanics taps one or two buttons, he taps one button to clock in in the morning, he clicks the tasks that he performs as he performs them, and then he clicks a button that says “go home.” So he’s got very little that he has to do to complete those processes.
So very little time is spent on administrative tasks.
Absolutely. So customers were able to get a payback in the first year from the cost of buying the pocket PCs and the development work that we did because they completely eliminated a job that proved redundant. It’s not a lot of peoples’ goals to get rid of jobs, but when you’re trying to save costs, you certainly don’t want to pay somebody to re-do something that somebody else has already done. This year a lot of people have focused on how to meet their objectives with less manpower.
If you had unexpected cash to invest in R&D or a new product, what would it be?
Look for more ways to extend the software and provide the information to people involved so that access to information that was appropriate is more easily and readily available. For example, a couple of our customers had us build web pages so that their customers could call in or dial in and get information about them. I think we would extend more integrations to things like Vertex or RouteSmith or Qualcomm or some of the other suppliers so information could be gathered in an automated fashion, rather that some guy driving the fuel truck having to take down meter readings all the time. This is already a major emphasis, but there are a number of projects in that regard that we can only dream of.
What are some of the new capabilities you expect from software looking ahead five years?
One possibility is that somebody comes along with a whole new technology and concept that absolutely revolutionizes things. I don’t predict it, but it is a possibility. I’ve had the advantage of having been involved in this stuff for more than 40 years. When computers first came out they had very centralized mainframes. And then mini computers came along and there was a little de-centralization and then there were PCs and everybody was pushing to de-centralize things and then other technologies came along and everybody went back to trying to centralize everything.
We’ve seen efforts in the past few years by Microsoft and others to do a better job meeting the same objective that they tried to meet five years ago. It’s much easier to connect your camera today than it used to be. One of the things that many of our clients now do that they didn’t do five years ago is take pictures of the equipment and attach that to the rental document when it goes out and then they take pictures again when it comes back in, and if you’ve got pictures that clearly show the damages that occurred when the equipment was out, it makes it a lot easier to send your customers an invoice with the pictures attached of the “before” and “after” and the damage that occurred.
There’s going to be continued attempts by every software supplier to do a better job of meeting the objectives they had five years ago with the new technology. The business objectives haven’t changed very much. But I think where the software is going to go, there will be more and more out there to help us do what we tried to do in the past.