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Interviews with Rental Software Manufacturers: The Real Winner is the Customer

July 1, 2014
RER spoke with several rental software producers about their latest technology, rental companies’ ability to absorb and use it, and what breakthroughs lie ahead.

RER spoke with several rental software producers about their latest technology, rental companies’ ability to absorb and use it, and what breakthroughs lie ahead.

The Participants:

  • Tim Levron, vice president sales, Corporate Services
  • Lauren Dorman, vice president product development, RMI Corp.
  • Wayne Harris, president and CEO; Jason Albus, systems engineer, Point of Rental
  • J.J. Shea, general manager, Solutions by Computer
  • Rob Ross, president, Alert Management Systems

RER: In a quick nutshell, what is new with your company’s technology?

Levron: We have released some new applications designed for field personnel to utilize their mobile devices to capture service detail and equipment usage, generate field service orders and capture customer signatures and approvals for completed service and rental tickets.

Dorman: RMI released two major improvements during the second quarter of 2014:  the release of the RMI CRM Worker and a dramatic increase in storage capacity at no cost to our clients, delivering more value without any change in fees. 

CRM Worker: The rental industry is heavily relationship driven, which is why it is so important to focus on customer experiences and satisfaction. RMI’s CRM Worker covers sales, marketing and customer care cases, with an emphasis on customers’ experiences rather than simply on business transactions. The CRM Worker complements the existing suite of Advantage users, designed to match the roles and responsibilities of our customers’ staff.  

Increased Storage Capacity: As a cloud-based solution, everything is accessible anytime, anywhere. That includes all areas of the business solution but it also covers your internal document repository, email and company intranet, an ever-growing asset with our reliance on digital files. This quarter, RMI introduced dramatic increases in storage space without any change in fees, a cost saving that is impossible to gain outside of the Cloud. Think of it as free storage space. 

Harris, Albus: Point-of-Rental’s Enterprise Software for Windows is continually updated, and each year we release a software revision that further refines and enriches the program. Our 2014 update includes a plethora of new features such as online payments options for websites integrated with Point-of-Rental. More options were added to Mobile WorkForce, which allows remote workers to update contracts directly from a mobile device using cloud capabilities. Many other enhancements have been made to longstanding Enterprise features, such as internet faxing, online reservations, GPS integration, and report analysis.

Shea: We have several new modules in distribution, including StreetEagle and e-Sign. Enfinity e-Sign captures a renter’s electronic signature remotely over the Internet. It’s legally binding and documents what information the renter was given prior to signing: delivery confirmation, contract terms and conditions, rates, etc. e-Sign is completely integrated with Enfinity – the records flow into the database without any separate steps.

Enfinity StreetEagle gives rental operators real-time, GPS-enabled, mobile management of assets outside the rental store and yard. It tracks deliveries, pickups, onsite maintenance and other field activities. There are additional benefits such as in-vehicle navigation, but the most powerful impacts we’ve seen from StreetEagle have been in terms of accountability and productivity. 

Ross: Alert has recently introduced its 15th major annual revision and is scheduled to launch Version 16 by the end of 2014. In general, we continue to add hundreds of enhancements every year, including major new software options and service improvements, such as the following five:

  1. Sign and Rent: Developed in close cooperation with our web development partner, Volatile Studios, Sign and Rent offers the ability to ‘go paperless’ with respect to contract management and signing processes, either via our comprehensive dispatch management system (Dispatcher Dashboard), or at the rental counter (Counter Sign). This is a fast developing product that has already been updated multiple times since its recent introduction. It includes the ability to incorporate photos and attachments into the actual contract, documenting the condition of delivered equipment, as well as the ability to annotate (using circles, arrows, and text) any damages or flaws upon delivery or return. Since Sign and Rent is web-based, it works on any mobile device with Internet access. So, even if the authorized signer is unavailable at the job site, you can avoid ‘blind drops’ by giving the authorized signer access to the web-based version of the contract instantaneously, regardless of physical location. Signing occurs in ‘real-time’, and the signed version of the contract is automatically stored in the Alert EasyPro contract management system and on the (optional) Customer Portal, for easy look-up by an authorized person from either company. The contract itself is in full color and is ‘life-like’ in appearance, so the digital signing experience is exactly like signing a paper contract. You can initial each page, insert notes and comments, and sign off with your normal signature, using a mouse, finger, or stylus.  
  1. Dashboard Generator: An extension of Alert’s built-in BI (Business Intelligence) system, Dashboard Generator provides the ability to instantly update complex Excel Spreadsheet models, “plugging in” the data needed to update individual cells, graphs, and tabs. The data can derive from multiple reports in Alert EasyPro, which are run simultaneously as part of the automated process.

Background: Our larger customers, especially multi-location chains, may spend hours manually consolidating multiple reports into spreadsheet workbooks, such as tax reports or revenue break-downs with extra columns and graphs for analysis. With Dashboard Generator, they are able to completely and reliably update an Excel workbook from Alert EasyPro without any manual work. Simply open up the Excel file and press a single update button. Over time, our customers are able to make their Excel models more and more detailed and content rich, including graphs and BI metrics, without having to start over each time or buy custom programming from Alert.

  1. System Refresh: In order to optimize performance with the latest Windows Operating Systems, Alert is refreshing all of its underlying software components to the latest available revision this year. The process will reap ongoing benefits in areas such as system speed, graphics-handling and overall performance. In some of our core rental contract programs, it required a major rewrite to improve efficiency. However, the result is an exponential improvement, including a huge increase in our capacity for adding even more graphical and intuitive features in the future.
  1. Web-Based Training: We have improved our web-based training resources this year, through our ClientSource web site, monthly webinars, and via new training videos, called “Web Shorts”. These short videos can be reviewed in three to five minutes, covering frequently asked questions and procedures. A library of almost 50 popular Web Shorts has already been created, with more on the way every month.      
  1. Alert on the Cloud: In partnership with a world-class data center (Springs Hosting), Alert EasyPro is now available on the cloud. A virtualized server hosts the entire Alert EasyPro system, eliminating the need for an on-premises server. In many cases, this can actually reduce IT service expenses, since the new service includes WAN management, virus protection, Windows updates, back-ups, and other services that can drive up annual costs of ownership. It also eliminates the ongoing cost of server replacement and expansion, charging a fixed monthly fee instead.                       

RER: I wonder if, in some ways, technology is evolving faster than the ability of rental companies’ ability to absorb it and utilize it. Do you see that as an issue in some ways, and if so, what are you doing to train the companies and bridge that gap?

Dorman: We have often discussed this topic and have worked diligently to overcome this obstacle for our clients. It is one of many reasons RMI’s Advantage solution is 100-percent cloud-based today. Optimistically, rental businesses would only upgrade their business solution every three to five years and the changes in technology and new features were difficult to absorb, not only on their staff, but also on their wallet.  

RMI’s Advantage solution is fully inclusive, delivering regularly scheduled updates and unlimited training, support and a 24/7 knowledge base of videos and users manuals, successfully addressing both resource and financial challenges.

Regularly scheduled Advantage improvements are more manageable to learn and implement. RMI hosts pre-install webinars, outlining the new features and benefits.  Post webinar, we email links to the recorded presentation along with training videos and user documentation so that when our Client Services team contacts them to schedule, they are familiar with what’s coming and can optionally arrange additional live training either before or after the installation.    

Rental businesses who are only now upgrading their business software to the latest technologies are generally those facing the greatest hurdle. They are in the position of learning a new technology while trying to do their job at the same time. We know this is challenging and this is why we include unlimited training and assistance, to revisit system use and implement phase 2 projects to keep our customers successful.   Historically, those projects were never completed because there were additional fees.  When there are no new fees, those projects get done and the business benefits.   

Harris, Albus: The rental industry is full of bright, capable individuals that can certainly absorb and utilize any tools that are developed for them, so how quickly new technology is adopted really depends on the company. We have several clients who are highly motivated to implement our latest offerings, and in fact they keep us on our toes with their love for the bleeding edge. Generally speaking, most clients struggle to balance running a busy operation and finding the time to implement new technology. We develop our systems to work without requiring the client to implement every facet so that they can ramp up at their own comfortable pace. We offer regional training and self-paced training materials to help our customers keep up on their own pace, plus every year we host a three-day International Conference here in Dallas to help them discover under-utilized tools within the software that will save them lots of time and money in the long run.

Shea: We haven’t found training to be an issue. This is partly because many of today’s rental tech advances are building on business processes already in place. The new modules we develop typically don’t require any significant changes to the way our customers currently operate their businesses or utilize Enfinity. If third-party applications are integrated correctly by a rental software provider, any training should be minimal.

For those times when formal training is needed – for example, when we sell systems to first-time SBC users – we’ve found that Internet-based training sessions are most convenient and cost-effective for our customers. Web-delivered training lets an unlimited number of rental company employees participate without disruption to the business.

Ross: We always have a ‘vanguard’ of clients who are willing to help us apply and test the latest technology as fast as we can deliver it.  They also provide real-world ROI data that are useful to other rental companies, who are more cautious technology investors.  That being said, we do believe training is a key to getting successful results.

As mentioned above, we have increased our training resources via the web. In addition, we continue to offer the industry’s most comprehensive annual user group conference, offering two full days of training seminars and networking. This past year, record high attendance allowed us to conduct three separate Advisory Council meetings by industry specialization, including a Heavy Equipment Advisory Council. These types of meetings are invaluable because they allow owners and managers to get a real-world perspective on specific technology improvements. As a follow-up, we made all the conference materials available on-line for all participating stores, so they can review them and benefit throughout the year. 

Levron: Our implementation process is designed to explore the individual needs of our clients and to match the technology to their needs and capabilities. Many times, companies can become absorbed with being on the bandwagon of a particular technology and its benefits without exploring the requirements in process, time and money to implement a proper solution. We bring our knowledge and experience in these fields to assist them in making the proper initial choices in use of technology, along with a plan to scale use with the needs and ability of their team to harness the benefits.

RER: What are some of the capabilities and trends you think will be driving the industry forward in the coming years?

Harris, Albus: Cloud is obviously not going away, and we continue to develop functionality that puts the essential tools into the cloud for ease of use among our clients’ employees. Telemetric and geo-positioning data will continue to be more accurate and affordable so that smaller firms can benefit from the edge in efficiency and fleet awareness/uptime that come from these technologies. Ultimately, people don’t want to be tied to a desk, so mobile connectivity in many forms will continue to be a driving force.

Shea: Offsite archiving for rapid recovery, mobile access, customer account self-management over the Internet and third-party integrations are at the top of our forecast list. We also expect to see more RFID applications by third party vendors over time.

Finally, there’s room to expand the realm of automatic notifications in rental software applications. Consumers today are used to getting e-notifications about everything from their credit card statement online, to an overdue library book, to the projected availability of an out-of-stock item on Amazon. Enfinity already generates automatic notifications to rental operators for things like wait-listed availabilities, quotation follow-ups and risk alarms – emails and text notifications, typically to mobile devices. We expect this to be an area of ongoing development. 

Ross: We continue to see overlapping trends toward higher mobility, more web-based resources, and more self-service capabilities.  In the case of self-service, it’s a double win: The end customer is able to take advantage of added convenience, while the rental operator is able to reduce labor costs in the process. Our most savvy rental business operators are finding ways to automate provision of equipment usage reports and other information directly to the end user, as a strategic weapon to gain customer loyalty. Using our Customer Portal, for example, they can allow the customer to access a range of reports, not just invoices or account details, and they can automatically text or e-mail Alerts based on account conditions to proactively help keep customers in good standing, such as Over Credit Limit or Overdue Contract Alerts.  

Levron: Automation of data collection and reporting will be keys to enhancing productivity and awareness in the rental industry. Gathering operating and usage data from devices as diverse as GPS, RFID and telemetric sensors for run time, fuel consumption, flow rate, etc. will be increasingly used for accurately billing service and rental fees and for triggering requirements for preventive maintenance functions. Providing this data to company management will need to support multiple channels such as web services, ad-hoc reporting, key-performance indicator charts and dashboards.

Dorman: The last five years has seen a proliferation of technologies to streamline sales and marketing, operations and business reporting; all during a time when we saw the economy evolving. Cloud, CRM, role focused business solutions, KPI reporting, mobile technologies, customer portal; they are all available and interconnected today but precious few businesses have implemented the full solution and gained the advantages.   For many, it is a timing issue. Rental businesses are moving in this direction but it’s going to take some time to bring it all together. I think we will get there over the next few years and as that happens, we will see the tools become smarter and more intuitive. 

But that’s really all they are – tools. The rental industry needs to understand the benefits. Oftentimes software manufactures and rental business managers are much too focused on the technologies and not the overview vision of “what can be.”  It is up to us to paint that picture and then to hand hold the business through the process so that they gain the results we have promised. 

Consider a day when everyone is simply using a tool designed specifically for his or her job, everything is interconnected and many tedious processes automated. Your salesperson is at an appointment with a customer, using a tablet connected to email, calendaring and CRM, placing an order that flows directly into your business management software. At the same moment, your dispatcher is managing a visual queue of deliveries, returns and projected shortages, and is managing scheduling and fulfillment. 

Meanwhile, drivers and techs on the road, capturing electronic signatures from customers and closing out work tickets with automatic storage of those signed documents back into your corporate repository of digital files.

While the world is sleeping, invoices are generated and emailed to your customers, and credit card charges are processed and posted to customer accounts.

In the morning, the business owner reviews KPI’s and financial results on his phone while eating breakfast in his kitchen.

This is not the “Jetsons” – or the future ---- this is where the industry can be today and more businesses will be in the next few years.

RER: What are some of the capabilities rental companies are lacking that you think are important?

Shea: It’s been an ongoing story for years, and it’s still true – many rental companies don’t take advantage of all the features and tools built into their rental software. If they did, I think they’d be surprised how strongly their computer investment contributes to efficiency, new business growth and profitability. As just two examples, fleet activity and customer analysis by type, season and geography can provide actionable business intelligence. I would characterize software underutilization as an industry-wide issue, and it’s one that merits more education.

Another underutilized capability is cloud backup – with today’s labor-free archive technologies, there’s no reason to risk a long, costly data recovery in the event of a hardware failure.

Ross: Most of our customers will readily admit they don’t use all of our software.  On the other hand, each one uses a different subset of features, and we satisfy a tremendous demand for new features every year. All that being said, I don’t know how we would be able to accurately assess our customer’s needs without our annual user group conference. It is the highlight of our year and it gets our customers actively involved in the process of improving the software as well as learning more about what’s already there. Everybody wins, because we wind up with actionable market intelligence that would be impossible to buy any other way. If your software company offers this service, you should take advantage. If not, you should urge them to do so. It will be invaluable for them and for you.       

Levron: Some of the largest challenges and opportunities for benefit lie in a company’s ability to analyze what makes them valuable to their customers and to build their automation around those specific functions and processes. We believe that those organizations that truly stand out in their industry do not merely implement solutions in half-measures but go the extra mile in adopting those solutions that benefit their customers and employees as well as the company in general.

Dorman: While CRM solutions have been on the market for quite some time, the technology today is really delivering significant benefits. Those early CRM solutions felt a little clunky and some were standalone so adoption rates were low. Business owners and managers knew CRM was important, but few truly embraced a CRM solution.

That’s all changing, with the emphasis on relationship management. Today’s CRM solutions are quick and easy to use, help guide your staff through the sale or customer care process and help them to stay on target with their personal and team goals.  

Tools such as intuitive task-focused dashboards, business-branded templates for consistent communications and integration with Microsoft Outlook, Word and Excel are just a few of ways CRM is evolving. The real winner here is the customer because they reap the benefits of consistently good service, the precursor of recurring business and customer referrals. 

Harris, Albus: Analytical reporting is a tool that is often thought of as a bonus item rather than a necessity. Too many rental stores still operate by gut instinct when analysis reports can really help their bottom line by guiding their buying and selling decisions. For example, Point-of-Rental has a Units Utilization Report that breaks out your return on investment for each group of items, so you can see the optimum number of units you should actually own. Most rental stores are way too deep in inventory, but without actually reviewing the data which is already held in your computers, you may not realize it.

RER: In terms of charts and metrics and measuring their own performances, what are some of the ways software can help rental companies? 

Ross: One of the most important concepts we promote through the Alert EasyPro software is goal-setting. Using our Executive Dashboard, for example, you can set revenue goals by branch or by salesperson. You can even set goals for metrics like A/R Aging, so you can graphically monitor your collection efforts, down to the percentage of customer balances in the 30/60/90 day buckets. Our most successful customers set performance goals and measure performance in many areas of the business, including equipment utilization, service department efficiencies, profit margins on merchandise sales and many more. Using the software as the impartial referee, they can improve in each area incrementally, which all flows to the bottom-line.  

Levron: Software solutions for rental equipment companies should answer questions such as these:

  • Which of our customers are generating most of our revenue?
  • Which of our customers have paid invoices the quickest? The slowest?
  • Which product lines in our rental fleet are responsible for the most revenue?
  • Are there customers to which we are billing more damage fees, and why are they generating more damages in equipment use?
  • Are there specific items (or types of products) in our rental fleet that are costing more to operate as compared to the rest of the fleet?
  • Are there items in the rental fleet that are idle, not generating revenue, or not generating revenue at a required rate to cover their cost (utilization)?
  • What are the total costs of ownership of a particular rental item, including purchase cost, repairs, maintenance, upgrades, depreciation and interest, as compared to rental revenue generated?
  • What is the trend of the cost of equipment, parts and service for the rental fleet?
  • Are there vendors that are costing us more per part than other vendors?
  • Does it make sense for us to purchase more of a particular piece of equipment or re-rent these items from another company?

Dorman: There two key lessons when it comes to metrics and charts:  Choose quality or quantity, and be proactive rather than reactive.

Carefully select the metrics that can actually help your business. Seek out guidance from trusted advisers, such as industry associations or software vendors, on the key measures for the rental industry, and then select three to five that could dramatically improve your situation. The quality of the metric, understanding what it is intended to measure and what business changes you would make to improve your results are critical. RMI’s Advantage solution includes a baseline suite of metrics for the industry and we include custom metric reporting within our cloud services. Once you have selected those key measures, stylization of and access to the results should be simple and easy.

Your software vendor plays a key role here. The measures should come to you – rather than you needing to find or calculate them. Consider online dashboards or the results delivered to your Inbox on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. A clean, concise measure, in a style that works best for you, aids in your understanding and ability to see trends in the measures. When the results are delivered to you, you are more likely to stay on top of your goals.  

Harris, Albus: Computers are designed to collect huge amounts of data, and the right reporting software filters it out to give you pertinent information you need to run your business better. Besides the many standard reports available in Point-of-Rental Systems, our software integrates with Rouse Analytics which mines data to deliver unbiased information. This information allows owners and managers to make fact-based decisions on rental rates, fleet utilization, dollar utilization, inventory, and other essential factors which can improve the performance of your business. In addition, it provides comparison benchmarks to let you know how your business performs compared to others in the industry.

Shea: Enfinity automatically captures data as a byproduct of processing all the various activities that take place: rental contracts, returns, sales, maintenance, deliveries, etc. The software has more than 100 built-in reports that output the information in ways that are relevant to rental business decision-making. That’s critical, because so much data is generated in the course of daily rental operations. It’s the opposite of the cliché ‘garbage in, garbage out’ – there’s always a wealth of great data flowing in from rental transactions, but the software has to be designed to report it out as valuable information. This was a major priority for us in developing Enfinity.

We also have a module called Enlighten that rental operators use to extract data in completely customized ways. It expands on our standard reporting capabilities. As an example, Enfinity reports an inventory performance metric called Net Revenue After Expenses – it can be run at the item, category or group level. A standard report will apply costs of ownership such as parts, maintenance and repairs to calculate net return. A rental manager might use Enlighten to customize the metric, for example by adding a time dimension to perform a trend analysis and forecast ROI on future inventory investments.