Computer smarts

It's in your best interest to maximize your rental management software system.

"I would estimate that most rental businesses use only about half the capabilities of their rental software system," says Jack Shea, president of Solutions by Computer. "Others push the limits in every area of functionality."

Whether your rental business falls to the "using just the basics" or "fully functional" side of the aisle, there's no doubt that automation of your rental operation is the best way to keep track of your assets. And why wouldn't you want to coordinate all your rental functions under one rental management system?

"The initial effort required to implement these functions is fairly intense," says Shea. "But that's also where the major payback is."

The basics of rental automation - inventory management, contract writing, accounts receivable, etc. - seem to satisfy the majority of rental businesses. The reasons for not using full optimization vary, says Ray Bonestroo with Genisys Software, "from not being fully trained on the software to just not realizing what they have and what its capabilities are."

He continues, "Capabilities of rental software have certainly increased in every area imaginable - speed, capacity, technology, reliability - over the last 10 years. While at the same time, the fileservers and workstations have gotten smaller, way more powerful and less expensive."

Beyond basics

From the front counter to the repair shop to even your Internet presence, your rental management software can make your rental business more productive and efficient. Here's a look at how it can help.

"Relative to hand writing a contract, almost any counter system is a vast improvement because at least the customer can read the contract!" says Bob Shaffer with Point-of-Rental Systems.

In all seriousness, most software for the front counter is easy to use and fast. It allows you to do quotes, reservations, rental contracts, returns, exchanges, point of sale, reprinting, pick-up tickets and more from the same program. Some systems allow you to take care of more than one customer at the same workstation while running reports and more.

In this area, information is automatically harvested during contract writing to compute utilization for various time periods, update inventory counts and display who has what and even what jobsite it's on.

Multi-location businesses have even bigger challenges tracking inventory, so some software offers various daily reports to help rental businesses make the right decisions.

This area allows a system to let you keep track of remedial maintenance schedules as well as preventive maintenance. Some systems even allow you to enter maintenance instructions for "at your fingertips" reference.

Parts tracking for your maintenance shop is crucial for keeping repairs timely. A good system will let you know daily what equipment needs maintenance, what scheduled maintenance is due, etc.

Again, this information can be harvested when contracts are written. "The real trick is to display this data so that it's easy to identify trends, whether good or bad," says Shaffer.

Return on investment computations should include not only actual or current purchase cost, but all the costs of parts and labor expensed to each piece of equipment during its lifetime.

A good system will track the maintenance costs of a piece of equipment and flag it when those costs are getting to be too large to support keeping it around.

"Some systems can also track return on investment several ways so that you can see, for example, if it makes sense to have so much of your inventory dollars tied up in a category of equipment that is not returning it's proportionate share of revenue," says Bonestroo.

Most systems have a built-in timeclock management program. Other features may include being able to click on a button on your counter system screen to display all employees clocked in at that moment.

Some systems can help you determine how hard your employees are working. "All sorts of history is stored in present day rental management systems," say Shaffer. "For example, some display the number of quotes, reservation and contracts opened by day of the week on the screen for any time period you select. From this data you can roughly determine activity at the counter and staff your counter appropriately."

Full optimization
To get the most out of your rental management software, there are areas of your business beyond the basics that you should be utilizing.

"Where a full service rental management system can do the most good is in point of sale, equipment maintenance and repair, sales analysis and purchasing," says Michael Stilwagner, vice president of Wynne Systems. "With fully integrated systems, the business intelligence is best used to manage the exceptions in your business. Numbers that are too low or too high can be seen in real time when there is time to act on the information. Reports give all of the data. Business information gives you the exceptions delivered automatically to the appropriate user for action."

Marketing can be a large chunk of your budget, so you want to make sure you're getting a return. There are many ways to use your software to help market your rental business, from generating mailing labels based on rental activity to targeting e-mails to producing a customer list with phone/address for phone calls and sales visits.

Solutions software allows rental businesses to classify customers by marketing groups (customer types), pricing groups, customer locations and rental store location, and can analyze revenue trends within these criteria. "Essentially, this analysis lets the rental operator look at past rental behavior to predict future behavior, seasonal needs and other revenue opportunities," says Shea.

Genisys offers "signature capture units" that double as customer display stations to allow counter personnel to "sell" products or talk about specials that can change daily if needed or by store location.

A website might not seem important but many surveys have shown that it's a very important marketing tool. In some markets, the Internet has replaced Yellow Pages as a way people - especially young people - search for local rental businesses.

Websites are becoming more sophisticated for rental businesses as well. Gone are the static "inventory lists" with a phone number to call. Some websites display inventory with pictures, descriptions and in some cases prices. A "shopping cart" feature allows "orders" (requests for quotes) to be created by a "shopper" and e-mailed to the rental store for follow-up.

"Many rental store owners make the mistake of hiring someone to develop their site without considering how rental and sales inventory (item name, specifications, pictures and optionally pricing) will be uploaded from their rental management system," says Shaffer. "Rental and sales inventory changes over time, and store owners will want to upload their current inventory into their web site periodically. Any costs associated with this should be discussed before hiring a company to create the site."

Point-of-Rental Systems hosts integrated web sites for their users. One of the primary benefits of this option is that Point-of-Rental System users can simply click on "update website" anytime they wish to upload their current inventory including specifications and pictures.

Wynne Systems also offers an "extranet," RentalMan Customer Portal, that delivers infromation on a real-time, easy-to-use familiar platform. "There's no waiting for data to be uploaded or worrying about when a piece of equipment is sold it has to be removed from the list - it's all automatic," says Stilwagner. "Credit applications are also automatically processed in RentalMan."

Some software providers are letting you access your software system when you're not even in the store. Genisys offers a smart phone real-time interface to the database that lets you check on customers account balances, credit limits, phone numbers, contact information, etc; check rental rates (book or by customer), availability for any date range, make reservations; check revenue by store location for any date range with breakdown by revenue departments; return rental inventory out in the yard, take inventory, receive purchase orders, and many other functions. This can all be accomplished from any Windows Mobile based phone, or even the new iPhones.

With all that data available, you need to be able to know who's entering what and when. And not just anybody should be able to stroll through your data. With a Solutions system, each individual employee can be assigned up to 15 levels of security to authorize access to selected functions, view certain types of data, etc. "For example," says Shea. "You could authorize certain employees to overbook inventory on reservations, while other could not ... or you might give just a few employees the ability to override prices by up to 10 percent, and others up to 20 percent."

There's no doubt that a rental management software system can help you run your business more efficiently and profitably. If you already have a software system, make sure you're using all its capabilities.

If you don't have one, you should seriously consider all the benefits one can bring to your rental business. In either case, partner with a software provider that is familiar with the rental industry to get you started down the path of greater computer smarts.

"Eyes in the sky" help improve equipment management, customer satisfaction
GlobalTRACS from Qualcomm is an integrated, wireless equipment management solution that can help rental companies get the most out of their equipment investments. "This tool tracks usage to help you bill for actual hours, spot unauthorized use, and avoid costly over- and under-servicing of equipment," says Tim McCrady with Qualcomm. "The system monitors critical machine health, issuing alerts when an engine overheats or another monitored system on the machine breaches, helping prevent costly engine damage. Virtual fences around the equipment help protect your assets from loss due to theft by proactively notifying you if equipment moves outside a predetermined boundary or is started after hours."

GlobalTRACS can be easily integrated into your rental business, says McCrady. "Our web-based interface requires only a browser for anywhere-anytime access," he says. "The system can also be integrated with existing back-office operations, billing and maintenance software - including automatic updating of all systems with the collected data."

GlobalTRACS also allows your rental customer to log in and see how the equipment is being used. "If it's a long-term rental, they can see if the equipment is being used or if it's just sitting on the jobsite. The rental customer will appreciate the added benefits of theft protection, unauthorized use and managing the utilization of the rental assets."

McCrady feels that the GlobalTRACS system can be used for any size rental company. "Regardless of the size, rental businesses all have the same problems - proper billing, maintenance, hours of operation, and asset protection," he explains. "Their business is really a logistics business. They have to provide equipment at the right time, right place and at the lowest costs. This system helps them do that, as well as helps them record the actual hours of operation for proper billing and make sure the equipment is maintained on schedule."

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What's the best piece of advice you can give to a rental business when it comes to computer software systems?

  • "Over the years more than 100 rental management systems have been marketed," says Bob Shaffer with Point-of-Rental. "Most of these companies are out of business. Your software provider should have a proven record of excellence. They should have systems installed in hundreds of stores and be willing to provide you with a list of at least 100 references using the product they are trying to sell you. It's your job to get this list and randomly call at least 10 companies that have an inventory mix similar (tools, party, sales and service) to yours. Your questions to ask are basically common sense: Would you buy the product again? How would you rate their support? Did the system meet the promises of the salesperson?"
  • Michael Stilwagner with Wynne Systems agrees, stating, "Trust the proven."
  • "My advice would be to make sure that the system you're considering can handle the unusual aspects of the rental business as well as a standard transaction," says Jack Shea with Solutions by Computer. "Ask to see how the software handles equipment substitutions, price overrides, overbooking, security levels for employees, and other demands of the business - even if they come up only occasionally. When they do arise, your system needs to be able to handle them."
  • "If you don't have any rental management software now, get a package that has been developed for the rental industry and start using it to help run your business," says Ray Bonestroo with Genisys. "If you already have a rental management software package, start using it to it's full potential and get the most out of your investment. Remember, your rental software supplier should be a partner with you, a company that you can talk to, returns calls prompltly and gets suggestions implemented quickly."