When buying rental software, be choosy to find the best fit.
By Brianna Bowne
You may have never figured out how to reset the clock on your VCR, but you don’t have to give up on technology entirely. Computerizing your business can make your life easier and your business more profitable. Software systems are becoming easier to learn, faster. Finding the right software for you will require some research, but once you’ve found what you’re looking for, you’ll be glad you took the time.
Examine the capabilities
Rental software allows you to manage your inventory easily and instantly. “Prior to [buying software], we had a manual system, which was a nightmare,” says Dan Skena, owner of Party Savvy in Monroeville, Pa. “It was difficult during peak season to avoid overbooking.” Skena now uses Alert brand software.
Inventory tracking makes it possible to know where every table, napkin or tent pole is at any given time. Generally, rental software includes the ability to make kits or packages, which allows you to create relationships between pieces of inventory.
“The packages make it easy for people unfamiliar with tents to take orders without overbooking various components,” says Bob Shaffer, president of Point-of-Rental Systems, Grand Prairie, Texas. “Additionally, items necessary to complete the tent setup, such as stakes or water drums, can be marked not to print on quotes or reservations while still printing on the delivery prep sheet.” This prevents customers’ confusion over what they’re paying for, while informing employees about what should be on the delivery truck.
Another valuable feature of most rental software programs is the ability to track the need for and cost of maintenance on inventory. You’ll be able to quickly assess what items are taking the most wear and tear—and which items would be worth the money to replace or repair.
Like inventory and maintenance, customer information can also be customized and tracked. Rental software keeps track of contracts, outstanding payments, discounts, payment plans, credit terms and more. When a repeat customer calls, you can have his or her entire order history at your fingertips.
“It’s professional to be able to answer questions immediately,” says Steve Milcik, sales director for Orion Software, Montreal, Quebec. You’ll be able to offer more personal, effective customer service. In addition, any of the client’s information can be easily altered as circumstances change.
“You can do a bid, and if they decide they want to book the equipment, you can turn it into a reservation,” Skena says. “When it’s time for the order to go out, you can convert that into a contract.”
The ability to customize reports gives you an overview of your business. The amount of customization possible depends on the system.
“It’s about being able to know what you have and how much money you’re making,” says Doug Van Meter, Rental City, Vineland, N.J.
Find the best value
If price is your only consideration when picking your provider, you could be in for trouble. “If you can get a really good deal, maybe it’s too good of a deal,” says Larry Weeman, Party Track for Windows, Kennebunk, Maine.
“If you’ve put a ton of money into the location, equipment and employees, why would you then buy inadequate software?” Van Meter says. “Just because [your business] is small, doesn’t mean you can’t afford software.”
Any software you buy should be considered an investment. Many software providers offer payment plans to help small businesses.
“If you can’t make good decisions, then you can’t grow your business,” Painter says. “No software is cheap, but running without the software is expensive.”
Arguably the most important thing you should consider when buying software is technical support. Will someone be there to help you when you need it?
“The true value of a software program is in the support,” says Dave Painter, who was president of Event Rentals in Chantilly, Va., before it was bought by Classic Party Rentals. At Event Rentals, Painter used Alert software.
Van Meter, who uses Point-of-Rental, tested the company’s out-of-hours service before buying his system. “I called on a Saturday, and someone spent an hour going through the demo with me,” he says. “I called on Sunday, and someone actually answered the phone. I wrote the check on Monday.”
Before choosing your software, find out how long the company has been around. “You don’t want to buy something and then find out a year later it’s not around anymore,” Weeman says. “Everyone who buys software should make sure they are supported.” Generally, software providers charge an annual support fee that includes customer service, help lines, maintenance and regular updates. You should expect updates at least yearly.
Do your homework
Finding the right software is going to require that you do some homework. “Look at each vendor out there. Don’t just pick the first one you come to,” Weeman says. “Make sure that what you are looking for is really designed for you.”
Although a company’s Web site is a good place to start, the site itself shouldn’t be the only factor in your decision. People are your best resource.
“Talk to vendors and customers,” Ehler says. “Find customers who are similar to you. If you do a ton of linens, talk to someone who does a ton of linens.”
Taking time to talk to other customers is the best way to gauge whether the software will work for you. “No software should be purchased without consulting at least 10 current customers that are using the product in similar rental businesses,” Shaffer advises. “If you don’t, you will the next time.”
Skena agrees it’s important to speak to other rental companies before you buy. “Rental people, by and large, are pretty willing to share information,” he says.” They might even let you come in and see how it works in a real-life situation.”
Be sure you know exactly what you’re looking for. “Develop a list of wants,” says Bill Marsh, chief operating officer for Synergy International in Gaithersburg, Md. “Then, out of those things: which are the most important and how can you accomplish them?”
Clark Haley, president of BCS ProSoft, San Antonio, Texas, sums up rental companies’ homework assignment. “First, they need to understand their own business processes and determine which processes are in place simply because of deficiencies within the current structure,” Haley says. “Second, they should meet with prospective software vendors to discuss their current status as well as future plans. Third, they should be looking to develop a relationship with a vendor that fosters effective communication between the parties, to help streamline processes and to take full advantage of the tools available.”
As with any investment, you should feel good about the choice you make. “It comes down to trust,” says Ehler. “People like to touch what they are buying, but with software, there has to be a high level of trust.”
If you’ve done your research, your new rental software will be the oil in your business machine, making everything run more smoothly. “Shop owners have a lot of knowledge, but it’s all in their heads,” Milcik says. “Now, with software, the owner can actually go on vacation.”