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Dispatches From the (Software) Front

  • Not more than a few decades ago, we used to keep track of our rental inventory using a method almost totally dependent on pencil erasers. It was cheap to maintain, training was easy and it was infinitely flexible. The system couldn't produce an inventory usage report worth a damn and the pages got a little messy during the busy periods, what with all the pencil and erasure marks, but all in all, it worked fairly well.
  • Twenty-five years later and having had the pleasure of rolling out no less than five different rental software packages during the intervening years, I look back on those days of loose-leaf binders and Number 2 pencils with nothing but nostalgia and longing. That's because implementing and maintaining a paper system is easy, while implementing a new software rental system is hard! And that, dear readers, is the subject of this month's column.
  • The point is that once one of the current software packages is implemented, fully-debugged and the staff is conversant and comfortable, I guarantee that you'll find the new system an improvement over whatever antiquated application it replaced. It should support more accurate tracking, higher quality printed materials, comprehensive reporting and all sorts of modern Internet connectivity. We recently replaced the old MS-DOS/dBase system we installed 15 years ago. It was a great system and awesomely fast as long as you didn't need to record something exotic like a client's e-mail address. Being 15 years old, the software had no field for something that hadn't been invented yet. Staff could operate it with eyes closed and I mean that literally.
  • If you follow the management dictum that change is an opportunity, then changing software systems is a very large opportunity. It forces management to rethink every detail of how the business is organized and operated—from the shop floor to the executive level. The likely result is that the business will change the way it operates in some major ways, because a software package that mirrors the current mode of operation is unlikely to be found. There will undoubtedly be a gain. As certain as can be, there will also be pain.
  • There are two parts to this issue—the choice of products available and the trauma of change. The market for software in the rental and staging business is tragically small, too small to attract the attention of the major software developers, which may not be a terrible thing as the big guys have left plenty of dead bodies on the side of that road called "progress." However, the market limits the availability of products to a just a few small developers, who, while they may have knowledge specific to our industry, don't have the resources of a larger software manufacturer. This means that your software provider may lack the resources to provide truly comprehensive, up to date manuals or an extensive service network. It also means that, without a large installed base, the cost per seat is going to be relatively high, since the developer can't amortize the cost of development against thousands of users.
  • On the plus side, working with a small volume developer should mean that a certain amount of customization can be anticipated and that requested changes are not only possible, but can be accomplished quickly. It also means that you'll be clamoring for the attention of a small group of people with a lot of issues to solve and it may not be easy to get their attention. I don't mean this as an indictment of any one developer as most of these traits are shared by all of the software companies that cater to our market and on this I speak from direct experience.
  • In addition to the issue of who the software provider is and the technicalities involved with rolling out a new system that your operation absolutely depends on, there is a social aspect that comes into play. If the new package is replacing an application that has been in use for a long time, it's like forcing your staff to replace those old jeans that fit just right with a stiff new pair of khakis. The chafing is going to be terrible.
  • A couple of weeks after installing the new system and turning off the old one, you find that your group of stoic professionals has turned into a mass of insecurity, as they try valiantly to adapt to new processes and in some cases, totally new ways of thinking about the job of booking orders. It's not easy and it's not pretty. The level of support, care and preparation required for a smooth transition is difficult to comprehend and probably beyond the capabilities of most rental and staging companies who have to attend to the real work of running the business while moving forward with the transition.
  • Like almost everything in life, this too is temporary. Or at least it should be. A year down the road, if initial problems still plague the rollout, something is terribly wrong and it's time to consider an alternative. Like a hot dog stand or a loose-leaf binder and some brand-new Number 2 pencils.