Recently, Michael Roth, Editor in Chief, RER Magazine, invited Alert President Rob Ross to participate in a round-table discussion with selected rental software executives. The full article will be published in the July 2013 issue of RER Magazine. Here is the full text of Rob’s answers to Michael’s questions (in blue italics).

What is new technologically with your company’s software? What are the newest features and benefits you’d like to share?

The mobile revolution continues to drive trends in our industry, from the use of tablets and smart phones, to ‘paperless’ systems for document-handling and signature capture, to transportation and equipment tracking efficiencies.

Alert’s latest innovations reflect the demand for even more mobile and paperless solutions. Alert has been growing its portfolio of Mobile Apps, including last year’s (2012) RER Innovative Product Award Winner, Mobile Inventory Manager, which offers the ability to conduct a (paperless) physical inventory of assets using smart phones or tablets.

In a previous annual revision, we made a fundamental technology change: We changed the way we store, log, and deliver all rental documents to .pdf format. This change set the stage for compatibility with off-the-shelf Apps (which many of our customers are using) as well as development of a slew of new features and products that are now available with our latest annual release (Version 15). Here are some highlights:

Dispatcher Dashboard is our new ‘Virtual White Board’ that lets the dispatcher drag-and-drop tickets, trucks and staff to planned routes with ease. The driver gets route-specific reports, maps, and tickets all in the correct order via one click of an e-mail button. A truck-mounted GPS system is uploaded with route instructions with one click. Route planning includes the ability to add additional staff, incorporate lunch breaks, return to warehouse in mid-route, and more.

Dispatcher Dashboard revolutionizes the way rental dispatchers manage equipment transportation. It’s easy-to-use ‘Virtual White Board’ allows the user to visualize and ‘drag-n-drop’ everything, from equipment to drivers and staff to lunch breaks.

Sign&Rent is our new web-based signature capture and contract management system which allows the driver to collect a ‘digital signature’ on-site, or, if no one is available on-site, by calling the customer’s office or emergency contact. The customer can sign on any device, including a smart phone or a Windows PC. So this means, you will always get a signature before your driver leaves the site: No more blind drops! A web-based version of the rental contract is stored and displayed from a secure server, so the ticket is actually being signed in ‘real-time’, vs. depending on e-mail for delivery. Confirmation copies (in .pdf) are automatically e-mailed to the customer and filed in Alert EasyPro for easy retrieval from within customer and contract records, eliminating time-consuming manual processes, such as combing through e-mails and organizing files of signed attachments.

Sign&Rent is a signature capture system that lets your drivers collect signatures via tablet or smart phone, using a ‘live’ version of the contract on a secure server. So this means, the contract is approved in real-time, without having to wait for e-mail confirmation. The signed (.pdf) tickets are automatically sorted and stored in the correct customer and contract record in Alert, for easy retrieval and management.

-GPS Equipment Tracking re-launches our GPS integration for collecting meter readings and locating equipment in the field. Our equipment rental in mobile system has been re-written for the AEMP Telematics Standard. Our first systems in the field will be integrated with Topcon Tierra, the world leader in equipment tracking via satellite.

Using Alert EasyPro’s integration into TopCon Sierra, the system pings your equipment every night for the current location and meter reading. Alert’s Cycle Billing System helps you keep up with charges for usage with each billing vs. trying to collect a huge bill all at the end. Alert’s job address field now accepts longitude and latitude, along with a link to your favorite web-based mapping system, so in a couple of clicks you know where all your equipment is located at all times, even when it’s located in an oil field or a new subdivision.

What are some of the key features you find your rental customers are asking for?

If this is any indication, this year’s International Alert User’s Association Conference (IAUA, November 6-8, 2013) is titled: “Re-Inventing the Wheel: IAUA Profitability and Mobility Conference”. Our customers are seeing the value of re-thinking even basic processes to take advantage of relatively inexpensive mobile technology, wherever it makes sense to the bottom line. At the IAUA Conference, our 28th, rental business owners have a chance to see what their peers are doing as well as work with Alert programmers and staff, providing their own input and ideas for technology improvements. We expect this year’s conference to be especially fruitful for our customers and for us.

Alert’s 28th Annual IAUA Conference is November 6-8, 2013. Attendees learn from their peers as well as ‘take the wheel, steering Alert Management Systems in the right direction, through voting on features, advisory councils, round-tables, and more.

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

Inexpensive mobile technology makes it easier to get the right equipment in the hands of your customer and to know exactly which serialized units they have. Alert’s new QuipScan software offers the ability to use simple wireless bar code readers to load and unload serialized equipment, eliminating the need to select a particular unit at the front counter or to document the selection of the actual unit picked in the yard or warehouse. QuipScan uses a standard laptop or PC in the loading area as the home base for the bar code reader. No specialized mobile computers, tablets, or cellphones are required. Zap it when you load it (or unload it) and all the work is done.

What is new (if anything) in the kind of reports you offer your customers and what are the kinds of reports your customers are most likely to take advantage of?

We are expanding our ReportShare service, which is our web-based service to allow our customers to freely share custom reports they have written. (As far as we are aware, this is still the only ‘free-ware’ software service in our industry.) In addition to adding more customer-written reports, we are expanding it to include ‘Custom Dashboards’, written using our Dashboard Generator.

This product allows you to create complex Excel Spreadsheet models and refresh the appropriate data cells in real-time, pulling directly from Alert EasyPro, without having to manually transpose the data. One application of the concept is to combine several ‘daily’ or ‘monthly’ reports into one easy-to-interpret spreadsheet model, which can include charts and graphs and allows an end-user to routinely accumulate (and save) additional calculations for analysis purposes.

For one of our customers, who has 8 stores, we are streamlining the daily reporting process down to a single Excel-based model with a ‘Totals’ page and separate tabs for each store with all the latest financial details. This saves a tremendous amount of time and gives a clearer and more accurate picture of performance, all in ‘real-time’.

Anything new in the area of customer interface for rental companies, that is, the kinds of services they can offer electronically to their customers? And what services are you finding rental companies are using more in interaction with their customers, i.e., billing and paying online, the ability to order and reserve equipment online, the ability for the rental customer to access their accounts, etc.?

Rental businesses continue to expand the services available to their customers through their web sites, including Customer Portal capabilities, offering direct access to customer accounts and rental documents via secure credentials. In addition, we have introduced ‘Alerts’ to warn customers of overdue contracts and other conditions. Using our Report Publisher program, you can schedule reports to be sent automatically via e-mail to your customers as a service, such as a listing of all the equipment on the job site for the week.