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Selecting software: the on-site manager's role.

Successful on-site property management depends, to a great extent, on exceptional information management. Using computer software is a necessity for the property management team that wants to stay competitive. However, the purpose of computerization is not to replace people or jobs; software is only a tool to facilitate sound decisions.

Nevertheless, selecting an exceptional on-site property management program is vital for all levels of management, from the on-site manager to the property owner. Accurate information from on-site operations is essential, and the ability to pass it smoothly and accurately to all levels of management is key.

However, it is unlikely that everyone involved in the selection process will have the vision to understand at the outset what property management software could do for the business. Some may see the computer as a solution to myriad business problems, not realizing the limitations of the technology. Others may see the computer as a typing assistant, not realizing its potential in their offices.

For all involved in selecting property management software, there will be a process of learning. Throughout the learning and evaluation process, these newfound insights must be compared against the company's needs. Before making a decision, it is absolutely essential to understand what you need the software to do for your business. Regardless of endorsements, low price, bundled training, or long feature lists, if the software does not meet your needs, it is not a good investment.

The On-Site Manager's Role

Although the central office makes the final decision, the property manager and the on-site manager - referred to in this article as the on-site management team - must be involved in the software selection process. The on-site manager is an indispensable member of this team. He or she can combine observations during the trial period with knowledge of on-site needs to recommend a package that best meets the tracking and reporting needs for the day-to-day business operations.

The on-site management team can also work with the central office to define customized reports that meet business needs for all levels of management. "All" is the key word; software operation and reporting should provide the information the on-site team needs to excel as well as meet the needs of the home office. If the on-site management team is not encouraged to participate in the software selection process, this usefulness will be much more difficult to achieve. The on-site property management team will be using the program every day, so it needs to be right for them.

What to Look For

The highest principle the on-site management team needs to consider when evaluating on-site property management software is: Does the software facilitate a partnership between the on-site management team and central office personnel. Features to look for include:

Easy Access to Property Management Information. The property management software should provide easy access to information about tenants, property, and employees. It should track data, retrieve information, and perform calculations without error. This information should be available at the user's fingertips; not force him or her to hunt for vital data.

Ease of Connectivity. The software should provide automated communication between the sites and the central office. Furthermore, the software should provide information, both on-screen and printed, for each level of management.

Ease of Learning. The software should be easy for the entire staff to learn. Can the on-site staff determine most of what they need to know without having to call for help? If a software problem occurs, can the on-site manager or the office staff solve the problem without having to call the vendor?

Focus on Key Areas of the Business. The software should automate key areas of the business and help remind the office staff of day-to-day priorities (Figure 1).

The property management software should leave the decisions to the on-site management staff. For example, the software might recommend how to split up a payment from someone who owes in several categories, but the final decision must ultimately be made by the on-site management staff. The software avoids human errors in mechanical tasks, like calculating gross potential rents, so rather than laboring with the calculator, the staff can plan how to achieve those goals. The software can also prompt the on-site management staff to perform their duties, such as following up on outstanding lease renewals, but it is the skill of the on-site staff that will get that renewal.

Other On-Site Considerations

The on-site management team will also help the software selection team understand that although the software and the hardware it runs on are the biggest cost items in this investment, there are other equally important on-site considerations and costs, such as:

* UPS (universal power supply) with voltage regulation, especially important if the local power source is unreliable or of poor quality;

* tape backup unit, media, and utility software, so the local staff can safeguard its data efficiently;

* ergonomic keyboard and wrist rest, for the comfort and productivity of the on-site staff;

* fast modem with data compression and recovery, for efficiently transmitting records between the on-site computer and the central office computer;

* track ball vs. glidepoint vs. mouse with mouse pad, to suit the preferences of the staff performing on-site data entry;

* anti-glare screen for the monitor, as dictated by on-site office conditions.

Another important consideration is that competing software packages may have their features grouped differently. For example what one vendor offers in two modules may be split among six modules from another vendor. Are the modules well-integrated, or does the staff have to use different terminology and methods with each?

The interrelation of modules may also affect overall costs. The On-site management team might not need all of the capabilities of a suite of software modules; some are only needed by the central office. In this case, does a feature-rich program become a burden to the on-site staff because it forces them to deal with many irrelevant choices?

It is important to recognize that each item purchased adds to the total cost. To be properly cost-justified, each should contribute to the overall benefits. For example, a software package with many features may not be as suitable as one with fewer features, if the latter's features match business needs better.

Evaluating Software Vendors

In addition to the product and associated support and training, the selection process must consider the software vendor. Some questions of concern to the on-site management team include:

* Was the software developed by property managers for the property management business, or was it developed as a version of a general business package?

Software written especially for property management is more likely to reflect real on-site procedures.

* If the latter, does it use terms and procedures that are natural, or does it force management to learn its way of doing business?

The closer the fit, the quicker on-site staff will learn to use it.

* Was the software written and tested by a property management team?

If the vendor's team includes on-site specialists, they are likely to be more sensitive to on-site needs.

* Will the vendor permit an on-site trial period?

Trying it is the only way to find out how well the on-site staff can use the software and verify that it does what it claims.

* Does the vendor provide technical support? How fast is it? When is it available?

If vendor support hours are inadequate, the on-site staff will be forced to wait overnight or over a weekend to solve software problems.

Are the members of the support staff knowledgeable in property management as well as computers?

On-site staff often will not know if the difficulty they face is due to the vendor's software or to system hardware or software problems.

The on-site management team should also acquaint the home office with locally available hardware, software, and vendor services and support. For example, if the hardware fails, are replacements available locally? If the vendor is not local, can software support and upgrades be handled efficiently over the telephone? Is training available locally?

The Implementation Process

In addition to developing a basic understanding of hardware and software, the on-site manager needs to understand how software can automate the property management business. With this understanding, he or she will have background knowledge that will help keep the morale of the on-site staff high during the transition to automation.

Some questions to consider before implementation begins include:

* Does the software support the processes we already use in our business?

* If not, is the staff flexible enough to learn a new way of doing things? Flexible software can go a long way toward pleasing a rigid staff, but ultimately there are bound to be some new processes.

Highly flexible software will offer the opportunity, through various set-up options, of configuring the suite of programs to a more or less close match to the way a company does business now. Before doing this, however, the on-site manager should consider this question: "Am I satisfied with our processes?" Don't automate a bad process if the company can easily institute a better one supported by the property management software.

The on-site manager should approach these differences realistically. At best, the staff will adjust to them quickly and will embrace them as improvements to their previous way of doing business. At worst, the staff will resent the change and may even attempt to sabotage computerization.

If the on-site management team has briefed the on-site staff, or better yet, allowed them to try the software, they will be less intimidated than staff who suddenly learn that a new computer software package will become part of their daily routine. Most people don't like changes in their work patterns, but giving them the opportunity to get used to the idea over a period of a few weeks often makes it easier for them to accept changes.

To minimize disruption while working out procedural changes, the on-site manager should try the software at one complex or part of a complex first.

Implementation does not stop with initial deployment of the software, however. Plan for continual improvement; a better understanding of software features will leverage the software investment if new techniques are taught to all team members.

Furthermore, neither property management nor computer software is a static field. The team needs to stay up to date as property management and the software business change. Features included with software upgrades will make the on-site staff's job easier.

Involvement Is Essential

Selecting an outstanding on-site property management software package is a joint effort of the on-site management team and the central office staff. If the on-site management team is neglected during this selection process, the results are guaranteed to be inefficient in the long run and, possibly, flawed and counterproductive.

With the help of the on-site management team, the selection process can lead to a choice of software that meets the needs of the business at all levels of management, frees up the on-site staff for creative work, and supports the business both now and in the future.

FIGURE 1: BASIC AREAS OF COVERAGE

Applications and Rentals

Walking a prospective tenant through the application process, filling out the application, approving or rejecting, keeping track of past applicants, automatically transferring information to tenant records, tracking available units for rent (when available, what features), creating initial lease, sending renewal reminder, automatically renewing.

Tenant Experience

Collecting rent and additional fees, sending late-fee reminder, handling NSF checks, handling tenant failure to meet obligations, managing security deposit return or forfeit, paying security deposit interest (each state has different rules), resolving tenant problems, providing references, moving tenant out, handling move-out adjustments (collecting money due or refunding money).

Maintenance Tracking

Managing work orders, coordinating purchase of repair parts, keeping inventories of parts and supplies.

Charles P. Minter, CPM[R], is president of Fairview Construction Company in Minneapolis. Since joining Fairview in 1977, Mr. Minter has been actively involved in all phases of the company's operation, including property rehabilitation, construction management, real estate management, and corporate financial planning.

Jon L. Hornbeck, ARM[R], is the resident manager of Regency Square Apartments and the general manager for Embassy Terrace Apartments, both in Kalamazoo, Mich. He is responsible for supervising and hiring a management team, supervising rehab, and overseeing leasing activities.
COPYRIGHT 1997 National Association of Realtors
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Minter, Charles P.; Hornbeck, Jon L.
Publication:Journal of Property Management
Date:Mar 1, 1997
Words:2027
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