Data watch: using 'dashboards' to get the most from your rental business.

By Murray Pollok28 January 2013

Exemple of an 'executive dashboard' from US software company RMI Corp.

Exemple of an 'executive dashboard' from US software company RMI Corp.

More and more rental companies are using dashboards to present key business information in a way that is easy to digest and which prompts action. Murray Pollok reports.

The modern day rental software system generates lots of data, which is both a good and bad thing: data tell you what’s going on, but too much of it will leave you swamped and struggling to identify what’s really important.

That’s where business intelligence tools and dashboards come in, presenting information in an easy to digest and prioritised way, communicating information to managers quickly and efficiently.

Jack Shea, general manager at Solutions by Computer, says data overload is a chronic problem in many businesses; “Reports tend to be especially time-consuming – the rental operator usually has to wade through a lot of data to draw useful conclusions. Dashboards get you to the finish line faster; they are usually a graphical, summary presentation of the underlying data.

“It’s important to point out that the use of dashboards can be operational, tactical or strategic. Strategic applications are often trend-related: the data is presented in a way that helps the rental owner/manager correct negative trends or capitalise on positive trends.”

Olly Williamson, senior business development manager at InspHire, says dashboards can be used operationally to track equipment, to find information such as purchase orders and rental contracts, and to provide a barometer for business performance.

“Utilising business intelligence dashboards should save you time and give you easy access to your business KPIs”, says Mr Williamson, “Therefore it’s important to identify the key metrics that you operate your business by, such as rental contracts generated each day, average rental contract rate, average utilisation, and then have a dashboard for each of these. Dashboards are there to show you where the issues are, rather than you having to delve into reporting to find the issues.”

Of course the ‘issues’ vary depending on the manager’s role, which is why dashboards are often best tailored to a particular job function. Lauren Dorman vice president of product development at RMI Corp, says; “when you approach your design and layout from this perspective, you can easily see your way through to developing the key factors that allow your staff to be successful.”

The dashboards use underlying data generated by the company’s operating software, which means that there is an enormous array of numbers to choose from.

Nick Thomson, sales director at MCS Global in the UK, says there are typically four main areas where dashboards find themselves used: to analyse customers (revenue analysis), equipment (revenues and utilisation by product), costs (including workshop activities) and purchasing (such as re-rental levels, consumables and fleet CapEx).

A list of some of the key data commonly reported in dashboards – as provided by a number of software specialists - is given in the box on this page.

Software companies including RMI, Solutions by Computer, Wynne Systems, Sycor, inspHire, Result Group, Ramco Systems, MCS and Infor are among those offering dashboards, most commonly as a standard feature within their software packages – and frequently offering dozens or even hundreds of ‘out of the box’ reports – and with the capability to create additional, non-standard reports.

So what do rental software specialists offer? Indian company Ramco Systems, which provides a Cloud-based rental ERP solution, provides both pre-built and user configurable dashboards. These dashboards fall into three distinct types: role-based, transaction-specific and dashboards for maintenance planning, scheduling and dispatching.

Rajeev Singh, practice head at Ramco, says role-based dashboards are pre-configured specific to the roles such as CEO, CFO and Depot Manager, containing KPIs, key analytical reports, alerts and trends. The transaction based dashboards are specific to functions like rental operations, equipment maintenance or cost management.

Ms Dorman at RMI says its ADVANTAGE solution distinguishes between KPI dashboards and Role Centers. “KPI Dashboards are focused on the critical success factors for the business. These high level views are monitored by management to watch for both positive and negative trends as they develop. Many of our clients view Dashboards either on demand during the day or on schedule, delivered to their email on a frequency that works for them. We have another contingent of clients who display the less financially sensitive dashboards on large monitors throughout the organisation.”

On the other hand, the Role Centers are based on the job responsibility of the individual and are designed to keep them focused on their tasks. RMI offers reports for more than 20 different job responsibilities.

“When I describe Role Centers, I often liken it…to that of an App running on your SmartPhone. When you have a new message, an update to install or it’s your turn to ‘play the game’, the App icon displays a value or a count of new items. I like this analogy because it generally causes the user to want to take immediate action to bring that count of tasks due to zero. That’s the goal of the Role Center – to alert the user to take action on the workload that is slated for today”.

The benefits of having a software solution linked to a major ERP system with many standard dashboards is highlighted by Frank Jakobi, vice president at Sycor in Germany. The SycorRental solution is fully integrated with Microsoft Dynamics AX, Microsoft's ERP solution.

“Dashboards are an integral component of the role-based user interfaces offered by Microsoft Dynamics AX”, says Mr Jakobi, “More than 30 Role Centers with self-service functions for business intelligence (BI) and reporting are available”. In addition, more than 800 standard reports are available to all users.

SBC, meanwhile, offers its customers two options, Flashboards and Enlighten. The Flashboards are integrated into SBC’s Enfinity system are either financial or operational. For example, one of the financial Flashboards will “compare current revenue data to historical and projected revenues and display monthly variances on the flashboard”.

Enlighten is an Enfinity software module that displays customer, inventory and transaction data in a more dynamic, multi-dimensional presentation that makes it easy to spot relationships and trends.

“One of Enlighten’s big advantages”, says Jack Shea, “is that it’s designed to be market-oriented. For example, the history of a product group can be analysed as to revenue trends by postal code, specifying the ‘use at’ jobsite address associated with the transactions to give an accurate analysis of geographic utilisation.”

Mr Shea also points out that, more generally, dashboards are intended to give transparency on critical data throughout the day; “We wove that approach into our Enfinity system from a very early point in its development so that in addition to Flashboards and Enlighten, critical data appears on key screens.”

Some software suppliers, including Infor, the software business that incorporates the former Lawson company, told IRN that dashboards need to go beyond the simple display of information, and actually drive actions; “Infor supplies customers with role based screens with graphics and charts - as opposed to restrictive dashboards. The idea behind this to deliver a type of ‘embedded portal’ with which a user can easily identify his/her next action. It is vital to think of dashboards as more than just fancy colourful pie charts.”

When it comes to ‘role-based’ dashboards, Infor says the reality is that roles often mix; “As a result, Infor also delivers a middle layer that makes available data for any dashboard of choice - so if the CFO has to fill in for the operating officer or a rental depot clerk takes on warehouse management, their dashboard can evolve to account for the new needs…The Mash up technology that Infor provides makes this ‘evolution’ of a role based dashboard incredibly quick and easy.”

Whatever your role, it is important, says Infor, not to over-complicate things; “Ideally each person should have just one dashboard - the point is not how many they access but what is put on the dash in front of them…Their role should define the dashboard, not the other way around.”

Wynne Systems, which offers a dashboards module through its InfoManager data warehouse suite, makes a similar point; “A company may own a great dashboard solution, yet not know how to get more people to use the information effectively. A dashboard should guide decision-making – it should make doing the right or appropriate thing much simpler because of the underpinning data points available.”

For rental companies, any additional costs for dashboards and reports will be an important consideration.

At Ramco, the pre-built dashboards are included in the system, with the option for the user to configure additional reports, with Ramco offering training back-up. SBC says the entry price for its Enlighten dashboards module is US$1000, while the more basic Flashboards can be added to Enfinity starting at $500.

InspHire says it provides “a number of dashboards ‘out of the box’ which are provided to all our customers, however there is the ability to have customised dashboards created.”

Likewise, Infor says most of its dashboard screens are included in the solution; Some specific analytic products will carry an additional charge, but for a great deal of the insight and benefit of information presented to the user, there really should be no additional investment needed.”

At Sycor, dashboards and the underlying infrastructure, such as SQL Analysis Services and SharePoint, are included in the standard package, with no additional licensing costs.”

RMI’s ADVANTAGE solution includes an array of KPI and Role Center dashboards that are available for immediate use. The company says it considers requests for new dashboards, which it may then develop at no cost and offer to its entire customer base through its quarterly upgrades. It will sometimes develop a custom dashboard for a fixed price.

Looking ahead, the use of dashboards on mobile devices is now becoming more common as sales of smartphones and tablet computers increase. MCS, for example, has been offering business intelligence tools and dashboards on its desktop solution for a decade or more, but is now launching mobile dashboards for use with mobile devices.

MCS’s Nick Thomson says these will be suitable for use with a range of devices, and not just Apple products; “We are not dictating to customers what mobile products they use. They can operate the dashboards on their own tablet.”

This shift to mobile devices reflects the growth of Cloud rental software solutions, where rental companies access the system through a web browser with the data and software hosted by an external supplier. Most software houses now offer this option, and some, including Ramco and RMI, are now almost entirely focused on Cloud products.

For Lauren Dorman at RMI, the future holds other developments as well, with dashboards evolving into “more interactive, graphical representations of business situations that afford the user the opportunity to visualise and analyse alternate scenarios and then put those plans into action. We’re already putting these tools to use in inventory and production planning and they hold promise for rental operations as well.”

That might sound a bit hi-tech for a rental business, but Ms Dorman argues that nobody should ignore the opportunities offered by dashboards in delivering real-time business intelligence.

“With the rapid pace at which technology is evolving, rental dashboards aren’t just for the big guys anymore”, she says, “The solutions available today don’t cost an arm and a leg”.

BOX STORY

Dashboard data?

Wynne Systems

The majority of our customers want to better manage cash flow through management of accounts receivable and accounts payable. Similarly, revenue trends broken down by category and class allow fleet managers to better allocate their fleet budget to equipment that will deliver a consistent return on investment.

Ramco Systems

Analysis through Multi-dimensional reports: Opportunity & sales analysis, equipment availability & utilization analysis, financial performance analysis, asset lifecycle analysis, headcount analysis, fuel spend & consumption analysis, equipment tracking & activity analysis

Key Performance Indicators: physical or dollar utilization, invoicing inaccuracies , % rental yield, average fleet age, fuel spend as % of revenue, operator costs as % of revenue, order conversion rate

Solutions by Computer

Management dashboards can illustrate measures like total revenue and/or rental revenue versus budget, versus previous period. They also track daily business volume. Operational dashboards help to manage rental activities such as reservations, deliveries awaiting dispatch, and inventory utilisation.

Information about average days to collect receivables is useful to financial people; the value of inventory in maintenance status, weighted for time, is valuable to maintenance managers. The value of reservations written, compared to the same period last year or to budgeted numbers.

Sycor

Customers are increasingly interested in seeing traditional financial data, often combined with business data from the rental sector. For rental companies: time utilisation, financial utilisation, fleet age and rental forecast. Analysis of fleet utilisation, business activities and sales – and the relationship between them – is important.

Infor

Profit/loss: ROI, rental revenue, rental cost, profit.

Fleet: time utilisation, financial utilisation, fleet age, fleet distribution, fleet cost (maintenance, depreciation)

Rental operation: lost rent, invoice accuracy, re-rent (cost, revenue), forecast/accrued revenue.

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