ALH reports on how technology shapes the way rental depots do business

By Lindsey Anderson16 June 2010

Software company inspHire plans to launch its iPhone application this year

Software company inspHire plans to launch its iPhone application this year

The BlackBerry and iPhone revolutionized the way we communicate. Each phone offered users a myriad of choices - from receiving e-mail to navigating a set of directions. Eclipsing simple voice-to-voice operations, the phones allowed us to multitask while on the go - or, to the dislike of many husbands and wives, from the comfort of our own bed.

Taking steps ahead of the pack last year, Sunbelt Rentals developed a rental sales application for Apple's iPhone and equipped 1,200 of its sales staff and field personnel with the tool. The Mobile SalesPro (MSP) application gave staff a real-time connection to customer and inventory data.

The application works by having the iPhone communicate directly with Sunbelt Rentals' Microsoft Exchange Server and connecting the company's workforce with e-mail, calendar appointments and contacts. It connects the corporate point-of-sale system, inventory control and management platform and ERP system. Sales representatives can then retrieve data, inventory reports and complete customer histories.

"The iPhone and MSP allow our sales force to stay connected with their customers and with the rest of the company," says John Stadick, Sunbelt's vice president of IT. "The ability to respond instantly, even when standing in the dirty on a jobsite, truly leverages the technology and creates a huge competitive advantage."

Applications like Sunbelt's are what shape and change smartphone and business abilities.

Rental software company inspHire is in the throes of developing an inspHire application that will be released later this year, says Karen Miles, sales and marketing with the company.

"The [application] will be mainly an information retrieval application and will read live data from the customers' inspHire rental management system," Miles says.

The application will feature a tree browser search function that will guide a user to product and stock information with attached images, and will allow users to see stock levels and equipment availability at the flick of a finger. A search function with images will also allow the user to check product stock, specification, rates and availability. With Google Maps, and zoom functions enabled, client information can be searched with information updated by GPS and a list can be formulated and sent to a client about their current surroundings and location.

Also being developed for the application is a bar code scanner that will use the smartphone's built-in camera. Users will be able to use the camera function to scan product bar code, and automatically similar items with images will be brought up on the user's screen from inspHire's core rental management system.

"The key to success is to deliver a high level of service to clients with minimal costs," Miles says. "One of the ways to do this is to work smarter, not harder..."

Sunbelt, which implemented the iPhone application for a chunk of its staff, says the installation and transition was easy. "The iPhone user interface is the best I've seen on any mobile device," Stadick says. "It does no good to roll out these devices if the interface is difficult to use. With iPhone, Sunbelt employees are instantly productive."

For instance, if a general contractor asks about a specific piece of equipment, a sales rep can pull out his or her smartphone and find a picture of the equipment using Sunbelt's Mobile SalesPro application. The contractor can instantly see how the equipment would benefit his jobsite, and from there, possibly drum up a rental.

Sunbelt continues to develop Mobile SalesPro while also expanding their internal iPhone user base, according to a case study conducted by Apple.

"We look at iPhone as more than a new computing platform for Sunbelt Rentals," says Dean Moore, senior systems manager with Sunbelt. "iPhone has changed how we receive and use data - and how we do business."

ALH understands that Result Group, the UK-based rental software specialist that has an office in the US and several big clients here, is now developing a rental application for Apple's iPad, a device with a much larger screen than the iPhone.

"Touchscreens have been standard on rentalresult for five years and mobile devices like the iPhone have been in common use over the few years in the rental industry, but have been restricted in their use because of their size," says Julie Masters, marketing manager with the Result Group. "But the beauty of the iPad is that it redefines the methodologies of remote working and introduces exciting capabilities for rental companies."

Masters says the iPad gives rentalresult software a leading and innovative edge in remote computer offerings. "[Benefits include] retrieving equipment schematics and servicing history to raising work orders and completing rental controls on the move and in real time," she says. "With unparalleled processing power backed up with innovative touch-screen technologies, it gives a new dimension to remote employees' capabilities and productivity."

As for rental software provider Solutions by Computer, creating applications and software for mobile phones is not an area the company has developed, they say.

Mobile tools

Beyond applications, software and mobile connectivity are also making headway with smartphones. Brian Webb, chief executive officer and founder of Avontus Software Corp., a rental billing, estimating, drawing and design software designer for the scaffold and construction industries, says customers aren't usually aware of what software needs their company might have, and that's where Avontus steps in.

Avontus recently rolled out Quantify rental billing and inventory management software. One of the most powerful features of the software, Webb says, is its ability to track inventory. Quantify was built for small to large companies that have either one or 100 branch offices, Webb says, and with the click of a mouse, or push of a button on a mobile phone, sales reps can see where inventory is located, instantly, by using Google Maps. Mapping through Google allows users to create driving directions and locate addresses, map jobsites, branch offices and laydown yards and locate assets.

"I would go out with sales guys who travel around and they were always on the phone," Webb says. "'Where can I get five clamps? I need 10 of these from over there' and they were constantly calling all their branch offices and jobsites looking for pieces."

With Quantify's serialized equipment locating using Google Maps, tracking is simplified by serializing parts and displaying a single part number in a list on the map that allows users to read any necessary details. Within Google Maps, users can see inspection information, damaged status and other details.

Quantify Mobile Tools thus allows users to view available data from a server on any remote office computer or mobile phone. "It's essentially a webpage that you can visit with your web browser, or if you have a web browser on your phone, BlackBerry or iPhone, you just login and look at where your parts are," Webb says. "It's like a shortcut feature."

And customers like ease-of-use and shortcuts, including simple data storage, companies say.

Cloud computing

"You probably hear a lot of people talking about 'the cloud,'" Webb says.

The cloud is a metaphor for the Internet, or, as Webb puts it, "The idea is that you have all your data on the Internet, which is nothing new. Amazon has a cloud, eBay has a cloud and Microsoft has one."

People have started to sell the cloud as software as a service, which essentially could mean 'the cloud' is simply a webpage. Thus, when customers are putting data on the cloud, that data is actually being stored on a server somewhere, and that somewhere could be anywhere from Nashville to India.

"You don't really know where that data is," Webb says. "[Cloud providers] could have servers all over the planet."

Also, it's imperative if a company is cloud computing, its Internet connection be stellar at all times. "You can't have partially connected service," Webb says. "If your Internet connection goes down, you can't do your work - like e-mail, etc. Also, since your data is spread out all over the Internet, you don't really have control of it."

Webb says the best analogy for the cloud is that it can be related to providing electricity in the early 1900s. "If you were a big business, you had a generator in your building because the power went out all the time. If the power went out, you'd turn your generator on," he says. "So we're kind of at that stage right now with servers, where we have all of our e-mail, data, critical stuff on a server in [Avontus'] building because if the Internet goes out, we still have all of our stuff here."

The cloud is ideal for smaller companies who can't host their own servers due to space constraints, a lack of IT staff and general expenses of doing such. "With the cloud, it becomes cheaper just to put [data and files] on the cloud rather than maintaining it yourself," Webb says. "It's neat technology - it's really cool what they're doing. If you're using it for file storage and backing things up, that's fine."

Whether computing over the cloud or locating equipment on Google Maps, our business lives are becoming easier to conduct with the use of technology. Now, just make sure your batteries are charged.

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