Selecting Technology for Property Management Operations. Key Considerations
Technology solutions come in many shapes and sizes - from established one-stop-shop product platforms to narrowly focused point solution specialized products. In this article, we’ll discuss the pros and cons of each and provide context to help IT decision makers in property management organizations choose the right solution for their business.
One Stop Shop and Hyper-specialized Point Solutions
In the technology world, it is quite common that a company that achieves success with one product will pursue a product platform strategy and attempt to increase their share of the customer wallet by serving more and more of their customer’s needs and use cases. These companies present themselves as “one-stop shops” and pursue a marketing strategy that attempts to transfer the competence of the original successful product to all the other products in the portfolio.
At the other end of the spectrum, point solution providers focus on one use case and attempt to provide a feature-rich product for that one use case. They present themselves as specialists in their field and focus their marketing on the complexity and number of features they have incorporated in their single use case product. More often than not, though, these solutions are too narrow and the majority of features do not translate into value for their clients. Organizations adopting point solutions find themselves in the situation that they ultimately need to implement and integrate several of these to completely solve the day to day tasks faced by even a single employee. This especially true for field operations where personnel is expected to deal with a variety of situations, each of them requiring specific tools and following specific business processes. A proliferation of tools comes with increased licensing and support costs and increased security overhead for maintaining the required login credentials for each of the solutions.
The following sections further explore the pros and cons of choosing a One Stop Shop vs. a Specialized Point Solution with respect to the dimensions that are likely to impact the most the technology selection/adoption and maintenance in your organization.
Competence / Domain Expertise
One Stop Shop Platform
Pros: Claim extensive knowledge of each and every process in your business.
Cons: While the knowledge may be wide, it may not also be as deep as claimed. The property management domain comprises several very different segments. The competence required to deliver software solutions for desktop computers in the back-office are very different than the ones needed to deploy successful field staff, mobile applications.
Pros: Excellent knowledge of their domain
Cons: With hyper-specialized solutions in hand it is very easy to lose track of the big picture. You will need to see through the technology hype and discern what is the overall value of the solution in your business.
One Stop Shop Platform
Pros: Claim all products in the family are integrated out of the box.
Cons: Even though they bear the same logo, products in a family product can sometimes be quite different from each other especially if they have been developed at different times (technology changes fast) or they have been added to the family by acquisitions. It can take years for such products to be harmonized in a cohesive, fully integrated offering. As with most things in real life, the Devil truly is in the details.
Another tendency for One Stop Shop providers is to trade platform integration for integration with any other product from a different company. There are very few organizations out there that engage in true “co-opetition”.
Pros: Being narrow, these products must support integrations and most of them do support multiple out-of-the-box integration points.
Cons: As with any system boundary, it will ultimately fall on you and your IT department to manage and maintain these integrations. This can become quite challenging when the endpoints of the integration evolve, scale or have different security constraints (e.g. one system upgrades more often than the other, or one is a cloud system and the other lives on a server in the corporate data center). Be prepared to deal with finger-pointing and other situations that arise when managing relationships between partners whose interests are not entirely aligned.
One Stop Shop Platform
Pros: 24/7 options available, professional call center, escalations and issue management systems.
Cons: Consolidated customer support usually starts with a generalist front-line where service reps are expected to know a little about all of the products a one-stop shop vendor offers. This results in a lot of calls requiring escalation.
Pros: Specialized support staff that knows the solution in depth and provide a quick response.
Cons: Many small companies lack proper support call and knowledge base portal infrastructure.
If there are problems with integrations you will need to coordinate support at both ends of the integration.
Key Considerations in Selecting PropTech Solutions
#1 Start with the User
When evaluating technologies to solve a business need, attempt to understand the user that will drive the technology. Their day to day tasks, needs and particularities may reveal additional requirements for the evaluation process.
Then look at the solution provider and attempt to understand where their true competence lays. Solution providers that have been successful with products for a particular type of user (e.g. desktop solutions for accounting) do not necessarily understand another type of user and user interface (e.g. mobile field maintenance staff).
On the other hand, if the solution is too specialized you will end up having your users juggle multiple products to solve a single business process. Each of these will come with their own sign-in credentials, UI design and usability quirks.
Look for providers that offer integrated solutions to cover most of what your type of user does. These will come with the added benefit of the provider understanding the workflow of the user and how information and tasks should move while the user does their day to day job (not just one piece of their job). They will most likely offer single sign-on and unified user experience. For example, field personnel in property management operations might deal with any of the following during the course of a single day: inspections, work orders, budget approval requests, external contractor quotes. A comprehensive field property management solution would incorporate all of these and allow them to be orchestrated in workflows to ensure tasks are addressed in time. It would also integrate with other systems in the organization so that the mobile users do not have to take trips back to the office to connect to a desktop application.
#2: Usability matters
Run a pilot program to ensure the tools are intuitive, easy to use, and will help staff accomplish their goals. Deficiencies in usability, user experience or the understanding of the final user will result in high training costs, and a steady stream of support calls down the road.
Usability is especially important for field operations where the main objective of the job is to solve real-life physical problems. In these situations, any accompanying technology needs to be intuitive to the user and allow them to complete the technology portion of their job with as little cognitive load as possible. Mobile application specialists know this and devote large effort to refining user interfaces and user interactions. They recognize that mobile devices with limited screen sizes and touch input have very different interaction models than desktops and keyboards (e.g. speech-to-text for long text input is a widely used pattern on the mobile but not on desktop applications, even though the capability exists on the desktop as well).
#3: Prefer solutions with Open APIs
With the advent of ubiquitous network connectivity, all providers are quick to mobilize their solutions and claim their product is connected. From the customer perspective, being able to connect solutions to each other is sometimes of even greater value. Some providers will implement out of the box integrations with other major systems on the market (e.g. leading PMS solutions). But what happens if, in the future, you want to connect the solution to a new product for which integration is not readily available?
Solutions with Open API can offer peace of mind in this respect. Open APIs allow your IT staff to extend and connect the solution to any other product that has an API. Real-time, API based integrations allow different products to be weaved together in a solution fabric that allows data to flow to the right place at the right time in accordance with the company business processes. This saves on low-value repetitive data entry or data transfer tasks and makes your organization more agile.
#4: Beware of lock-ins
When evaluating one-stop-shop solutions beware of intended and hidden lock-ins. More often than not, organizations with a one-stop shop platform type of product offering base their sales and product development efforts on the assumption that customers will eventually buy into the entire product portfolio. Customers may suffer if product module boundaries are aligned with the sales strategy rather than the client needs (e.g. we offer an inspection module but if you want to take pictures you will need to purchase our document management module). They also may find themselves in a bend if they want to disable or substitute one component of the solution (e.g. yes you can use your own document management module but still have to pay for ours to have pictures working in the inspection module).
Carefully scrutinize the product offering before going for an “all or nothing” solution. Ensure there is a 3rd party ecosystem around the solution so you can have the required flexibility in assembling your preferred technology fabric.
#5: Mind the cost of ownership
Just like any tool or equipment, IT systems carry a cost of ownership. Solutions that still require your IT department to install and maintain physical servers will cost you more in the long run than cloud solutions (where the server management cost dissolves into massive economies of scale). Cloud solutions are also more secure and robust and have a lower chance of data loss or catastrophic failure.
Beware of big batch software version release strategies. Products that have large releases every year will most likely require a data migration to upgrade from one version to the other. This will mean more effort for your IT department and a higher risk of breaking product customizations performed on the current version. Prefer solutions with a continuous integration approach - where small incremental changes are delivered in a continuous stream in true Software As A Service fashion.
Conclusion - Looking for the Right Fit
Every multifamily owner/operator company should do what’s best for their business. But at the end of the day, the reminder “not to put all of your eggs in one basket” rings truer than ever when selecting the best technology mix.
Apartment owners and operators choosing a one-stop shop platform to commit to a single vendor and are married to that vendor’s agenda and technology roadmap instead of their own. Selecting a monolithic software company inevitably leads to feeling hamstrung when trying to solve problems or seizing new opportunities for business growth.
Hyper-specialized point solutions may be overly competent in their niche but relying on them too much will inevitably lead to an uncontrolled proliferation of systems that ends up confusing and frustrating the end users.
Instead, we advocate looking for those best of breed solution providers that understand the problems that your segmented user groups face during a day of work and can provide a unified solution to those user groups. This will lower technology fatigue and decrease support and integration costs.
Look for cloud and mobile solutions as these have been proven to lower maintenance costs and be more flexible to integrate with other solutions. Finally, make sure an Open API is there as a peace of mind that the product you selected will connect to any other piece of technology you may introduce in the future.
Would you like to speed up unit turnovers? Improve your NOI and monitor portfolio performance? Manage your field maintenance inspection and work orders?
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