By Steve Benson
If you're not taking steps to offer your self-storage services to customers online, you're about to be left in cyberdust. Today, more than 83 percent of CEOs are embracing the web for their businesses, and 13 percent are now in the process of developing an Internet strategy, according to statistics from CIO.com, an online resource for information executives. Statistics also show a mere 2 percent of business owners claim to have no web strategy or any plans to build one.
The popularity and excitement associated with the Internet is something any business can share, especially one that strives to be innovative and is constantly rethinking its business strategies. The convenience, speed and savings generated by use of the web are just a few of the driving forces behind self-storage operators beginning to offer their services to customers online.
More and more consumers are going online to pay bills, shop, and manage savings and checking accounts. Self-storage operators around the country are catching on to the trend and seeing the benefits in the form of reduced overhead, customer attraction and retention, and increased profits.
Yes, the Internet is exciting and can change the way you do business, but it can also be intimidating, confusing, sometimes overwhelming and expensive. It took my company close to a year of planning and development to redeploy its website so we could better meet the needs of our customers. Following are some tips and techniques to help make your experience easier.
Get Up Close and Personal
The name of the game is customer service. Our philosophy is, "Become intimate with the customer." The driving force behind our decision to provide customer services online was to do just that. In exit surveys, our customers told us they wanted a way to pay and manage their accounts online, and that they would use such a service if provided. That was one of the first signs we needed to provide online services. We also noticed our existing website (launched in 1998) had low usage. With the Internet explosion taking place, we wanted to really take advantage of that medium to provide a needed service to our customers.
We made it a priority to give our customers the ability to make monthly payments online. Every self-storage operator is concerned with receiving customers' monthly payments on time. The web can be a tool to help capture some of those payments.
To avoid creating more work at the main office or any additional paperwork, both of which lead to increased overhead, your website should be programmed to route customer payments to the facility where he is actually renting. This might not be the most economical plan for national storage operators, but it helps close the gap between customers and operators. Most web designers or programmers can make this happen and set it up so the site manager can process the payment at his own convenience. After the transaction occurs, the manager should follow up with the customer either through e-mail or a phone call to notify the payment has been cleared.
Security is a big issue when using credit cards online. The easiest way to ensure your customer's credit-card number is not seen by an outside source or hacker is to use encryption. An encryption program will scramble a credit-card number until a certified user or the manager of a site can access it. Encryption also gives most consumers peace of mind.
For customers to get the full benefit of your website, you will first need to let them know it is available and functioning. We have found success by placing signage at each facility, adding messages to monthly bills, running advertisements in different publications such as the Yellow Pages and relocation magazines, and word of mouth. If customers are paying their monthly bills in person, managers can tell them about the new service and how it works, or even show them an example by logging on to the site and demonstrating.
Attraction and Retention
The Internet can be one of the best tools to win new customers and keep established ones. Every day, self-storage operators are considering ways to keep and attract customers. What services they offer online may have a strong influence in that arena. Companies can offer several different online features to their customers:
- The ability to make monthly payments
- A virtual suggestion or comment box
- Record updating
- The ability to notify managers of move-out dates
- The ability to reserve units
- A change-of-address form
- The ability to make account-balance inquires
- A report of property problems, such as jammed locks or broken gates
It is more convenient for customers to take care of these needs at home or work than it is for them to drive to the facility itself. There are several other features that can be considered such as web cameras to monitor your site or online purchases of boxes and other packing supplies. These innovative online features can be the best way to differentiate yourselves from your competitors.
Do Your Homework
Spend wisely. Before you even consider launching a website for online services, you need to know how much you are willing to spend and what you can get for your money. Check out different web designers, because their prices vary. We were surprised to discover there are companies that will design the programming for your website for $3,000, and others that will design it for $150,000. You can design your site and have it running for a lot less than you think by shopping around and choosing what's best for your business.
Companies should take a hands-on approach in the design and programming of the site. They should also be sure to have someone available who knows and understands the programmer's terminology. Designers will use strange terms, such as "cold fusion," "search-engine optimization" and "file transfer protocol," that most people have never heard before. It is important you understand what they are talking about.
Operators should also develop a strategy and goals for the site. Set your goals and be sure the company you choose to design the site will help you achieve each one. Also be sure to keep it simple. You can have a site that is functional and easy to use, and at the same time have it look high-tech. Take the time to look at other sites--in and out of the storage industry--and examples of what can be done before you make a decision on one particular design.
The hardest part of the design for us was building our navigation system. Remember: If your site isn't easy to use and navigate, your customers won't use it.
Positioning for the Future
The web is here to stay. One of the best reasons for having a website that allows your self-storage customers to manage their accounts and make payments online is to prepare your business for the future. Providing benefits such as 24/7 access so customers may take care of needs on their own time is not the future--it is already here. The time is coming when we will use the Internet to complete everyday tasks. If companies make the investment now while they can still make changes according to consumer needs, they will be far ahead of their competition.
Operators should have an in-house site coordinator who can make decisions and manage your online system so it easily aligns with your organization's current structure. This employee should also be able to work with and understand graphic artists, designers and programmers. Promotion is another important key to having success on the web. Storage operators should also try to monitor their site's activity and capture results, such as the number of people paying online.
My final suggestion is to keep learning. We are still learning every day. Ultimately, being able to differentiate yourself from the competition and provide a valued service to consumers on the Internet will make your business stand out above the rest.
Steve Benson is the owner of Morningstar Mini-Storage, which has built and operated more than 50 award-winning self-storage facilities in North and South Carolina since 1980. In addition to its regular operations, the company also donates the proceeds from 5 percent of each facility's units to charity. For more information, visit www.morningstarstorage.com.