Call-Center Update

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The first call center designed to support independent self-storage properties was created two years ago. The concept of using a call center to capture potentially missed rental inquiries was not new. The top five largest operators had previously established internal call centers. However, little information existed among independent operators regarding the benefits of call-center support, how call centers functioned, and how to optimize call-center performance. Following is an update on this valuable service. Although call centers certainly aid in serving self-storage customers, the true beneficiaries are facility owners and managers themselves.

Benefits of Support

Call centers create value for self-storage properties by producing additional rentals. When potential tenants call a facility and hear an answering machine, busy signal or unanswered rings, they usually terminate the call and contact another operator. Phone centers answer property phones when the manager is unavailable, the property is closed, or the manager is not in position to do an effective sales presentation. The center capitalizes on a storage inquiry by creating a reservation for the caller. After two years of using a call-center service, some independent operators are experiencing a more than 800 percent return on investment from the additional rental income generated.

Properties supported by call centers produce a higher level of customer service. The level of professionalism in answering-machine greetings varies by message and equipment. Callers who speak to a professional customer-service agent receive the same sales presentation on every call. Furthermore, when existing tenants call a site seeking operational information, the agent can often answer the question and help the caller without involving the facility manager. At 9 p.m., when the facility is closed, an agent can provide the caller many details regarding office hours, access hours, and ancillary products and services.

How Call Centers Function

Phone centers operate differently depending on the vendor. A call center's effectiveness is predicated by the methods used and the execution of those systems. At least three vendors have evolved who offer call-center support. Two of the large operators offer their phone center to independents as part of a package of bundled services.

Most call centers answer calls that are transferred to the center after a specified number of rings at the self-storage property. Reservation agents have computers with information that reflects current availability and rates for the property in question. Operators keep this information current by updating the center. Agents access this information to find the type of storage, availability and rental rate to meet the needs of the customer. Large, multisite operators have the ability to provide agents information regarding several of the operator's properties in the prospective customers' area. Agents use this information to find tenants the optimum location, size and rates.

After the agent has determined the best alternative for a customer, he invites the caller to reserve a space. This is done by inputting caller name, address and telephone numbers, as well as other information into a database. The system a call-center agent works on is designed to assign a tracking or reservation number to the new customer record. This will allow the reservation to be tracked and verified as a rental. The reservation is then transmitted to the property, usually via fax or e-mail. On-site property managers are responsible for converting the customer into a storage rental. Skilled and motivated property managers who effectively follow up on reservations will always produce higher reservation conversion rates.

New Levels of Performance

In the past two years, call-center vendors have improved the systems to process calls, update inventories and report return on investment. One call center recently completed a direct link with a software vendor and can produce real-time inventory updates and reservation transmissions.

Call centers have also created a vendor category that did not exist two years ago: call-center consultant. This role helps operators maximize the return from their call-center vendor. The consultant reviews information from the call-center vendor, tracks move-ins, produces return calculations, motivates property managers to convert reservations, and advises clients regarding vendor selection.

Operators would not bear the costs of establishing or hiring a call center if positive returns were not available--that is, the service produces more revenue for clients than it costs. Call-center services are unlike other marketing programs in that returns from the cost of the call center are easily calculated. Each reservation has a potential value based on the actual monthly rent and an average length of stay. Operators can calculate return on their investment by multiplying the number of converted reservations by the potential value of the reservations and dividing by the monthly cost of the phone-center service.

One of the call-center vendors has modified the reservation sheet transmitted to the property to include a potential value amount. Identifying the potential value reminds property managers how important it is to focus on converting the reservation to a rental. In one instance, a call center booked a reservation for 11 10-by-10 units. Based on a monthly rent of more than $100 and a conservative eight-month length-of-stay estimate, that reservation had a potential value of nearly $9,000.

As with all areas of property operations, results will always improve with analysis and attention. The commitment to continual improvement on the part of the call-center vendors, clients and property managers can create new successes with this form of marketing.

In the last two years, some basic concepts were proven regarding self-storage call centers. Experience has taught us that sales presentations are more effective when agents follow a general outline or script. Furthermore, greeting the callers with a live agent is more productive than using an automated greeting. Automated greetings are used at some call centers to separate callers who are inquiring about storage rental and those calling for other reasons. Using an automated greeting produces fewer reservations, because many callers abandon (hang-up) when not greeted by a person. Finally, it has been demonstrated that fewer reservations are produced when a call center attempts to persuade callers to secure their reservations with a credit-card payment or deposit.

Focusing on improvement means higher returns and positive reinforcement for all involved. Every endeavor has the main ingredients of people and their efforts. Remember: Smiling faces rent more spaces.

Stan Colona is one of the founders of XPS Services LLC. He and his partner, Brad Boyd, have more than 20 years combined experience in the self-storage industry. For more information on the services their company provides, including call-center support, call 866.US.STORE; visit www.xpsservices.com.

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