Predicting the future can be risky. Take, for example, Thomas Watson Sr. of IBM and his prediction that "Five computers should be enough," or Bill Gates' forecast that "No one will ever need more than 640k of memory." So with the expectation almost everything we can predict could be wrong, I'll jump into the fray. Please, though, if you are reading this in 2013, don't send me an e-mail pointing out my errors (assuming, of course, we still use e-mail 10 years from now). To examine what technology will be used in self-storage in the future, let's look at several distinct areas.
In the self-storage business, we have a very clear responsibility in the area of security: We have to do our best to keep our customers' goods safe. Now, however, we must also worry about keeping their information safe.
Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes. Self-storage operators hold a tremendous amount of data about customers that is, unfortunately, worth a fortune on the black market. More needs to be done to protect that data, and new technology and development will help us do so. We will increase the security on our computer systems to ensure only the minimum amount of sensitive data is captured and exposed. We need to use security in our management and Windows software to limit access to information from internal and external threats.
In self-storage operations, we capture a customer's driver's-license number, address, phone numbers, e-mail address, bank-account data, credit-card numbers, and often Social Security number and birthdate--everything a thief needs to steal a person's identity. The good news is future technology will eliminate the need to gather much of this data.
For example, when a customer wants to pay, instead of giving us credit-card or bank information, they will give us a personal information number (PIN). To obtain payment, we will submit the PIN to the customer's payment institution. The result is the same, but we no longer hold the information itself. Fingerprint readers or other biometric devices will eventually replace the use of PINs for access to units or to verify payments, so we don't have to worry about storing and exposing those codes. Software will be modified to capture personal information, such as birth dates for statistical purposes, but not to link that date to the customer record.
Keeping customers' property safe often depends on controlling what other customers are storing. This is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do, but new technology will make it easier. For example, any one who has traveled in the last few months has had his baggage scanned for explosives and other materials. While available, the machines that do the scanning are bulky and expensive. I see a time in the not so distant future where scanners that detect explosives, ammunition, food, drugs, hazardous chemicals and other questionable materials are cheap and plentiful. We could place them at the entrances to or throughout our buildings. If a customer attempts to store hazardous materials, an alarm would go off.
An unfortunate fact of our business is we are very attractive to criminals. In a recent police raid of self-storage facilities in one area, police recovered piles of illegal narcotics and a large amount of stolen goods. As soon as we develop and start using scanners and sensors that will detect these items, the bad guys will discover self-storage is not the haven it is for them today.
Advertising and marketing will be much more targeted in the future. Today, we use the shotgun approach to marketing: throw up a sign and run an ad in the Yellow Pages, show that message to thousands of people, and wait for a small percentage of them to contact us. In the future, we will be able to target our marketing to much more defined groups, and will rely less on the mass-media approach we use today.
One of the most fascinating technologies that will develop over the coming years is smart buildings. Within a few years, we will have roofs that tell us when they are leaking or need repair, walls that report cracks, foundations that report settling, buildings that control their own temperature and humidity levels, and sensors that generate alarms at the presence of dangerous gases or chemicals in the air.
The manager of the future will be loaded with gadgets that will make it easier to do his job. Most will be small and completely unobtrusive. The manager will in essence be a walking office. Wearable computers are coming soon: You may wear a shirt that is also a computer and telephone. You will be able to walk around your facility and answer the phone, see who is entering the site, and have instant access to all of the data about your facility (who is in what unit, customer- payment histories, which units are available, etc). You will be able to rent a unit, print a receipt (or the entire rental agreement) and capture the customer's fingerprint (for access) while at the door of the storage unit you have just shown a prospect.
Units will no longer be locked with the padlocks we use today. A sensor built into the door will accept the customers' fingerprint to unlock it. Systems exist that don't even need the fingerprint--they simply scan your face to determine if it is actually the correct person. It's expensive now but won't be for long.
In the future, invoices and payments will become paperless. The technology to do this already exists, and the drive to reduce costs will make it a reality. Paperless invoicing (from you to your customers and from your suppliers to you) removes the costs of printing, folding, stuffing, mailing, filing, etc. We will do everything we can to make it easier for customers to pay, and tougher for them not to pay.
Our industry will continue to move toward collecting most rents through automatic payments (credit cards and direct debits). In a few years, I think most payments will be made this way, reducing our costs of collections. Customers will also pay their bills, view their accounts, rent units, change addresses, etc., over the Internet. This is all possible today, but is used by only a fraction of our customers. The ability to use the Internet to help customers manage their own accounts will grow as this process becomes integrated with management software. Customers will be able to view the interior of their units and electronically maintain their own inventory of the contents.
Our ability to communicate with our customers, suppliers, co-workers and professional community will be incredibly enhanced by technology. In just the last five years, we have made incredible progress. Mobile phones, instant messaging and e-mail have revolutionized communication internally and externally. Long-distance phone service is incredibly inexpensive. There are so many different ways to communicate that we can get in touch with anyone anywhere at any time. The result is we are better able to obtain the information we need to do our jobs.
One of the most exciting ways technology will help us is through the concept of knowledge-sharing. Using technology such as e-mail, online chat, and the ability to easily obtain and post information for others to examine and evaluate, we can make the information we gather useful and available to more people than ever before.
A perfect example of this can be found in the March issue of Inside Self-Storage. Industry expert Jim Chiswell suggests we follow Oprah's example and share articles, books and industry-related reading with others in our industry. Read it, make a comment and e-mail it to others. This is a great idea and perfectly illustrates how technology (in this case, e-mail), can be used to share information. Other examples include newsgroups organized by the Self Storage Association, Texas Mini Storage Association and others.
This knowledge-sharing may start informally like this, but it will grow over the coming years until we have created online communities in the self-storage industry that address the issues we all deal with: legislation, construction, management, marketing, etc. We will also recognize many of us repeat the same work, and find it more useful and cost-effective to simply share it. For example, in a single city or area, we all spend time and money to find out what each other's prices are. Why not save ourselves this cost and simply post our prices to a common location where any of us (and only us!) can see it? Apply this process to our rental agreements, collection practices, hiring credentials, etc., and we can save ourselves money and accelerate the rate at which our industry improves.
Technology will raise the bar of customer service and the quality prevalent in the self-storage industry. It will help us be more professional and reduce the use of self-storage as an aid to crime. It will increase the security we can provide to customers, and help us keep their personal information confidential.
One thing will never change, however, no matter what the technology: The quality of our service and product will still depend on the quality of the people we employ to represent us. What technology will do is greatly assist quality people to do their jobs even better. As self- storage operators and owners, one of our great responsibilities will be to ensure we provide the people who work in our industry the proper training to develop and use the technological tools available today and in the future.
Michael Richards is the president of HI-Tech Smart Systems, maker of RentPlus® and Mini-StoragePlus® software for self-storage. Mr. Richards has been involved in the self-storage industry for more than 20 years, and has been a frequent speaker at industry events and a contributor to industry publications. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org; phone 800.551.8324; www.hitechsoftware.com.
Hi-Tech Smart Systems Inc.
Contact: Linda Black
Software Type: Management software, accounting software
Price Range: $699-$1,999
Designed specifically for storage? Yes
Current version on market since: Jan. 1, 2003
New version to be released: Not yet determined
Demo: CD or download from website.
Tech support: Ninety days for free, then $450/site/year (U.S.). Can be accessed via e-mail, fax or toll-free number. Support hours are 9 a.m. - 9 p.m. EST. Urgent support is available during holidays and weekends.
HI-TECH has been producing self-storage software since 1986. It's self-storage software for Windows, RentPlus, first shipped in 1998. It was designed to provide operators the tools and information necessary to make the most of a self-storage business. Highlights include an on-screen interactive map of the facility; daily, weekly and monthly rentals; multiple collection and discount plans; automatic charges and printing of notices; inventory management; customizable letters; e-mail letters and reports; and much more. Customer and other photos may be attached and viewed with a customer's record. Corporate-office software, data and demographic mapping, interfaces with popular security systems, and automatic credit-card payment options are available. RentPlus includes technical support, updates and a risk-free, money-back guarantee. HI-TECH provides support from offices in Florida, Hawaii and Missouri. Additional offices are located in Brisbane, Australia, and The Netherlands.