It has been stated that the Internet is a solution looking for a problem. And while some companies seem to have found a niche--a problem to solve--on the World Wide Web, many others have tried and failed. What about self-storage? Do we have problems the Internet can solve?
I don't know that we should call renting spaces a problem, but it is certainly a priority. And many self-storage companies are finding that having a website for their facilities helps rent spaces. They don't yet generate a lot of inquiries, but they do generate a few each month.
When you think about it, the Internet opens up your advertising range to, quite literally, the whole world. And who knows where your potential renter is coming from? A storage facility in Australia reported renting to a customer in Russia who was in the process of moving Down Under. People on the move have always played an important part in the self-storage business. Now, the Internet allows them to shop for storage before they even pack up the furniture.
On the local front, potential customers are more likely to use the web to gather information and then pick up the telephone and call the site. In that case, you want to be sure you have a web presence so you can be considered along with everybody else. Nowadays, some people will go to the Internet instead of the Yellow Pages. So be sure your web page puts all your facility's pertinent information, such as location and telephone number, where it's easy to find.
A different problem occurs when your renters move again. You mail delinquency notices and the post office returns them because the address is no longer valid. Don't give up. If you collected an e-mail address, the Internet can help you here, too, because e-mail addresses usually don't change even when mailing addresses do. In most states, e-mail does not qualify as legal notification, but it may actually reach the occupant, get your rent collected, and get a correct mailing address to which you can mail the legal notices.
E-mail can also solve some in-company communication problems. Reports can be automatically e-mailed to a corporate office or site owner on a regular basis--much easier than fax copies or regular mail. For managers who travel a lot, e-mail becomes an easy method of communication. If you're very busy or in a different time zone, it's convenient to review memos and reports and reply to them on your own schedule.
Besides new features, many processes that have had to use dial-up modem connections in the past will operate more smoothly with a faster, always-on Internet connection. We've seen a great improvement in credit-card processing when a modem connection was switched to DSL. With a modem, every time a customer pays with a credit card, the modem must dial a number and make a new connection. Transferring information must proceed at the speed of the slowest modem and, because the credit-card industry must accommodate some pretty old equipment, its modems are typically quite slow.
Further problems can develop because telephone lines used by modems can be noisy, causing data transfer to be slow or not to work at all. And, if you're processing a whole batch of rent charges, the modem may lose the connection after a period of time and you have to start the whole process over again. With a broadband connection such as DSL, the connection is always on, so there is no waiting while a connection is made, no noise to interfere with data transfer, and the speed is more than 10 times that of a modem. Many problems that were thought to be inherent to credit-card processing disappear when a better connection is made available.
Avoid the Hazards
What's the down side? Many storage owners are concerned about viruses, and no wonder. Viruses certainly get a lot of press these days, and there's no question they can cause damage to your files and waste time with the clean-up process. But there are some companies that specialize in virus protection, and they do a very good job of it. You can subscribe to McAfee or Norton online virus protection for about $35 per year. These companies make it their business to stay on top of virus scares and notify you when they have an update. It only takes a minute or two to update and you're protected from the latest hacker.
Or is it your own employees spending too much time on the Internet that concerns you? While access to the web can be beneficial for purchasing supplies or gathering other kinds of information, it is not necessary for any of the processes discussed above. A browser (such as Microsoft's Internet Explorer) is required to surf the web, and browser programs can easily be removed from your system. Ask your local computer technician about removing browsers and preventing employees from reloading them.
So, you've decided to get connected. What's next? You will need a broadband connection. The most affordable options are DSL or a cable TV connection. Either will do a good job for you, and that's a good thing because you usually have to take whatever is available in your area. For DSL, you must be located within a few miles of the telephone company's office. For a cable TV connection, your local cable company must have upgraded their equipment so it can offer Internet services. The cost after installation for either of these connections runs about $50 per month.
The World Wide Web is the fastest growing technology in history. It can help you grow, too.
Ramona Taylor is president of Space Control Systems Inc., a provider of Windows-based management software for self-storage. For more information, call 800.455.9055; visit www.spacecontrol.com.
Space Control Systems Inc.
Contact: Steve Quinn, Gilbert Bohen
Software Type: Management software, online management/accounting software, online-payment technology, online-reservation technology
Price Range: $1,980+
Designed specifically for storage? Yes
Current version on market since: 10 months
New version to be released: July 2003
Demo: Available via phone, e-mail or Internet request.
Tech support: Available via phone, e-mail or fax, 7 a.m. - 6 p.m., from $50/month and up.
Space Control's all new NX.gen is a powerful web-enabled storage-management software. It uses Internet technology to connect an owner to his facilities anytime from anywhere. Reports can be e-mailed automatically, or a user can log on to receive current and historical information for individual or groups of sites. Customers can make payments or reservations online. NX.gen provides total rate management, automatically adjusting move-in rates based on supply, demand, time of year and occupancy levels. It can also automatically increase occupant rents on the move-in anniversary or any date the manager chooses. The program is simple to use. The customer's entire history is displayed on a single screen, including balance and paid-to date for easy tracking. Every charge, payment, late letter, rent increase or returned check is shown, including who made each entry.