|Technology is more simple and complex than it used to be. This may seem contradictory, but it is true.
Software is simpler:
Software is complex:
The DOS Platform has a difficult user interface, but it only has to work alone. The Windows platform, on the other hand, has a simple user interface, but has to work in a complex environment. This completely changes the nature of what you have to know about technology.
With DOS, you needed training that focused on the basics of operations. Much of it was memorizing which keys to press or what part of the program to use. With Windows, it is usually easy to figure out how to operate the program without having to memorize things. Developers design programs to be intuitive—that is, which button you click or what you type into a field seems natural—and match your work flow, so the overall steps are predictable.
Less important to learning self-storage management software are the basic steps of the rental process—payment, move-in, move-out, etc. Given a chance to use a program, you will figure those things out. Actual technology training should focus on two key areas: understanding the computing environment and developing a thorough understanding of your management software.
Understanding the Computing Environment
The computing environment includes your computers, servers, Windows software, network, Internet connections, printers, and all the other hardware (screens, keyboards, mice, cables, routers, modems, etc.). Your management software depends upon this complex system of interconnected parts, so it’s important to have a good understanding of it.
When you click “OK” with your mouse and pointer, do you know what is going to happen, or do you just know you are supposed to click “OK”? Here’s my first rule: If you use it, understand it. For example, when you do your nightly backup, do you follow the procedure without thinking, or do you understand what is being backed up, how it is being backed up, and how you can verify it was backed up properly? Often, learning something like this may be as simple as watching the screen, reading the progress messages, and making the effort to understand each one.
You can learn much on your own, but not enough. Staff Windows training is essential and should be part of every self-storage company’s budget. Local community colleges, computer stores and many online schools offer a wide variety of Windows and other technical classes, and I recommend them. Keep in mind this computing environment is ever-changing, and much of the specifics of what you learn today may be completely obsolete in five years. However, if you keep up with training, it becomes the basis for learning even more.
It is important to set annual goals to understand each part of the technology (e.g., this quarter, learn network security, next quarter, learn e-mail security, etc.). The two most important things to understand are network security and communications. You must know how you communicate with the outside world, and you must know how to keep your information safe.
You can go out and buy the best computer and software, and hire the best pros to set it all up; but if your staff doesn’t know how to use it, it won’t do you any good. Staff training should include training in Windows, e-mail, the Internet, word-processing and, of course, the management and other software specific to your business.
The self storage industry’s major software applications are management and access control software. These often run side-by-side on the same computer, usually working seamlessly as they exchange information. However, there are probably other programs also running, and you should understand each of them. These might include anti-virus software, word-processing software, spreadsheets, e-mail, caller-ID software, credit-card software, chat programs and Internet browsers. Windows manages how all of these programs share the processor, memory, disk drives and video. You should know what programs are running, what each is for, and how they all affect each other.
The computing environment is going to be subject to massive transformation over the coming years. Be prepared for change on all levels. This will be driven fast and furiously by security and will mean changes to Windows, the protocols used for networks to communicate, and the way in which these things are presented (touch screens, voice activation, etc.).
- Know your Windows operating system.
- Implement appropriate security measures.
- Understand the communications infrastructure.
- Train staff in Windows, word-processing, e-mail and the Internet.
- Thoroughly understand each of your major applications.
- Be prepared for changes.
Understanding Your Management Software
Software customers use less than half the features of their software. With programs like Microsoft Excel and Word, it is actually less than 10 percent. So it is very likely your management software can do much more for you than it is currently doing. For example, the software may have a daily calendar you don’t use.
Having to do things only once saves us a great deal of time, and the more time technology saves us, the more time we have to take care of more important things, such as customer service, marketing and expansion. Using the calendar example, you can write an entry on your paper calendar, but the person at the desk next to you doesn’t have the entry. You can go write it on his calendar, but what if you had 5, 10 or 50 employees? If you enter it into the computer, everyone instantly has access to the information—and you have that much more time to take care of other important activities.
“Exceptions” are, ironically, a common occurrence in the self-storage business. Make sure your staff is properly trained in the handling of exceptions, such as discounts, unit transfers, daily prorates, prepayments, refunds, returns, etc. The steps they must take in these instances may not be obvious to everyone because there are probably multiple ways of handling them.
For example, if a check is returned, an operator might use the “Add Charge” feature to add a miscellaneous amount equal to the check plus the NSF fee. However, you may prefer employees use the management software’s built-in routine for reversing payments so the returned check is properly noted on reports. You must understand these activities in detail. Develop and document the procedures you want followed, and train your staff.
- Most users make use of only a fraction of the capabilities of their software.
- Technology is a tool that gives us more time for more important things.
- Take advantage of the features available to help meet key business goals: better customer service, increased revenues and reduced costs.
- Training should focus on exception handling, not basic operations.
What You Should Do Today
No matter what level user you are today, resolve not to be what I call a “black-box” user. Set a goal of understanding what happens when you punch those buttons. Don’t get too technical or detailed—just try to understand what the software is doing, not how it is doing it.
The average Fortune 500 company’s technology budget is about 3 percent of its revenue. Small businesses average less than half of that figure. Our research indicates selfstorage facilities generally spend less than 1 percent on technology per year, and most of that is spent on computer hardware. Our hardware spending is probably right in line, but we need to invest in the human capital— in training the managers, assistant managers and supervisors to use the technology.
If you are a storage-facility manager, you may find the responsibility of the company’s technical infrastructure is yours as just one of many duties. Companies with multiple sites may have one or more person responsible. Regardless, whoever is in charge should set annual goals for implementing new technology. Don’t change everything all at once, do so incrementally. For example, one month, get an Internet connection. The next month, set up e-mail. The following month, set up another workstation, etc. Make a similar set of goals for technical training.
Finally, make sure you have a disaster recovery plan. Technology is especially important to protect because it is highly dependent on a complex infrastructure. A disaster can be natural, man-made, or as every day an event as your manager quitting. In fact, your most effective disaster planning will center on recovery of information and human knowledge, not hardware.
- Don’t be a “black-box” user. Understand your technology.
- Know your technology budget.
- Set specific technology goals for each year.
- Implement change incrementally and continuously.
- Develop ongoing technology training for staff.
- Develop a disaster-recovery plan.
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 selfstorage 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.