I was recently subject to some “captive audience” marketing on a Continental Airlines flight. Displayed on the in-cabin monitors were clever advertisements for the company’s online check-in and reservation system, which allows domestic e-ticket travelers to check in via the Internet up to 24 hours before traveling. Some of the catchy slogans included “We’ve spun a better web” and “It pays to control yourself.” But my favorite was: “Excellent service … without the personal touch.”
It’s an interesting social phenomenon. In an age when we see service vanishing from the business horizon like mist from a morning meadow, some companies have learned to capitalize on the absence of human contact, recognizing that personal interaction does not always equate to better customer service. In some cases, alleviating the possibility for meaningless conversation, human error and unnecessary verbal exchange has even improved performance.
Self-storage is jumping on this automation bandwagon with the introduction of kiosk service centers that allow prospects to rent storage units 24 hours a day without ever talking to a facility manager. A customer can select his unit, print out a rental agreement, purchase a lock, buy tenant insurance and arrange for payment, all through an easy-to-use station resembling a bank ATM. Existing tenants can use the system, which operates in real-time conjunction with a facility’s management software, to make changes to their accounts.
But what is the deeper price of all this technological streamlining: self-help checkout at the grocery store, online shopping and delivery, automated post and parcel, etc.? Are we unlearning the art of social development? While technology increases business efficiency and reduces inaccuracies (i.e., improves service), does it also render relationships superfluous? In self-storage, for example, could an on-site manager actually become obsolete?
Before you answer, let me share this news story from the Nov. 22 edition of The Washington Post. Two girls, ages 4 and 5, were discovered in a locked storage unit at a facility in Waldorf, Wash. Though the girls seemed to be in good health, they were kept in the unit without food or water during the day while their mother, evicted from her apartment a week earlier, was at work. The children were discovered when the manager, doing his rounds, heard them playing. A kiosk may provide 24/7 service, but it’s unlikely to be much help when events of the unusual occur, as they are wont to do.
This issue focuses on facility advertising, promotions, marketing and customer service. It addresses standard formats, such as Yellow Pages, websites and facility brochures, as well as evolving methods, including special-event marketing. As a facility owner or manager, you have little choice whether to promote your site, especially in competitive environments. What you can choose is how you interact with your target market.
Take advantage of new tools—e-mail newsletters, search-engine optimization, online phone directories—but remember the foundation of your business. Self-storage is about “stuff,” but it boils down to the people who own it. With or without the personal touch, service is the solution behind every success story.
Teri L. Lanza