Twenty-five years ago, I was on the management team of a small community bank. I specifically remember a meeting in 1978 in which we discussed a new product: the automated teller machine, recognized today as the ATM by every man, woman and child. Diebold, a supplier of banking technology, had just installed the first IBM-compatible ATM at a bank in Indianapolis. Our team reviewed the product specifications, features and benefits; honestly, we weren’t impressed. In fact, we were skeptical about the entire concept. We didn’t think our customers would ever use an ATM, and the prospect of replacing employees with a machine failed to excite us.
Today, there are more than 370,000 ATMs across the United States processing more than 12 billion transactions a year. Imagine the bank lines we would face if we didn’t have this technology! And tellers haven’t lost their place behind the counter.
The self-storage industry faces a similar revolution in technology. Owners have many new options to help them run facilities efficiently and make their managers more productive, including centralized call centers, web-based transaction processing and self-service kiosks. While some may be hesitant to take advantage of these tools, they may change the way we do business forever.
Centralized Call Centers
The telephone is the No. 1 source of new customer leads for storage facilities, and owners spend thousands in Yellow Pages advertising each year to get their phones to ring. This is fine when your manager isn’t busy. But which customer is more important, the one standing at the counter or the one on the phone? A call center ensures managers never need to make that choice.
Call centers can be used in a number of ways to benefit the operations of a storage facility. They can accept overflow or after-hours calls, guaranteeing all customers receive professional treatment. They can take payments, answer questions and rent units. Most important, they can field numerous calls simultaneously, giving you confidence that you’ll never miss a chance to maximize revenue and managers can make the most of their office hours.
Web-Based Transaction Processing
The popularity and acceptance of the Internet continues to grow beyond anyone’s expectations. Last year, more that 75 million people accessed the Internet in the United States alone. More than 55 percent of those users purchased goods or services via the web. The Internet now represents one of the largest pools of customers available to any business.
How are storage operators using the web? Websites promote facilities to prospects over the globe, helping informed customers find the storage they want and educating an unlearned public about the benefits of the product. Since customers now expect to conduct business over the Internet, smart facilities are integrating other web-based options, such as online rentals and payments.
Kiosks are popping up in all kinds of businesses: airports, car washes, photo developers, gas stations, convenience stores, grocery stores and many other retail outlets. Now the storage industry enjoys self-service solutions, too. Just as the ATM revolutionized the banking industry, kiosks will change the way we do business at our facilities. They provide service to tenants around the clock, allowing them to rent units, pay their bills, manage their accounts and more.
Is it the end of the self-storage manager? On the contrary, just as ATMs supplement the service bank tellers provide, kiosks will help storage managers be more productive. A kiosk can handle customers’ more routine needs, allowing managers to focus on customer service and a facility’s marketing efforts. Many customers prefer using a kiosk when they know what they want—it’s convenient and simplifies their experience. But when they have a problem to be addressed, there’s no replacement for personal assistance and service with a smile.
Applied Technology: Five Case Studies
National Self Storageof Tucson, Ariz., has 90 facilities in 12 states. In 2000, its management team decided to provide customers a web-based rental and payment system. It worked with a third-party development company to enhance its website, then began offering Internet options. Two years later, it added a centralized call center through another service provider.
Over the past five years, National has processed more than 35,000 Internet and call-center transactions. The result has been increased occupancy and a 20 percent savings in payroll expenses that add more than $250,000 dollars to the company’s bottom line each year. Company President Robert Schoff is excited with the results. “Our managers have become more productive and more focused on the customer at the counter,” he says. “The call center and Internet have provided more options for our customers to conduct business with our facilities at their convenience.”
The owners of 3 South Self Storage in Montville, Ohio, took an interesting approach to technology. They don’t use a facility manager; in fact, they don’t even have a management office. When a new customer drives up to the gate, he picks up a phone and immediately contacts a centralized call center integrated with the facility’s management software. The center’s reps can see available inventory, rent a unit and provide a gate-access code in minutes.
As an added convenience, the site owners have also integrated the management software with the facility website. Customers can rent units and print their lease agreements right online. Using a secure login, they can retrieve account information and make payments.
“Overall, our manager-less facility has been working well. Handling administrative work remotely through our property-management software seems to be the key,” says Christina Quinn, operations manager. “Our biggest challenge is making sure each customer has filled out and signed a lease agreement. We are working closely with the call center to remind customers it is necessary to complete and drop off the agreement on the day of rental. Denial of gate access has been an effective tool to encourage completion of the lease.”
Spaceage Storageof Marietta, Ga., installed two kiosks in an enclosed office area. The company posted story boards on the walls to teach customers how to use the self-serve units. It also employs a part-time manager who assists customers when he’s not out marketing the facility to local businesses.
President Tom Daniel is confident in the kiosks’ ability to handle rentals and payments. “Things are going very well for Spaceage. We’re nearing 80 percent occupancy in just 18 months of operation, and we believe this is a direct result of the self-service kiosk allowing our manager to go out and market the site during business hours—without incurring additional personnel expenses.” The company’s property-management software is integrated with its kiosks and website, allowing customers to book rentals and make payments at their leisure.
OB Cos.owns three Simply Self Storage facilities in Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The company has combined a website, call center and kiosks to streamline and enhance its operations. Kurt O’Brien, president, is committed to giving tenants as many options and conveniences as possible. Working with several third-party vendors, he arranged integrated technology that allows customers to rent units, access account information and make payments online or via the onsite kiosks. Both these services are supported by a professional call center.
Phoenix-based Storage Solutions with its 40-plus facilities strives to provide the best customer-service solutions for its managers and customers. It implemented a web-based rental and payment system along with a centralized call center in 2002. Since then, the company has processed more than 10,000 web transactions worth almost $1 million. It also started using self-service kiosks at specific locations and is seeing great results.
“We’re very excited about new technology that will help our managers become more productive,” says Vice President Ray McRay. “The call center and Internet have helped our managers focus on more important customer-service issues, and the self-service kiosk will provide customers with 24-hour secure access to our facilities.”
These are but a few examples of how self-storage owners have used technology to help managers become more productive. Facility employees can now focus on superior customer service and marketing. Call centers, the web and kiosks have introduced efficiencies that will increase a facility’s bottom line, allowing storage owners to enjoy the benefits of the business sooner and for a longer time.
Rick McGee is president of Online Self Storage Inc., which provides online reservations and payments, websites and online-directory services to the self-storage industry. For more information, call 877.301.4635; visit www.onlineselfstorage.com.