Over the past few years, technology has vastly improved the way self-storage operators do business. First, there was a mass migration from DOS to Windows-based property-management programs, and then web-based software entered the scene. New offerings brought electronic billing options and systematic ways to collect marketing data. Many operators created a virtual storefront, allowing tenants to rent units, pay their bills and access their account histories over the Internet in real time. These sophisticated features are making facilities more competitive in their markets.
But the changes have just begun. New technology will integrate all the facets of a self-storage operation and offer more money-making features. For example, web-based systems make it easier to share data between facilities, simplifying multi-site operation. They also allow call centers, which handle calls from prospective tenants when the site manager is busy or after-hours, to access a facility’s system and answer questions, rent units and collect payments. Finally, web-based software integrates with self-service kiosks that add customer convenience on site.
These days, owners expect to have access to their business data from anywhere at anytime, and web-based systems provide that kind of remote management. Users can see up-to-the-minute reports, keeping closely involved with their operations from any Internet connection. They can even consolidate reports from multiple sites into summary documents that analyze business trends. As they monitor financials and occupancy, they can adjust rental rates based on demand to maximize revenue.
Picking and Choosing
Now that you understand the benefits a web-based management system can provide, the question is how to choose from the available programs. While all Internet-based programs aim to offer remote access, they have fundamental differences in design. Two common systems are “thin client” and “rich client.”
With a thin-client program, a central server instead of your on-site computer holds all facility data. What this means is the PC in your office uses a web browser to download the business data you need—the information is no longer stored on your computer’s hard drive.
When you consider this type of program, pay special attention to the amount of data that will be passed back and forth between the server and office computers. Even with broadband Internet access, you may notice slower transmission speeds as your database grows over time. For example, it may take longer to print leases and receipts with the web-based program than it did with your “old” Windows program. And there’s another potential drawback: With a thin-client program, if your Internet connection is temporarily interrupted, you will be unable to access the central server and, therefore, your data.
The other approach to web-based systems is a rich-client program written in Microsoft’s .NET (“dot net”) language. Rich-client programs use the same user-friendly design as other Microsoft products. They also eliminate sluggish speeds and continue to operate even when your Internet connection is down. What makes this possible is “redundancy,” meaning an identical copy of the database is stored locally on your PC. Since the data co-resides on your computer, a disruption to your Internet service only delays your updates. You can still access customer information and operate from any site. The local and central databases synchronize instantly once the Internet connection is restored.
With a rich client, when you make changes, such as processing a new move-in or accepting a payment, the information is immediately uploaded to the central server. Changes to rental rates or other adjustments integrate with all stores in real time. And tasks like printing are faster, because you don’t have to download the information first.
Using .NET also gives you access to reliable, cost-effective SQL server databases. SQL databases give you a choice about where and how you host your data and which vendors you use for electronic billing and other services. For example, you can choose to host your own data or opt to let a software company host it for you. You can shop for the credit-card processing company that offers the most competitive rate and providers of ACH services. Being able to comparison shop and select vendors allows you to save money.
Whether you choose a thin- or rich-client option, Internet-based systems are evolving to offer better integration with all aspects of the self-storage business. Off-site operators have better, faster access to their data. They also have more options for providing top-notch customer service. User-friendly technology is the key to the future of the industry, and those who embrace it will far surpass those who don’t.
Markus Hecker is the director of marketing for Raleigh, N.C.-based SMD Software Inc., which provides management software for the self-storage industry. For more information, call 919.865.0789; visit www.smdsoftware.com.