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Automated Management

Raymond E. McRae and Curtis Sojka Comments
As in most industries today, automation is changing the way self-storage facilities do business. Operators nationwide are realizing how technology can positively impact their facilities and bottom line.

Not too long ago, the term “automated” meant a storage facility had a gate that could be opened with a keypad. These days, it involves high-tech self-serve kiosks, which allow customers to rent units, make payments, purchase locks and buy tenant insurance—all without manager assistance. Today, automation means leaving the “open” sign on all the time.

Even the overlock process has been automated with the introduction of electronic door locks. These locks integrate with a facility’s kiosks and management software. They can mechanically allow access, as when a tenant rents a unit using the kiosk, or bar entry when a tenant is past-due on rent. In cases where a unit has been overlocked due to nonpayment, the kiosk and software can automatically unlock the unit when the customer brings his account current. Automation of this process gives managers more time to spend on marketing and customer service.

Thanks to kiosks and electronic locks, operators can even charge a premium for varying levels of access. Three-tier pricing structures are extremely manageable. A facility simply charges a base price for access during office hours, and then adds a premium for extended access and an even higher price for anytime admittance.

The improved operating results at facilities that use these high-tech tools show automation is here to stay. Some facilities using kiosks report a savings of about $63 per day because of more efficient staffing and operational processes. They’re also able to serve more customers, because the self-serve units take new rentals and payments no matter the time or day of the year. This means higher profit.

The Human Effect

So what does this mean for self-storage managers? Will the position be eliminated? Not likely. Think about it: Kiosks were introduced into banks, gas stations and airports years ago, yet there are still bank tellers, gas-station attendants and airline staff. Instead, the role of self-storage manager will evolve and expand.

To understand automation’s impact on the facility manager, look at the possibilities it creates. First, there will always be storage operators who avoid technology—the ones who still use index cards rather than management software to record rentals. At these facilities, a manager will always be necessary.

At the other extreme, new facilities are being built for full automation. One operator in the Midwest has been running more than 50 unmanned facilities for the last five years. A staff member still needs to attend the sites for routine lock checks, property inspections, maintenance and other customer-service duties, but the requirements are minimal compared to full-time, onsite attendance. This type of operation requires a manager who can make good decisions and has an ability to multitask, overseeing many sites simultaneously.

The business model that makes sense for most existing facilities as well as many new ones is a hybrid of automation and an onsite manager. The kiosk, with its ability to take rentals and payments, supplements the manager’s efforts to serve more customers. Over time, a facility can collect data regarding its customers’ behavior, and the workforce can be matched to the flow of business. Using these trends, staffing can be geared up when traffic is heaviest and scaled down when business is slower.

Customer service is a competitive differentiator, and kiosks provide tenants with improved service in two ways. First, some customers prefer self-service transactions, and kiosks cater to this level of comfort. When was the last time you paid at the counter for gasoline? On the other hand, some customers prefer to work with a person. Kiosks free up managers so they can spend extra time with customers who value human interaction.

Thanks to automation, the manager’s job is no longer confined to the office, which means he is free to go out and prospect for new accounts. He can visit businesses in the area to secure commercial customers, who rent for longer periods and are timelier with their payments. He can also attend chamber of commerce meetings and other local networking events.

Land in prime locations is harder to come by, but automation makes smaller and more remote facilities financially feasible. A manager’s role can easily be expanded to cover several of these properties. In a sense, the manager runs a portfolio rather than a single site. He becomes responsible for maximizing revenue across several facilities linked through kiosks and a central “super-center.”

Finally, automating routine tasks gives managers more time to analyze and fine-tune their facilities. They become yield-management experts, varying rents according to inventory, occupancy and seasonality to maximize revenue. In addition, they can add new services such as package shipping, records storage, wine storage, eBay brokering and more.

The self-storage industry is expanding and evolving, and automated management plays a key role. Rather than disappear, the role of manager will also change and grow. Those employees with customer-service and business skills will continue to be in high demand. Tomorrow’s manager will be an essential part of the business, especially one who embraces automation.

Raymond E. McRae is the vice president and director of operations for Mesa, Ariz.-based Storage Solutions, which conducts feasibility studies, third-party management, market surveys, consulting, auditing, acquisitions and development for the self-storage industry. For more information, call 480.844.3900; visit

Curtis Sojka is vice president of marketing for OpenTech Alliance Inc., a developer of self-storage kiosks. The company’s INSOMNIAC line improves customer convenience, reduces operating costs, and increases revenue for self-storage facilities. For more information, call 480.778.9370; visit

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