A new type of self-storage conversion has appeared upon the horizon of possibilities. Forget modifying an office building into self-storage, or converting an older facility to climate control. Instead of reshaping steel and concrete, today’s conversions can mean remote management—a new operational option to bring your business more revenue while helping reduce costs.
By John Bykowski, Clay Street Storage
Before beginning any conversion process, get a baseline on how your business is running. You don’t want to make changes and discover you’ve messed up a good thing. So, take out a pencil and paper, make a table like No. 1 and fill it in with your facility’s specifics.
For the sake of example, Table 2 is completed with the hours from a storage facility in my neighborhood. As you can see below, the office is closed on Sundays, but the rest of the week someone is there from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Now, look at the data and ask some questions. In the sample facility, gate access is allowed 36 hours when the office isn’t open. How come? After all, people are moving in and requiring access to their belongings, so shouldn’t a manager be onsite to rent units and take payment? Sure, if the facility wants to lose money! extending office hours traditionally means paying additional employee wages and maybe hiring extra staff.
The point of remote management is to optimize your business to run with the least amount of personnel directly necessary. Notice I didn’t say “unmanned.” This is because remote management has any number of variations, and all involve a person onsite at some point, even if it’s a maintenance person that goes to your property weekly to check locks and sweep out empty units.
Technology is a big part of remote management. Thanks to technology, we no longer have to be onsite to see into our business. Using the Internet, we can connect to our property-management software from almost anywhere. If we have a way to take payments and rentals with limited human involvement, we have the potential to dramatically change our financials and how we operate our business. Three technologies can help in this area: call centers, Internet reservations and self-service kiosks.
Let’s go back to Table 2. Suppose we’d like to run our facility using remote management only on Sundays. Managers typically receive new rental enquiries in three mediums—phone, e-mail and walkups. With remote management, if a prospective tenant calls on Sunday, the facility routes the call to a call center where a professionally trained salesperson can take the rental. Other options are e-mail enquiries to the call center, and a website enabled to take rentals and payments.
Most people move on weekends, so we don’t want to miss an opportunity to rent to them Sundays onsite. Thus, we install a self-service kiosk outside our gate to capture walkups, and we erect a big neon “OPEN” sign or banner.
The kiosk enables prospects to rent your units 24 hours a day on their own. They can take a virtual tour of your facility, select a unit, purchase a lock, pay for the unit and print out their rental agreement. It’s up to you whether the kiosk supplies a gate code, or if you require new tenants to come back during the week to meet your manager first. either way, you haven’t turned business away and have likely gained on your competition.
In our example, we’ve converted to remote management on Sundays and still run the office with a manager onsite the rest of the week. however, since we have the kiosk in place, we might as well leave it on to capture new rentals and take payments in the mornings and evenings when the office isn’t open and potential customers are commuting past the facility.
The kiosk can also step in when the manager needs to run to the bank or drop off cookies at local businesses. You get the picture. With remote management in place, you have a rainbow of options and can adjust your operations to what works best in your market. You may even discover you can run two or three facilities in town with one roving manager.
Setting up remote management at a self-storage site requires a few physical changes to the property. Foremost is installing a kiosk in a location where your customers see it, recognize it and feel safe using it. Take a look at how ATMs are installed in your area to get ideas on how you might incorporate a kiosk.
Frequently, it makes sense to create an indoor or outdoor enclosure for the kiosk. Besides protecting it from sun, rain and snow, your customers will appreciate the added comfort from the elements. enclosures can often be made inexpensively out of cinderblock and Plexiglas. Don’t forget to include signage such as “Rent and Pay here” on awnings or walls.
Many facilities pride themselves on customer service and fear remote management isn’t compatible. This is a matter of perspective and implementation. Let’s look at an example outside our industry. Which dry cleaner would you patronize? The one where you could pick up your shirts during typical business hours and the counter person was super friendly and chatted you up for 10 minutes, or the store where you knew you could pick up and drop off clothes regardless of time or day?
Which Yellow Pages ad would appeal to you more, “24-hour drop off and pickup” or “friendly staff ”? From the customer’s perspective, remote management can actually increase customer service and convenience since customers can do business when they wish.
As the self-storage landscape continues to get more competitive and staffing expenses rise, some form of remote management at your facility may make good sense. While you don’t have to go completely unmanned, the ability to keep your “Open” sign on 24 hours a day will increase rentals and please customers.
In fact, you just might find you can deliver a powerful one-two punch to the competition by combining remote management with excellent customer service during regular office.
Curtis Sojka is vice president of marketing for OpenTech Alliance Inc., makers of the Insomniac line of self-storage kiosks. For more information, call 602.749.9370; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
An Owner’s Perspective
By John Bykowski, Clay Street Storage
When I purchased my facility in Kissimmee, Fla., in August of 2004, I was paying attention to the kiosk market and the idea of remotely managing my facility. But I knew it was necessary to first make several upgrades to the property. We originally had a paper-based accounting and tenant recordkeeping system and the facility was lacking a tenant-access gate. The property also had a number of deferred maintenance items and required upgrades that justified me being onsite daily for business hours addressing those items.
Because Hurricane Charlie had just hit Central Florida and hurricane season remained intense throughout the summer, rentals were brisk and it was nice to be onsite. At the same time, I realized I had an average of about two onsite inquiries per day, which included rentals and face-to-face payments. It became obvious that once maintenance and upgrade work was completed—and occupancy was steady—the amount of drop-in traffic wouldn’t be adequate to justify a full-time staffed office; an exception would be the addition of services such as retail or notary, which wasn’t logical for this site.
The Insomniac kiosk was an attractive solution because it allowed me to extend my service hours, not staff the office full-time; cost was less than that of hiring a staff person who would be terribly bored due to low workload. The installation of the kiosk allowed me to campaign for a local political office and attend my sister’s out-of-town wedding last fall without a negative impact on the business. In fact, for the month of November 2006, the kiosk performed more new rental transactions than I did, with our earliest transaction at 6:45 a.m.
Our local Home Depot just installed a kiosk-based system for purchasing propane gas bottles. As customers become more comfortable with self-service kiosks, I expect a greater percentage of our rentals and payments will be performed through the kiosk. A benefit of being able to remotely manage my facility is that I’ve been able to convert the old manager’s apartment to more storage units.