Balancing High-Tech and High-Touch in the Self-Storage Industry

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By Mark Lusky

Let's face it: Automation is increasing. From highly sophisticated robots to self-storage rental kiosks, the stock of nonhuman capital is rising. According to a blog by self-storage marketplace SpareFoot:

"In 2012, 9 percent of self-storage facilities in the U.S. were using kiosks, according to the 2013 Self-Storage Almanac. That was up from 1.4 percent in 2011. The kiosks serve as a right hand to on-site employees—covering busy times during business hours and automating operations for walk-in customers after hours. Depending on the model, the kiosks can rent units and collect payments in the form of cash or checks; dispense locks; solicit insurance; and confirm identification. Many are bilingual and paperless, and offer two-way video consultations with a call center. What's not to like?"

It's this last point about two-way video communications that addresses the importance of high-touch coupled with high-tech. The blog says as much, "While it's true that a facility could become fully automated with a kiosk, it's not always the best option when trying to meet customers' varied needs. However, some scale back use of kiosks to three days a week, for example, to continue to offer face-to-face interaction with customers."

Michael Sawyer, the marketing director for OpenTech Alliance, a self-storage kiosk manufacturer, notes that views on this issue vary depending on experience:

"To many operators, processing a new tenant lease through an onsite kiosk, remote call center or website software has seemed pointless; based on the thought that self-storage rentals happen live, face-to-face at the counter during office hours when tenants arrive with boxes looking for a place to store them. Many other independent owners or managers see things differently, and believe the counter is not the only consumer touch point. These owners choose to deploy a number of different sales and service channels that work hand in hand with interaction, promoting self-storage business face-to-face, over the phones and on the Internet."

Competitive pressures are driving self-storage operators to carefully consider the mix of automation and human staffing. "Covering all the bases has become the new focal point as facility owners try to stay ahead of their competition and better position themselves for future sales and service opportunities,” Sawyer points out. “Still, many tenants and future tenants will choose to interact onsite face-to-face with the passionate people representing our industry. Omitting that consumer option could be devastating, like leaving home plate uncovered."

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