By Michael Sawyer
After rebounding from a tough recession, self-storage operators have looked to expense management as a main driver of profitability. At the same time, finding ways to break the 90 percent occupancy barrier and broaden market share is a major industry challenge. As self-serve solutions have become increasingly effective, many operators have deployed automated tools to help generate revenue, cut operational costs and improve customer satisfaction.
Incremental rentals are not the only motivator driving storage owners to integrate technology into their businesses. Fierce competition and the reality of losing rentals to competitors make automation a strong strategy. Facilities that use it can have a significant sales advantage and can expand their market, as neighboring properties rarely offer similar solutions.
Operators can ill afford to take a wait-and-see approach in providing customers with technological conveniences. The days of traditional self-storage buying behavior are gone. Today’s shoppers are selective and more informed than ever, thanks to increased rental opportunities and the ease of online research. As a result, purchasing and transaction models are being shaped to accommodate a faster-moving and unconstrained consumer.
Here are five automation trends that will help self-storage operators optimize sales, save money and improve service in the year ahead.
Trend 1: The Convenience Craze
Increasing the ease of doing business with self-storage facilities became an industry-wide objective in 2013. As stress-free renting has become a hot button for new tenants, many operators have implemented tools to conduct real-time transactions away from the counter, creating a competitive sales advantage. While the management office remains core to the business, onsite kiosks, online unit rentals and remote call centers are generating supplemental rentals and sustainable return on investment.
The purchase-trends data gathered last year by my company via its self-storage kiosks, call center and other technology solutions revealed an extraordinary development in consumer buying habits. In an industry that typically serves the public in person between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., more than 50 percent of new self-storage tenants chose to instead rent through automated channels when the counter was closed.
This is an interesting observation that should provide incentive for operators to offer a variety of rental channels—office counter, phones and website—on a 24-hour basis. Convenience has become a new focal point as facility owners try to stay ahead of the competition and better position themselves for sales growth. As market competition grows, a multi-channel strategy to supplement a facility’s counter sales will be critical for long- and short-term success.
Trend 2: Web Integration
Many operators are making an effort to conduct more business online by promoting website coupons or designing reservation features that help generate leads and appointments. Others are using social media or self-storage directory websites to market special offers.
While these are positive steps to increase Web presence, without software integration that connects to your available inventory, none of the above strategies allow consumers to complete a rental while using a home computer, tablet or mobile device. Going forward, facilities without a functional website will find it increasingly difficult to engage and serve a broader customer base through Web and mobile channels.
Having a website storefront that is open 24/7 means attaining a reservation or appointment is no longer a facility’s ultimate goal. Providing customers with a real-time, online buying experience rather than a shopping encounter has proven to be a very effective way to capture new business. With increasing frequency, self-storage operators are offering customers the ability to reserve an actual unit online, charging applicable fees, collecting payments and executing rental agreements all from their websites.
Trend 3: Call-Center Sales
Remote call-center use is at an all-time high. Emerging trends include more innovative sales processes and enhanced software upgrades. The implementation of individualized sales strategies enabled our call center to achieve an all-time high in reservation conversion rates in 2013. Many of these new strategies were developed from collaborating with self-storage owners and managers.
Last year, storage facilities that used a call center identified remote integration as a key factor in generating unit rentals. The number of facilities using rollover, after-hours and all-call services as a means to capture sporadic mobile users is likely to grow this year.
Customers are no longer willing to wait patiently on hold while a manager is occupied with a walk-in. They’re also less likely to leave voicemail messages when the office is closed and wait for a manager to return their call. Remote call centers are the most effective way to establish a sales dialogue with customers, regardless of where or when the conversation begins. As one independent owner said regarding his facility’s call-center use: “Respect your caller’s time by never missing [his] call. You won’t regret it.”
Trend 4: Onsite Automation
Automated stations continue to grow in popularity because of their ability to serve customers on the property with around-the-clock rental and payment options. Developments in kiosk technology include bilingual touch-screen prompts and two-way video conferencing that provide customers with day and night access to a live self-storage specialist when they need assistance. Leveraging video to bring storage experts to remote locations is another step in the evolution of automation throughout the self-storage sector.
This trend has led a number of facilities to manage tenant access and commerce largely through their kiosks. Self-serve stations have allowed operators to strategically reduce office hours during weekdays or weekends and improve their net operating income.
Trend 5: Pay-by-Phone Solutions
We’re hearing positive feedback regarding phone-based tools that help customers complete simple or recurring tasks that would otherwise end up with the self-storage manager. A pay-by-phone solution uses interactive voice response to effectively route callers through a custom-designed call flow based on each caller’s needs. For example, instead of first connecting with the manager, callers can make a payment or balance inquiry through interactive prompts using the touch-tone keypad on their phone, tablet or mobile device.
This type of automation can be used to reduce collections by offering tenants a 24-hour option to pay their bill. Pay-by-phone solutions also help relieve workload, enabling managers to better focus on sales and face-to-face interactions on site.
As the adoption of technology grows exponentially among facility operators, we’re seeing corresponding growth in the consumption of self-storage by consumers who use a variety of self-serve and automated tools. There’s never been a better time to leverage technology and realize the significant potential for new sales, cost savings and increased customer satisfaction.
Michael Sawyer is the director of marketing for Phoenix-based OpenTech Alliance Inc., which develops self-service rental solutions for the self-storage industry. The company offers a full range of INSOMNIAC products and services including kiosks, call-center services, website-rental applications and automated unit-security systems. It also provides the Open Self-Storage Cloud, which hosts industry-specific software applications including online Web and mobile rentals, accredited call-center and lead-tracking software, and licensed phone/voicemail programs. For more information, call 602.749.9370; visit www.opentechalliance.com.