By Zachary Esparza
Technology is increasing at an incredible rate. To fully take advantage of it in the self-storage industry, facility operators need be aware of the available tools and how they work together. Technology has the potential to increase rentals, improve revenue, streamline workflow and provide better customer service. At the same time, consumers are more knowledgeable about mobile apps, online-payment capabilities and other computer-driven features, and they expect advanced services and products from the companies they patronize.
Think of your facility technology as the foundation of a house. It provides the base to support the home’s other components and functions. Let’s take a look at some of the newest and best tools operators are using today and how they integrate to create a solid, successful structure.
The Framework: Facility-Management Software
A facility’s management software holds the operation together. With everything and everyone now connected via the Internet, it’s more important than ever to ensure your software is meeting the changing needs of your customers and business.
“As technology has evolved, management software has grown to be an important and integrated part of a busy and thriving business operation,” says Steve Weinstein, a software and security consultant for QuikStor Security & Software, a provider of software and security products to the self-storage industry. “With integrations to insurance companies, credit card processors, call centers, kiosks, aggregators, websites and more, management software becomes the central nervous system of a web of products and solutions all focused on helping an operator reach more business, cut costs and improve efficiency.”
Today’s software is evolving into a centrally located “software as a service” (SaaS) model, says Jon Reddick, vice president of Sentinel Systems Corp., which also provides software and security products to the storage industry. Often called “on-demand software” the cloud-computing infrastructure delivers one application to many users, regardless of their location.
“It provides more support for automated rentals via kiosks, websites and call centers, which allows customers to rent space outside of traditional business hours,” Reddick says. In fact, cloud computing has opened up a whole new world for self-storage operators and their customers, enabling them access data anywhere, anytime from an Internet-connected device.
“At first everybody was excited about the benefits of using a Web-based product—and there are many,” says Ramona Taylor, president of Space Control Systems Inc., a provider of self-storage management software, including two programs that use cloud technology. “But once they got on the Web, a whole new range of benefits emerged.”
The biggest, perhaps, is the ability to interface with other technology-based services. Cloud-computing has also advanced other online capabilities, including the ability to take reservations and payments. Some software programs even allow tenants to sign their lease agreement online.
“Studies have shown that up to 40 percent of rentals take place online,” says Yvette Apodaca, marketing manager for SiteLink, a provider of property-management software. “Rentals increase when managers lease to tenants by phone and share the rental agreement for the tenant to sign during the call. Archiving these documents electronically in each tenant’s file for instant, on-demand retrieval is more reliable, efficient and less costly.”
Australia-based Fort Knox Self Storage is testing a new tool that will speed up the rental process. The product, called iSign, allows new tenants to enter their information on a tablet or touch-screen monitor during the move-in process in place of completing hard-copy documents.
“One of the biggest benefits with iSign is that it’s reduced our overall signup time by over 60 percent,” said Corey Osmond, design and digital manager. “This works out to a huge 15- to 20-minute time saving for each client. We’re also seeing less errors in customer information and more satisfied clients.”
In addition to saving time, the system reduces the need for paperwork or manual filing. Once the data is entered and finalized, it’s stored instantly in the facility’s management- and collaborative-software programs. The system also generates a PDF of the rental agreement and other information, which is e-mailed directly to the tenant. iSign is in beta testing at the Fort Knox Moorabbin, Victoria, facility, and the company intends to roll it out to its seven other Melbourne-area locations by mid-year.
The Doors: Self-Storage Kiosks
Self-storage kiosks will never completely take the place of the manager behind the counter or “depersonalize” the storage experience. Rather, they provide convenience for customers, a self-serve option for those who seek it, and a way for facility operators to operators with a way to rent units and collect payments when the office is closed.
“Owning a kiosk is kind of like having a 24/7 assistant manager who rents units, takes payments and is always onsite to handle the needs of a tenant,” says Michael Sawyer, director of marketing for OpenTech Alliance Inc., a provider of self-storage kiosks, call-center services and other technology. “Using a touchscreen computer and automated voice prompts, new customers can purchase a unit and insurance, even a lock, then sign the lease and move in.”
Kiosks can be ideal for properties with a single manager or those that are unmanned. Steve and Barbara O’Rourke, who opened Ames West Side Storage in Ames, Iowa, last October depend on their self-storage kiosk to handle new rentals and take payments. Because the O’Rourkes have full-time jobs—Steve is a contractor and Barbara is a nurse—the kiosk is integral to operating the 90-unit facility. The technology also appeals to younger generations, particularly in Ames, which is home to Iowa State University, Steve O’Rourke says.
The Utilities: Communication Tools
While operator-customer touch points are increasing on the Web and kiosks, the phone remains a cornerstone to interacting with new and existing tenants. “The Internet is becoming a larger source for leads in the industry, but nothing replaces the phone when it comes to interacting with customers,” says Phil Murphy, president of CallPotential, which offers lead-management and do-it-yourself call-center solutions. “Whether it’s answering questions and booking a reservation, or dealing with a customer-service situation, the right phone tools help make this process easier for managers.”
Much like other technology, phone-based tools come in a wide variety. They’ve expanded beyond call centers to include text-messaging services, payment capabilities, and automated and live phone calls to facilitate collections. “These tools allow the manager to track and control [his] entire collection process,” Murphy says.
Phone-based tools can also save an operator time. Individual collections calls can take hours, and are often the most disliked part of the job. New programs now enable operators to reach dozens of customer at once. “Along with reaching out to customers, these same tools can be used to provide the customer with payment options such as pay-by-phone or pay by text,” Murphy says.
Self Storage Consulting Group LLC, which manages 35 facilities in seven states, has implemented text messaging to contact its delinquent tenants. “It’s quick, painless and easy,” says company president Gregory Ellsworth. “Texting our otherwise hard-to-reach delinquent tenants improves collections by 40 percent. This saves four out of 10 units from going to auction, which no one enjoys—the operator most of all!”
The Windows: Mobile Apps
Mobile apps are all the rage today, so it’s only natural they’re beginning to emerge in the self-storage world. The Lock Up Self Storage, which operates 33 facilities in eight states, was ahead of the curve, launching its first mobile app in 2011. Being an early adopter provided a number of challenges for the company, such as integrating the app with the company’s existing management software. “Like with anything new, there were bugs to work out,” says Andrea Carnes, vice president of operations.
Last year, the company launched The Lock Up Storage App, which allows tenants to keep track of the unit numbers and gate-access codes for each location they’re using. The app also includes online bill pay and a “tap to call” feature that automatically phones the customer’s facility.
“We realize that nowadays, people are required to remember innumerable codes and passwords,” Carnes says. “Now, tenants have all of that information at their fingertips, in their mobile devices.”
The Roof: Security
Security protects it all, and with the evolution of technology, it has advanced to a fine precision. Cameras are sharper, and live coverage can be viewed online. Access-control components such gates, keypads and even lighting are evolving. “Storage security has also been focused on interface. By leveraging evolving technology and the near saturation of high-speed Internet connections and smartphones, the way tenants and operators interact with security is changing fast,” Weinstein says.
Grainy, out-of-focus and hard-to-see images of yesterday’s analog-video systems are gone. “With mega-pixel cameras, huge digital-storage capabilities, high-speed Internet connections, and smartphone apps, not only can you record and review in the facility great detail, but you can also access your cameras and recorded footage remotely from your computer or mobile device.”
Tenants are no longer restricted to entering PIN codes or swiping a card for access anymore, either, Weinstein adds. “Remote transmitters integrated to the access-control system, RFID and proximity technology, and even smartphone apps are all new ways in which tenants can interface with access controls.”
There are also Web-based tools enabling operators to control or inspect their property from any device with Internet. A text message or e-mail can even be sent to the facility operator or tenants in response to preconfigured important events and offline operation of keypads, Reddick says.
With so much technology available, it can be daunting to determine which ones are best, most affordable and efficient. Just as a house isn’t built by throwing all the materials together at once, you’re self-storage technology platform won’t be in place in a week or even a month. It takes time to find the right tools that will most benefit your business.
“Ambitious owners will continue to corner the market by making it easy for consumers to use their property,” Sawyer says. “Turning a typical self-storage operation into a business that outperforms the competition is what technology is all about.”
Zachary Esparza is a sophomore journalism major at Arizona State University in Phoenix. His emphasis is business journalism with minors in film and media studies and business. He recently interned as a contributing writer to “Bakersfield Life,” a lifestyle magazine covering Bakersfield, Calif. After graduation, he hopes to direct movies while writing about his struggles and successes of owning his own business. To reach him, e-mail [email protected].