We live in exciting times! The self-storage industry is going through some significant transformations. With new-facility development being stagnant, self-storage operators are turning their attention toward improving their current business and looking at new technology to help them.
Historically, the self-storage industry has been slow to adopt technology, but this is changing. Many of our leaders are younger than 50 years old and have grown up using technology in their everyday lives. This new breed of operators is not afraid of technology. They're open to trying and learning new ways of running their business, with the objective of improving their bottom line.
There are a few interesting technologies coming of age that, if used properly, can have a positive impact on your facility revenue. Let's take a look at them.
Like any new technology, "the cloud" has multiple definitions, with each slanted to serve the agenda of the company that created it. Heres tech giant Intels definition:
Cloud computing is an evolution in which IT consumption and delivery are made available in a self-service fashion via the Internet or internal network, with a flexible pay-as-you-go business model and requires a highly efficient and scalable architecture. In a cloud computing architecture, services and data reside in shared, dynamically scalable resource pools, often virtualized. Those services and data are accessible by any authenticated device over the Internet.
Microsofts TV ads say, You should go ... to the cloud while youre stuck in an airport waiting for your delayed flight, for example. No matter how you define cloud computing, it can deliver some valuable benefits to the self-storage industry, if implemented properly.
One of the key benefits of the cloud is data protection and global accessibility because all data is stored in a secure offsite location. Self-storage operators use a lot of forms that are all typically printed and stored in filing cabinets at the property. A simple-to-use, cloud-based document-management service could help operators save money, run a more green business, and have a better handle on lease agreements. Cloud computing means the option of going paperless at a self-storage facility is much closer to a reality.
Another cloud benefit is reduced need for local IT (information technology) staff. This is a by-product of not having to install, backup, update or uninstall software on local computers. The cloud vision is that any device that connects to the Internet will be able to use the services provided and access the data stored in the cloud. Therefore, local devices will not store any data and will be simple to replace if the device fails.
The pay-as-you-go benefit is the one many people feel is going to drive significant cost savings, but not everyone is convinced. While this model does eliminate most of the upfront software costs, it may not equate to savings over time.
Scalability is one of the primary benefits of the cloud. It doesnt mean users can use as much resources as they want, but it does mean that when they need more, all they have to do is pay for them. This means no more running out of hard-drive space or upgrading computers that need more memory to run new software.
Since the beginning of time, self-storage has been a face-to-face business. Interacting with a live person behind the counter has been the core of all processes. Live video is not new, but it has required very expensive onsite hardware and software and lots of bandwidth. Advances in streaming video technology are also, ironically, cloud-based. These new cloud video services are significantly reducing costs and no longer require onsite proprietary hardware. Live video will put a new twist on the term "face to face."
Skype is a great example of this new technology. It allows people to collaborate in person in the cloud. Todays self-service kiosks have recently replaced their old-fashioned speaker phones with VOIP (voice-over Internet protocol) phones, allowing a live person to assist a consumer at a kiosk. Some self-storage operators find live video gives them a way to supplement the staff at their facility with a virtual manager, saving them the cost of having a real person at the facility.
Live video will not stop at kiosks. It will soon be used to provide human assistance to website visitors as well. The effectiveness of this assistance is still to be determined. Live chat has been around for many years and has not yet become a frequently used service, nor has it been attributed to more rentals on the Internet.
Advancements in technology are empowering remote call centers to be as, if not more, effective than onsite managers when it comes to handling sales calls. The real estate storage trusts (REITs) have been routing all incoming calls to their call centers for a few years now, and they claim to be winning more business from their competitors because of this approach. Just think about it: If you never miss a call, never have to put a prospect on hold or need to call him back, youre going to win more business and improve facility revenue.
Routing all calls to a central site is not a knock on the manager, who handles many tasks that often take him away from the counter. Some tasks, like dealing with an angry customer or making collections calls, can put a person in a mood not suited for handling a sales call. Until a few years ago small- to mid-sized operators had no way to compete with the REITs. Now some call centers offer similar services without hidden costs or transaction fees.
Admittedly theres always going to be a knowledge gap between what the onsite manager knows and the information available to a call-center representative, but in some call centers, technology is closing the gap. The new technology includes real-time integration between self-storage property-management systems and call-center software applications.
In addition, some call-center vendors offer an Internet portal to allow managers to share facility content in real time with the call center. This way, the call-center representatives are updated immediately of any changes at the facility. The facility content includes landmarks, directions, special pricing, etc. The portal narrows the knowledge gap but, more important, it provides the onsite manager and the call center a channel to collaborate, which helps develop an atmosphere of teamwork.
Self-service technology is rapidly evolving. Prices for the hardware componentthe kiosk itselfare getting less expensive, as are their respective service and warranty programs. There are now many kiosk models from which to choose, each ranging in price (starting at $5,500) and functionality. This technology continues to provide a cost-effective option to having a part-time manager on staff, and it significantly expands the hours of operation of the facility giving it the potential to rent more units.
Software on the kiosks is also getting simpler to use and can do more. Using VOIP technology, kiosks now offer a live person to assist the user in renting a unit or making a payment. The live person provides the personal touch, and soon kiosks will support two-way video so the consumer experience will be much like that of the traditional in-person interaction.
Some kiosks will soon be able to help self-storage owners improve their search-engine optimization. Tenants will have the ability to create video reviews (testimonials) on a kiosk, which can be directly uploaded to YouTube. Self-storage operators will be able to select which videos they wish to make public.
Expect self-service technology to become hardware agnostic and be delivered in a software as a service model from an industry-specific cloud. As consumers start to rent self-storage units over the Internet, from their mobile phone, on their TV or even from their car, self-storage operators who still think consumers must rent from the onsite manager will see the impact on their bottom line.
The most important thing to remember when thinking about new technology is not the technology itself, but the reason for implementing it. Its best to first clearly understand the business problem and then research solutions, instead of getting enamored with a solution to a problem you may not even have. Technology that solves business problems will positively impact your facilitys revenue. On the other hand, implementing technology just because its cool may make you cool, but it will not make you rich.
Robert Chiti is president and CEO of Phoenix-based OpenTech Alliance Inc., the developer of the INSOMNIAC line of self-storage kiosks, now with seven models. The company also offers the INSOMNIAC Live! call center and the INSOMNIAC Self Storage Network for online storage reservations and rentals. For more information, call 602.749.9370; visit www.opentechalliance.com .