All across America there are self-storage properties without offices and on-site staff. Back in the old days, prospective tenants could pick their own units, secure them with their own locks, fill out a contract and mail it with a check in the self-addressed stamped envelope provided at the do-it-yourself station outside the facility. Sound crazy? Not at all.
In the past, if you had any leftover land, you could create a 40- to 50-unit storage facility and enjoy a handsome return with very little labor and hassle. Sure, the facility owner may have set himself up for trouble if he took a lackadaisical approach. Someone could move in without a contract; trespassers could dump trash in vacant units; and the possibilities of all kinds of liability were endless.
On the other hand, the reality of risk was low if the site was located in a small community where everyone knows everybody else. In small towns, most people are honest and fair when using a self-service facility. I know that your legal counsel would tell you to be very cautious before proceeding with anything similar to this scenario, but the practice is still widespread.
Fast-Forward to the Past
This same concept has been improved with new technologies over the years, but the basics are still the same. Some owners post cell-phone numbers on a sign at the site. If you want to rent a unit, you call the owner and arrange all the details on the phone. You can either choose the unit yourself or make an appointment for the owner to open a unit for you.
This updated system allows owners to be a little more careful and mitigate fewer risks. It does take time to field the phone calls and meet the appointments. Some mix the cell-phone contact with the mail-in contract and are able to combine personal phone contact with the ease of self-service.
Some operators have set up websites where new customers can visit and check a few boxes to agree to the lease terms, and make the rent payment online using PayPal. This brings the lease-signing and payment-processing into the 21st century, but leaves the rest of the self-service protocol pretty much the same. Using a method like this lessens the chances of taking on a delinquent customer or getting an unauthorized move-in.
Larger facilities or multiple self-service facilities can be managed from a centralized location. An owner can arrange to have staff answer the phone in a central office, where managers will also process contracts, payments and direct customer-service issues. Some operators have created their own in-house call centers, even if that means only two or three people working the phones; others contract with established call centers to manage the telephone and the data-entry portion of the transactions.
In this way, owners can spread labor costs out over time and across several properties. But since one of the goals of remote management is to take labor cost to an absolute minimum, a call center is not always the best option for remote management. If the revenue at the property is sufficient, then the incremental cost of the phone agents can be very small and, hence, can make a lot of sense.
I realize you cannot eliminate labor altogether. Someone has to go to the site now and again to do cleaning, maintenance, lock checks, unit inventory and so on. But depending on the size of the facility and the traffic, this doesnt have to be done very often.
The introduction of kiosks in self-storage has changed the game even more. Kiosks enable customers to complete transactions completely using self-service technology installed right at the facility.
The systems are easy to use, can take payments, print contracts, dispense locks and manage gate accessall done remotely and virtually with no labor. The kiosks even have animated characters on the screen to help walk customers through various transactions.
The kiosk concept marries the self-service concept with no-staff operations, using the most advanced tech, highest customer-touch applications. These are an attractive solution for self-storage owners and customers.
Since the investment in owning and operating a kiosk is on a different scale than posting a cell-phone number on a sign or even creating a basic contract and payment website, it does require some math. Does the potential revenue at your property support the costs of using a kiosk? Can it complete enough transactions to become a cost-saver over using onsite staff or even a remote office or call center force?
Its possible that the ease of use and the wide ranging services kiosks can offer customers will bring a good rate of return even at a small facility. If you removed the customer-contact labor factor and the hassle factor from managing customers, how thin could you shave your margins while still making the kinds of returns that satisfy your financial goals?
You might feel a little nervous leaving your self-storage property completely un-staffed, or you might worry about leaving an expensive piece of equipment like your kiosk with no one supervising it. But you dont have to leave your assets unprotected. Using remote webcams is a simple and inexpensive way to keep an eye on your property.
Plus, digital recording is getting easier to use all the time. You can save hours of viewing for later investigations. You can log into your surveillance cameras from anywhere in the world and watch the activities at your facility.
Stack and Pick
There is a new twist being marketed for remote-site management: the automated stacker and picker for storage units. It uses the same kind of technology a vending machine might use to retrieve a storage unit from a stack and present it at a loading area. This can all be done in a remote automated location. What new challenges or opportunities will a system like this stimulate?
People are very amenable to self-service. We see them doing many things, such as banking at ATMs, making payments online, purchasing items online. Smart phones are selling like crazy and even our cars are blue-tooth enabled. What does all this mean for remote facility management? It means you will see new development and improvements on the old "help-yourself" system where you pick your own unit and drop your payment in the box just like in the old days, but better.
Tron Jordheim is the director of PhoneSmart, an offsite sales force that helps storage owners rent to more people through its call center, secret-shopping service, sales-training and Internet lead-generation services. Mr. Jordheim is also a member of the National Speakers Association. You can read what hes up to at www.selfstorageblog.com. For more information, e-mail [email protected].