There are very few things I enjoy discussing more than technology. Ever since my parents gave me an Atari 2600, after suffering in silence to get the machine at a real estate sales seminar, I have been hooked. Technology is rapidly changing the way we live. From cars that talk to us to phones that think for us and software that will solve our greatest problems, the time to leverage these ideas at our self-storage facilities is now.
Technology has to accomplish three things to be worthwhile. First, it has to allow you to better leverage yourself. It doesn’t make sense to use a tool that doesn’t allow you to improve. Second, it has to fit within your existing procedures and systems. If a piece of technology doesn’t integrate into your operation, it’s worthless because you won't use it. Third, it must show you some kind of return, even if it’s just extra time with our family or an enhancement of your existing business.
Let’s review some technology that meets these criteria and will help you and your self-storage business right now.
One of the biggest challenges surrounding technology is the vast amount of options available. Narrowing your choices is a necessary exercise. Let’s start with the basics: Google. When most people hear this word, they automatically think of a search engine; but Google has become so much more.
For example, Google has developed an easy and cost-effective enterprise segment called Google Apps for Business, "a cloud-based productivity suite that helps you and your team connect and get work done from anywhere on any device," according to the company description. One of the things it allows you to do is create Gmail e-mail addresses tied to your current domain name. So if your website is xyzselfstorage.com, you can create an address like [email protected], powered by and accessible through Gmail. You can create as many personalized addresses as you want, and all you need to access them is an Internet connection.
The app also supplies you with a calendar tool that allows you to share different calendars with your group or make public calendars so your customers can search events at your facility. If you manage multiple sites, this feature is phenomenal. You can schedule lien sales, community events and more.
You also get access to Google Hangouts, which includes instant messaging and the ability to hold online meetings using a webcam. This is an excellent tool for training and general meetings.
Finally, Apps for Business provides access to Google Drive, Docs Sheets and Slides. Drive is an online-storage system, similar to Dropbox or Box, that allows you to selectively share files among your group. Individual facilities may only need limited access to files. Drive is a great way to control access and share documents, and the cost is extremely reasonable. Google currently charges $5 per account per month.
Docs is Google’s version of Microsoft Office. It provides spreadsheet, word-processing and presentation software. It also allows multiple people to edit a document at the same time. Having the ability to collaborate on a document in real time is extremely valuable.
There are many different self-storage management programs available today. The idea behind using this software is to remove as much human error as possible. No one should be using a physical ledger to keep track of a facility’s financials, nor should you be using a spreadsheet. You can install management software at your facility for as little as $50 per month.
Most programs now have some sort of Web component, so you can access your reports or accounts online. Many also include modules for online payments and reservations. These features are the new norm in our industry.
As a manager of multiple self-storage locations, I find Web-based management software to be a necessity; but for you, it may not be. If you have a single location and live on site, you can easily access your office computer. Remember, technology should help you improve, should fit into your existing operation and provide some kind of return. Only install what you really need, and don’t feel pressured to use items with which you don’t feel comfortable. Web-based software, often called “cloud-based” software, is the future, so consider giving it a try.
One area where technology has really benefitted the self-storage industry is security. Digital video recorders have replaced VCRs, and cameras now have amazing resolution and recording capability. Gate systems are completely automatic and speak with your management-software program with relative ease. You can even watch the footage from your security cameras on your Web-connected computer or smartphone.
The great thing about emerging technology is it’s driving down the cost of security. A decade ago, putting up a few cameras was an expensive proposition. Now you can install cameras in every single unit. Imagine being able to give your customers a unique Web address where they can log in and view their items over the Internet in real time. Think of the universal selling proposition it would give managers when they’re closing a sale. These are game-changing types of technology that everyone can take advantage of right now.
If there's one place technology has changed forever it’s marketing. If you're using a marketing approach or strategy that's giving you a solid return on investment, no matter what it is, you should continue using it. Numbers speak for themselves, and in marketing, they're everything. A favorite saying from one self-storage owner I know is, “In God we trust; everyone else must bring numbers.” Self-storage facilities are in business to increase revenue, so track everything.
In today’s society, a website is required, including one that displays well on a mobile device. There are plenty of people in our industry who can help you with website design and search engine optimization if you need it.
It's also time to learn and use social media. Start with Facebook, then work your way from there.
Video is also a great tool. You can use it to capture customer testimonials or even to create “welcome” and “thank you” messages for renters. These recordings can be easily uploaded to YouTube and linked to your facility website. There are few marketing approaches that are more convincing than video of current customers telling everyone how much they love your business.
There are so many ways technology is changing our lives, it’s hard to cover them all in a single article. The best thing to do is experiment. Find your problem areas and research the solutions. It might be a device or a piece of software that solves your issue. Also ask other self-storage operators what they’re using at their facilities. Don’t be shy—if you have a question just ask someone. The most important thing is having the confidence to try something new.
Matthew Van Horn is vice president of Cutting Edge Self-Storage Management, a full-service management company specializing in management, feasibility studies, consulting and joint ventures within the self-storage industry. He’s also president of 3 Mile Domination, a full-service self-storage marketing and strategy firm. For more information, visit www.3miledomination.com, where you can download the company’s free e-book.