As we move through 2012, a great feeling is moving through the self-storage industry. Racked in recent years by the financial crisis and increased supply, self-storage has come back extremely strong. Capital markets are starting to work again. Facility occupancies are higher, and net income has been solid. Self-storage has continually been ranked one of the best commercial investments available. Inc. magazine placed it among the best startup businesses in 2010.
Now that the industry's day-to-day operations have begun to stabilize, its time to take a look at the processes used to run the business. Are you using the best techniques to reach customers? Are you using modern methods of accounting? Do you have remote access to your operation? Can you find your facilities online? Lets review five technology-related initiatives you can implement now at a reasonable cost to improve your self-storage operation.
1. Your Facility Website
The future of self-storage marketing is on the Internet, and facility operators must be prepared. In 2010, for the first time ever, more advertising dollars were spent online than on print and newspaper advertising. In addition, adults now spend an average of 18 hours per week on the Internet. These two facts alone show where the trend is heading.
Creating a solid website with features customers want should be at the top of your list. Your self-storage facility must be found online. A website will cost some money to develop, but it will be well worth the expense.
2. Cloud-Based Software
There are technological developments that revolutionize the way we do business. In the 80s, it was personal computers and cellular phones. In the 90s, it was the perfection of personal-computing software and the birth of the smartphone with the first Blackberry. This decade will be remembered for the implementation of cloud-based software. This is simply applications and services offered via the Internet from data centers all over the world.
One example of cloud-based software is QuickBooks online. This tool enables you to review the accounting information for any self-storage facility at any time as long as you have an Internet connection. It can be done from a desktop computer, laptop, smartphone or tablet. Another excellent cloud-based program is Evernote. This is a note-taking program similar to Microsoft One Note. Evernote can be accessed from a computer, smartphone or tablet. Its like having a dynamic legal pad at your fingertips.
Consider finding a self-storage management software you can access online. Its nice to be able to access all your operational data while on vacation or a business trip.
3. Social Media
We hear a lot about this marketing tool, especially since Facebook decided to go public. The nice thing about social media is its mostly free. All thats needed is an Internet-connected device and a little time. The primary platforms are Facebook, Twitter, Google+, YouTube and LinkedIn.
The question is, how do self-storage operators get prospects and customers from this medium? Theres no direct answer. Ive not found one social-media strategy that has brought in a steady stream of potential customers to the self-storage facilities I manage.
However, social media allows you to keep in regular contact with your customers and prospects. Operators once had to rely on tenant events or direct mail for this. Now the possibilities are endless. You can post an interesting article, video, community event or organize a contest. Your existing social-media followers are most likely your current customers. Consider using this medium to interact with them, and theyll likely send referrals your way. Remember, people store their belongings where they feel comfortable. The more they interact with your facility the better.
An interesting social-media platform that recently launched is Pinterest, which allows a user to upload pictures or pin pictures from the Internet to an online bulletin board. Can this be used effectively in self-storage? Its too early to tell, but if you have some spare time, its worth a look.
4. Revenue Management
If your facility is 100 percent occupied and youre not raising rates, you're losing money. Technology is not only great for marketing or using social media, its phenomenally adept at helping operators make more revenue and track expenses. Consider using self-storage management software that allows you to program automatic rent increases.
Using this automated feature allows rent increases to be sent out automatically, without having to decide how much the increase should be for each customer or which customers get the increase. Do it across the board on at least an annual basis, and then work with individual customers if theres an issue. Expenses such as utilities, property taxes and property insurance increase on an annual basis, so must your revenue.
5. Technological Hardware
If you walk into your local Best Buy or office-supply store, you can be overwhelmed with the technological options available. As much fun as it may be to purchase the newest tablet or leading smartphone, you have to decide what you really need. Every self-storage facility should have a computer (laptop or desktop), a high-speed Internet connection, and a printer/scanner. These are just day-to-day tools you need in a modern office. I would also consider a digital camera or small video-recording device to document situations that can arise at a self-storage facility. Once you have these items, what else do you need?
If youre an owner, investor or operator of multiple stores, youll most likely need at least a laptop, Internet-connection device, a recently released smartphone, and some cloud-based software/applications. These items will help you conduct business remotely.
Does the onsite manager need a smartphone or tablet? Probably not, unless he has other duties that require such a device. Does it look neat for a manager to show a tenant to a unit using a tablet? Well, yes, I would be impressed. Is it cost-effective? Probably not. A decent tablet will be north of $350 or more if you include an annual data plan from a mobile-phone company. A clipboard costs $1. As much as technology can help us, it has to make sense and be cost-effective, too.
We live in interesting times. There are so many technological ideas being developed, its hard to keep up. I follow 31 technology blogs just to stay informed on a daily basis. The best way to learn technology is to test it, play with it and, most of all, dont be afraid of it. Some day computers will be a thing of the past and something else will take over. For now, you need to review your self-storage technology at least annually. As former IBM executive Andrew Heller once said, Technology is like fish. The longer it stays on the shelf, the less desirable it becomes.
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. Van Horn is well-known for finding hidden profit centers in self-storage operations. For a complimentary copy of Hidden Profit Discovery Session, send an e-mail to [email protected] . For more information, call 866.970.EDGE or visit www.cuttingedgeselfstorage.com . Follow the company on Twitter at Cuttingedgemgt, and on Facebook at Cutting Edge Self-Storage Management.