Balancing High-Tech and High-Touch in the Self-Storage Industry

Automation in the self-storage industry is on the rise, but facility operators still need to offer customers touch points. Here are some simple ways they can strike a balance between high-tech and high-touch.

By Mark Lusky

Let's face it: Automation is increasing. From highly sophisticated robots to self-storage rental kiosks, the stock of nonhuman capital is rising. According to a blog by self-storage marketplace SpareFoot:

"In 2012, 9 percent of self-storage facilities in the U.S. were using kiosks, according to the 2013 Self-Storage Almanac. That was up from 1.4 percent in 2011. The kiosks serve as a right hand to on-site employeescovering busy times during business hours and automating operations for walk-in customers after hours. Depending on the model, the kiosks can rent units and collect payments in the form of cash or checks; dispense locks; solicit insurance; and confirm identification. Many are bilingual and paperless, and offer two-way video consultations with a call center. What's not to like?"

It's this last point about two-way video communications that addresses the importance of high-touch coupled with high-tech. The blog says as much, "While it's true that a facility could become fully automated with a kiosk, it's not always the best option when trying to meet customers' varied needs. However, some scale back use of kiosks to three days a week, for example, to continue to offer face-to-face interaction with customers."

Michael Sawyer, the marketing director for OpenTech Alliance, a self-storage kiosk manufacturer, notes that views on this issue vary depending on experience:

"To many operators, processing a new tenant lease through an onsite kiosk, remote call center or website software has seemed pointless; based on the thought that self-storage rentals happen live, face-to-face at the counter during office hours when tenants arrive with boxes looking for a place to store them. Many other independent owners or managers see things differently, and believe the counter is not the only consumer touch point. These owners choose to deploy a number of different sales and service channels that work hand in hand with interaction, promoting self-storage business face-to-face, over the phones and on the Internet."

Competitive pressures are driving self-storage operators to carefully consider the mix of automation and human staffing. "Covering all the bases has become the new focal point as facility owners try to stay ahead of their competition and better position themselves for future sales and service opportunities, Sawyer points out. Still, many tenants and future tenants will choose to interact onsite face-to-face with the passionate people representing our industry. Omitting that consumer option could be devastating, like leaving home plate uncovered."

Self-service kiosks that round out ability to offer 24/7 touch points are critical to another cadre of consumers who may prioritize convenience over personal contact. "Through the use of kiosks, call centers and website-rental applications, storage owners are increasing the size of their market radius because there is little competition from neighboring properties, Sawyer says.

Strike a Balance

How do you go higher tech and keep high touch in the equation? Here are three primary ways self-storage operators can strike the right balance.

1. Give the gift of a smiley face. Touch points don't have to be verbal. Even if you make your operation 100 percent kiosk-driven, think about ways to put smiles on the faces of those using the kiosk.

Here's a fun and relatively inexpensive one: Buy a bunch of smiley-face helium balloons at a dollar store. Make them available to those stopping by with a short note such as, "Have a great day. From _______" or, "Smile ... You're NOT on candid camera." In addition, consider tying them to the front door handles of nearby residents with a short friendship note. (I do this periodically with my immediate neighbors. Boy, does it put smiles on their faces!)

2. Ensure consumers know they can go face-to-face. Consumers initially accessing the facility via self-service kiosks need to know how and when they can deal with someone face-to-face, if thats their preference. This gives the consumer a full set of customer-experience options, and ensures hell feel in control of the process vs. being pigeonholed into a specific customer-service system.

3. Promote the call center in conjunction with kiosks. Even the most tech-savvy consumers generally appreciate the omnipresent option of conversation if confused, want to clarify or need information beyond whats provided through the kiosk system. This is an ongoing hotbed of discussion across the country. For example, Verizon Wireless emphasizes availability of its website to address consumer questions and concerns. At the same time, it has beefed up its call center with generally fast response times and ubiquitous "how did we do?" follow-up surveys.

Clearly, major companies see the value of a robust presence in both the high-tech and high-touch arenas. Self-storage is no different.

Mark Lusky writes for on topics of interest to self-storage owners and operators. Coverage areas include marketing, operations, administration, finance and technology. Contact him at [email protected] .

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