By Michael Sawyer
Self-storage properties big and small deal with similar challenges. Whether flying high or downsizing, facility managers continue to take on added operational workloads while serving tenants and fielding an unpredictable number of phone calls. An examination of two unique self-storage operations reveals some behind-the-scenes insight on why operators decide to partner with call-center services.
Headquartered in Oakland, Calif., SKS Management LLC operates 23 self-storage facilities throughout the state of California. In 2009, the company began exploring the advantages of using a call-center service, with a dual strategy to create a seamless customer-service channel and increase occupancy.
A step-by-step blueprint was drawn to shape a call center that would operate in a service and rollover-sales capacity. The goals included freeing managers to serve clients at the counter, fielding sales calls and developing business in the local marketplace. Rewards were immediate and, in 2012, modifications were made to perfect the model.
Prior to activating a call-center service, SKS studied its daily challenges and successes to build a better sales and service plan. Results show the mission went according to plan. SKS continues to increase revenue and grow an exemplary culture of customer service in todays tough economy.
Unannounced, calls come sporadically when managers are serving clients at the counter, on another call or away from the desk. Additional calls come during evening hours or when managers are offsite and not in position to view unit inventory and pricing. These predicaments lead managers to question guiding principles and industry standards of customer service. Should a manager:
- Answer the phone or serve the person at the counter?
- Develop new business in the community or wait onsite for rentals?
- When away from the office, pick up the phone and schedule call backs or let calls roll to voicemail?
- Carry out maintenance during business hours or schedule manual tasks after hours?
While there are many opinions on how to manage these dilemmas, the best answer may be the question: Why put yourself into those positions?
Hang Up at the Beep!
Many facility managers are tied to dated solutions, light years away from more efficient ways of competing in todays market. When used incorrectly, answering machines can aggravate consumers and create lost rentals. Traditional answering services can also transfer a negative impression when the person fielding a call can only take a message.
Leading U.S. telecom providers have released dreadful statistics regarding the effectiveness of voicemail systems. Studies reveal 50 percent to 82 percent of callers dont leave messages when they reach answering devices. Are these callers voicemail-phobic or simply moving on to the next facility?
When a person chooses to call, theyre expecting a human touch, says Natolie Ochi, vice president of SKS. In our industry, its necessary calls be answered immediately by a live person, positioned to help. Otherwise, we delay our tenants or lose rentals while potential occupants go to the self-storage company on the next webpage.
According to industry sources, the average value of one self-storage rental ranges between $700 and $1,100. Considering the loss of one missed rental per month, week or even day, many operators are no longer gambling with the hang-ups.
As facilities turn toward customer call centers to assist their managers in renting units, processing payments and serving customers, a new motivation is causing the movement. Improved results are coming from vendors who specialize in self-storage commerce. Facility owners spend sizably to get phones to ring, and while each and every phone call is considered sacred, property owners are no longer putting their managers into predicaments when fielding calls.
With much at stake and little reason to gamble, many operators have found it unreasonable to expect call consistency when managers are constantly multi-tasking. When the tenant and or future tenants are always getting real-time resolution of their need, new occupancy and a positive impression is most always developed, Ochi says.
Helping Independent Owners Breathe and Grow
A call center for independent self-storage operators can improve sales and showcase a more impressive corporate image. Remote support will allow you to manage your facility better and grow your business, or simply provide you with some break time while a remote team serves as your full-time, peak-time or after-hours assistant.
From the perfect greeting down to the last detail, call-center agents can be positioned to cover customer conversations with every feature you would like, when many times you cant. The answering machine can only record a message that gets returned 10 hours later. Clients and future tenants always appreciate reaching a helpful, live person rather than an answering device, says Thomas Drake, owner of Secure Storage of Lockport, a 400-unit facility in the Illinois suburb south of Chicago.
Drake's facility has designed a call center to work in a multi-purpose capacity. All calls are routed to the facility during the day and to the call center after hours. Still, daytime calls are scheduled to roll back to the call center following a fourth ring. The luxury prevents me from interrupting the most important person, the customer in front of me! A customized call center allows me to compete with the big guys, Drake says.
Affordability, State-of-the-Art Technology and Specialized Labor
For less than $1 per hour, a specialized call center will complete rentals, reservations and credit card payments, and save operators money. Today, affordable technology allows remote, self-storage assistants to work better, faster and cheaper, while offering immediate customer care.
Self-storage operators are choosing call centers because of the vast amount of technology these vendors possess. Because equipment and technology upgrades are so pricy, many operators will find that call-center contracting offers a better fit financially, Ochi says.
Since 2009, SKS has continued to grow an empire of facilities and managed properties. Still, Ochi considers SKS a boutique operation, perhaps a philosophy attributed to its success. By design, the individualized attention every caller and onsite visitor receives gives the company a unique competitive advantage.
As planned, the call center has allowed managers to focus on clients at the counter, develop new business and deal with more significant operational tasks. Upon launching the service, SKS began to receive a steady average of 500-plus account payments monthly via the call center. The latest modification included an interactive voice-response installation, a phone tool that routes payments and general inquiries to the call center and automatically sends sales opportunities to the managers. Today, SKS move-ins continue to rise while the call center processes more than 1,200 account payments monthly, provides numerous first-touch resolutions and closes a few after-hour rentals to boota plan well executed!
Secure Self-Storage employed its call center with a goal of providing each client with individualized attention, onsite and by phone. Drake, also a full-time CPA, now has more free time to focus on sales and operational duties while the call center covers the phones to make reservations, collect money and assist with general questions day and night. This small-business owner has also pulled off a perfect plan to focus on new-tenant rentals, save labor costs, lift the corporate image and showcase an impressive tradition of customer care.
Modern-Day Call Centers
Leading call-center models have been specialized with software applications designed specifically for the self-storage industry to perform as a remote sales and service assistant. Todays technology positions agents with real-time unit inventory, pricing and facility information, allowing them to process real-time rentals, reservations and payments into the property-management system at each facility on the network.
It is a big decision to let a third party get between you and your customers, says Robert A. Chiti, president and CEO at OpenTech Alliance Inc., a Phoenix-based company that operates a call center and offers self-storage kiosks. While facility managers are always the best bet in servicing tenants or sealing the deal on rental calls, theres still a big need for backup. Custom call centers have been proven to make a significant impact on the financial performance of each and every self-storage operation.
Michael Sawyer is the director of marketing for OpenTech Alliance. The Phoenix-based company is a developer of self-service solutions for the self-storage industry, including self-service kiosks, Web and mobile rentals, and a self-storage call center. The company also offers a host of self-storage cloud services. For more information, call 602.749.9370; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.opentechalliance.com.