Automation concept

10 Federal Finds Success With Self-Storage Automation: A Case Study of Unmanned Operation

The owner of 10 Federal Storage discusses the role of technology in his company’s successful operation of 15 unmanned facilities. Learn how they do it and challenges they’ve faced when implementing new tools.

At 10 Federal, our focus is on operating unmanned, autonomous self-storage facilities. Over the past four years, we’ve tried numerous technologies and methods to refine the process, and I’m pleased to report the model is succeeding. Properties that have been on our platform for a minimum of six months have increased net operating income an average of 18 percent. With our debt leverage, this equates to a 52 percent increase in the value of equity invested!

What’s important to recognize is technology is replacing labor. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in—there are more machines, computers and robots than ever performing work that used to be done by people, and productivity is increasing tremendously through technology use. For example, we have one property manager who oversees all 15 of our locations. That’s pretty efficient!

Our goal is to find the maximum point on the curve where one axis is customer satisfaction and the other is cost. Effectively, we’re looking for the best tenant experience at the lowest rate. We’ll look at any technology that can improve convergence. However, the tools we employ can be used by any self-storage operator. Pick one or all. Any will increase the efficiency of your operation and save you time, money or both.

Before I dive into the details of the technology we use, I want to emphasize that the following is not a definitive list. Our industry is full of great vendors who are constantly refining and improving their products. This is simply what we’re using for our current model. I’ll distill items into three categories: sales, operation and monitoring. I’ll also shared challenges we faced to implement new technology and the effect it’s had on our customers.

Sales

Our sales revolve around a leasing-enabled website and kiosk as well as a call center. A leasing-enabled website allows a prospective renter to create an account, select a unit, enter payment information, create a gate code, electronically sign the lease and move into the unit all on his own. Twenty-four percent of our tenants rent through our website without ever talking to us. Not only is this optimal efficiency, it gives us a big advantage. We can lease 24 hours a day, whereas our competition can only rent during business hours. We average three to five leases per facility per month through after-hours leasing.

A leasing-enabled kiosk performs all the same functions as the website. Though only 6 percent of our leases originate through this tool, I still recommend having one. The use is enough to justify the investment, and the kiosk doubles as a pay station and information terminal for customers. Further, it establishes an “office” where renters begin their onsite journey.

Another critical item you need if you’re operating an unmanned facility is a model unit, since after price, the next most common question from customers is, “What size unit do I need?” We either convert an existing office or buy a 10-by-20 portable-storage unit to use as the model. We mark the smaller unit sizes on the floor using colored tape. Placing this near the kiosk allows customers to visualize the space they’ll need.

The call center is the final and most critical sales channel. Seventy percent of our leases originate here. Units are rented over the phone, or the customer can complete the lease at the kiosk or website. You can’t escape having a call center if you go unmanned. We established our own, as unmanned sites were pretty specialized when we started. Now, there are many great call-center options.

None of the above is relevant, however, if the customer doesn’t know about your store, so it’s critical to have an online presence. Start with getting a Google My Business Listing, then supplement with Google AdWords. I love this advertising channel because you can turn it on and off as needed.

Kiosk at 10 Federal Self Storage

Operation

For payments, we only accept electronic—no cash or checks. We lose 10 percent of customers when we acquire a facility and enforce this requirement, but we recover that loss quickly and the system is very efficient.

Next is the overlock challenge, specifically how to release an overlocked renter if there’s no manager onsite. We use a lock system we developed ourselves, but there are other automated lock options in the industry. Even if your facility is staffed, an overlock system will help with efficiency, as the manager won’t have to spend time removing overlocks, and locks can be removed even after hours. It’s a better customer experience.

Our auctions are all online. It’s rare that we don’t sell a unit, and we’re relieved of having to haul off junk, as that burden falls to the auction winner.

We do employ part-time maintenance techs who invest an average of 10 to 20 hours per facility per month. That’s still far better than 160 hours per month for a full-time manager. A maintenance tech mows, blows, cleans, overlocks units, takes auction photos and handles other routine tasks. We’re experimenting with 360-degree cameras and virtual-reality headsets that will allow our maintenance director to be “present” with the tech to do things such as walk-throughs or troubleshooting a gate.

Retail display at 10 Federal Self Storage

Monitoring

We rely heavily on our camera system and are experimenting with analytics cameras. A legacy system records what has occurred on site, but an analytics system can be trained to recognize if a door or vehicle gate is stuck open. Plus, the cameras can see thermally, so they can recognize if a climate-controlled building’s temperature is outside of its target range or there’s water on the floor, indicating a leak. Our goal this year is to make the analytics cameras our central nervous system to monitor all aspects of the facility and actively notify us of exceptions.

Challenges

We have experienced some challenges when introducing technology at our properties, and they can be divided into two categories. The first we’ve defined as “the incident of failure rate” and the second is simplicity.

With unmanned operations, we have no one on site to deal with things that fail or break; hence, our goal is to get the frequency of something not working as close to zero as possible. There are a lot of amazing whiz-bang technologies out there, but if they’re not extremely reliable, they aren’t a good fit for unmanned sites.

Also, when you’re unmanned, there’s no one on site to explain how anything works. Every process must be as simple as possible so anyone without prior self-storage experience can jump right in and execute.

We work hard to get tenants onboard with our technology. When we acquire a facility and implement new tools, we lose 10 percent of the rent roll, on average. That may sound bad, but that same technology allows us to quickly recover those lost tenants. And, by the way, those are our “least efficient” customers—the ones who insist on paying by cash or check—so we’re not exactly sad to see them go.

Most tenants are remarkably comfortable with our technology, as we try to keep it in the vein of interfaces they’re already used to, such as a website, kiosk or combination lock. It’s all familiar to them thanks to online shopping, Redbox and ATMs.

Whether you’re thinking of going unmanned or just looking to find new efficiencies, I encourage you to attend industry tradeshows and see the technologies firsthand. Consider things that are easy to implement, such as connecting your gate to your website and management software. Chances are, everything is already in place, you just need your software provider to flip that switch. Then you can rent units 24 /7! This is just one way you can better serve customers and lower your operating costs.

Brad Minsley is a co-founder of 10 Federal Storage LLC, responsible for operations including new-technology development, acquisitions, management functions and finance. 10 Federal operates 17 unmanned facilities in the Carolinas and Virginia. For more information, visit www.10federalstorage.com.

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