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Joining the Automation Nation: Evolving Toward Remote Self-Storage Management

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The challenges of 2020 forced many self-storage operators to add technological elements to their business. The natural next step is to embrace full automation. Learn factors to consider with a remote-management model, which is very different from running an “unattended” site.

Last year was unprecedented for many self-storage businesses. COVID-19 forced operators of all sizes to implement new procedures to ensure employee and customer safety. Many leaned on technology to adhere to local requirements and stay open, including tools that allowed for remote management.

It’ll be interesting to see if operators go back to “business as usual” once they’re able, or if they’ll continue to seek ways to centralize. We do know that interest in a virtual- or remote- management model has increased. From move-in and payment processes to facility access and more, automation tools and enhancements are reshaping the way the storage industry functions. Let’s explore how you can leverage them to take a more hands-off approach.

Virtual vs. Unattended

First, let’s clarify what we mean by virtual management. It’s a relatively new concept to the self-storage industry. Though it’s sometimes confused with “unattended” facility operation, it’s actually quite different.

In an unattended model, there’s no onsite staff. Signage instructs visitors to call a phone number for service. The operation may employ a call center, but the owner or maintenance person is often the de factor call destination. There might also be a self-serve kiosk, but little additional technology to automate the rental process. Levels of security vary, but there’s often very low investment in tech tools. The overlock process is managed through physical locks that have to be put in place and later drilled or removed manually.

In a virtual-management model, there’s still no onsite staff, but there’s a centralized customer-service hub that can be reached several ways. A manager greets each customer remotely via camera and can help with any phase of the rental process. Customers can rent via the website, onsite automated rental center or their phone. To help them choose the right space, the facility displays sample units of several sizes and offers a size-guide video. There’s robust entry and unit security, and access is automated via text message, allowing tenants to move in using a smartphone app. Overlocks are managed via an electronic locking system.

In some cases, virtual-management operations have deployed a “hub and spoke” model, in which a manager will work onsite at one facility while remotely managing one to 10 additional properties nearby. This has been particularly effective for operators who own multiple locations in the same market.

Unit Rentals

There are lots of ways technology streamlines self-storage rentals, which can now be complete via a website, mobile app or an onsite rental center. In fact, automating the rental and move-in process is one of the most important factors in making virtual management a success. By offering the following, you can often capture a rental before the customer ever arrives at your property:

  • A robust, customer-friendly, mobile-responsive website with online rental capabilities and click-to-live chat or click-to-call options for customer service
  • An onsite rental center with a kiosk or touchscreen, plus two-way audio or video options, so customers can ask questions or get help
  • Online and onsite unit-size guides and videos, plus display units
  • Electronic leases

However a unit is rented, it’s critical to automate the move-in process. Smart entry and other unit technology allows you to provide seamless, secure access without having to deal with physical locks and overlocks.

The customer should receive an automated text message upon rental that includes a link to your branded mobile app and a one-time activation code. Once he downloads the app, enters the code and creates a password, he’ll be ready to access the facility and his unit directly from his device within minutes. Mobile apps should also allow tenants to share or revoke a digital key with family members, movers or employees, as well as view unit-access activity.

Customer Service

Of course, customer service is a primary consideration in a virtual-management model. You’ll need technology to help you deliver a high level of service without having a physical onsite presence. Here are some tools that help:

  • Live video chat
  • Live text chatting and click-to-call customer-service numbers
  • Call-in customer-service numbers
  • In-app push to call/text

Security

Another extremely important aspect to remote management is security. Renting from a facility without onsite staff can be unnerving for tenants. To provide them with a sense of safety, it’s critical to emphasize your security and monitoring features, such as:

  • App-based gate operation that allows convenient, contact-free entry
  • Bluetooth-enabled smart locks that increase unit security while automating access and overlocking
  • In-unit, thermal motion sensors that deter theft and vandalism
  • Two-way audio/video cameras and displays that facilitate communication

These not only allow a centralized customer-service team to view camera feeds and receive notification alerts for any issues, they provide everyone with peace of mind.

Facility Requirements

Of course, if you’re going to operate on a virtual management model that leverages automation, you’re going to need the right infrastructure. To begin, you’ll need enough Internet bandwidth to optimally run two-way video and Internet-protocol cameras. You’ll also need a secure Wi-Fi network for customer use, and cellular-signal boosters and phone-charging stations installed around your site. Though they aren’t always necessary, these offerings improve the tenant experience and may be perks your competition likely doesn’t provide.

Also, don’t neglect facility signage. In a virtual management model, it’s critical. For example, you need signs at gates and other entry points with instructions on how to get help if necessary. You need signs in the greeting area with your Web address or a QR code for customers who wish to rent via their mobile device. You’ll want signage to communicate your rental instructions, answer frequently asked questions, share your Wi-Fi password and more. Don’t forget signage to explain the features of your display units.

The New Standard

During the coronavirus pandemic, businesses have had to pivot to offer customers greater convenience and safety. The silver lining for self-storage is most new operational tools will have staying power long after the crisis has passed. Providing a seamless, contact- and hassle-free rental experience will very well become the industry standard. For sites that rely on automation, doing everything you can to simplify the rental process, tenant communication and site security will resonate with customers.

Christine DeBord is vice president of smart entry and facility automation at Janus International, a global supplier of doors, hallways and new technology for the self-storage industry. She’s been working in self-storage access-control and new technology since 2015. To reach her, call 866.654.1287; email [email protected].

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