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May 1, 2004

7 Min Read
Linking It All Together

Gone are the days when building a selfstorage facility meant little more than finding a piece of dirt, throwing up a building and chain-link fence, and putting your sign out front. New facilities call for management software, gate software, keypads, alarm systems, surveillance cameras, call centers, Internet reservations, self-service kiosks and other technologies.

Many of these technologies were developed to provide additional security and make tenants feel better about renting from you. The newest products, such as self-service kiosks and Internet-reservation systems, are aimed at reducing the largest adjustable expense of the storage businesspayroll.

While change is good, its not always easy. Sometimes it feels like you need an advanced degree in technology to make everything work together. My goal with this article is to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel and the benefits you can reap by linking various technologies together.

The First Links

Lets start with an easy connection youve probably already implementedyour management software and gate system. Most management software now comes with builtin gate/security interfaces that automatically share information between the two systems. By linking a keypad outside your facility with your software, you can record tenant visits and lock out delinquent renters.

So far, its not rocket science, but you can see how linking just two technologies can be of benefit. Lets add security cameras. Alone, they help prevent vandalism and discourage theft. But with an integrated pinhole camera in your gate keypad, you now have a picture of each visitor as he arrives. Connect a second camera to scan license plates and you know the vehicle he is driving. Suddenly, you have a lot more information to give police in the event of wrongdoing.

Lets keep going. Recent developments in door alarms let you know when unit doors are opened and closed. If we hook our door-alarm system to our management software, gate system and security cameras, its now possible to know what time John Smith entered the facility, when he opened his unit, when he closed it, and if he attempted to open any other units before driving out in his late-model Ford with license-plate number XYZ123.

The Next Tie

With our facility secure, lets take a look at how linking technologies can help us better serve customers and make more money. Put yourself in your customers shoes. What are the three ways prospective tenants interact with your facility? They stop by in person, call you on the phone or view your facility on the Internet.

Until recently, they tended to do this during daylight hours when your manager was around. But then banks started using ATMs, grocery stores started staying open 24 hours, and even Wal-Mart started selling over the Internet. Pretty soon, people expected to be able to rent storage units at their conveniencethe nerve! Dont they know it costs money to have someone working 24 hours a day?

With payroll expenses already averaging 39 percent of overall operating expenses, storage facilities have turned to technology. Call centers answer potentially missed rental inquiries, websites assist with online reservations, and self-service kiosks help walk-ups when a manager isnt around. Lets look at each technology a little closer and see what happens if we do some integration work.

Call Centers

So the phone rings, and your manager doesnt answer; but your call center cheerfully takes the call. With a live prospect on the phone, how does your call center know what inventory you have available? And if it makes a reservation for you, how will you know about it? Well, you could fax or e-mail your price list before your manager leaves each night, and likewise receive a fax or e-mail about any rentals in the morning. But this seems labor-intensive and prone to error.

What if we link the software your call center uses with your management software? This would mean reservations are placed directly into your database, and your manager doesnt have to spend the first part of each day doing data input. Sound better? Sure, but its only half the answer. The customer still has to come into the office to sign the rental agreement and show identification. Stay tuned while we look at some other technologies.

Internet Reservations

More and more people are using the Internet to do their shopping, whether at work during the day or at home in the evening. Whatever the case, wouldnt it be nice to connect with these potential customers? So you build a website (if you havent already) and create a rental form for customers to fill out if they want to rent a unit online.

Now when a customer goes to your website, he completes the form, perhaps even plugs in his credit-card information, and bingo! He gets an order number. Yes, I said order number, not unit number. How come? Because your website isnt linked to your management software, so it cant display current inventory. And if you have taken the time to link the two, you still need the customer to come into the office so you can record his identification information and hand him a rental agreement. Consequently, your manager has to call the customer, hopefully talk to him instead of playing phone tag, and set an appointment time that works. This doesnt sound very convenient for either party.

Self-Service Kiosks

A prospective customer visits your facility, but your manager isnt there to greet him. Perhaps he called in sick, or hes on the property with another customer or cleaning out a unit. Perhaps its the evening or a holiday. Recent kiosk advances are allowing storage facilities to worry less about these problems. Just like an ATM, self-service kiosks wait patiently in the wall outside your facility and help customers rent units, make payments and perform many other activities on their own.

This sounds too good to be true! Thats because it is. Unless your kiosk has a realtime interface to your management software, it cant know current unit availability without some convoluted, manual data entry. Luckily, kiosk vendors are now working closely with management-software companies to integrate their technologies. A quick call to your software vendor can tell you which kiosks will work in your environment.

The Integrated Approach

Because call centers, management software, access-control systems, Internet reservations and kiosks all have some limitations when used independently, lets see what happens when we link them together. The results may surprise you. If done properly, your facility can be operated more profitably, perhaps even without a full-time, on-site manager.

With everything linked, when your call center answers the phone, it can see from your management software that you have five units available, take the reservation, and give the caller a confirmation number. The customer then proceeds to your facility at his convenience. Once there, he can complete the rental process with your manager or on his own at your kiosk, where he simply enters his confirmation code.

The kiosk finds his reservation in your management software, takes his photo and fingerprint, updates your software, and requires him to swipe his credit card. The customer confirms he has read the lease agreement and is even able to purchase a lock from the vending dispenser. The transaction ends with the kiosk printing a rental contract, facility map, and appropriate gateaccess code from your management software, which is tied to your gate interface.

Using the integrated approach, Internet reservations work in a similar fashion. When a customer visits your website, he can see your real-time inventory. When he makes his reservation, it goes directly into your management software, and he receives a confirmation number that can be used by your manager or kiosk to complete the rental process.

Finally, if a brand-new prospect walks in off the street and your manager isnt available, he can use your self-service kiosk to complete the entire rental process on his own. The kiosk captures all of his information, stores it in your management software, and prints out the appropriate paperwork and gate code.

There is light at the end of the technology tunnel. Using an integrated approach can reduce facility costs while improving customer convenience and sales. The challenge I present to all self-storage vendors is to invest time and resources in making their products work together seamlessly and in real time. By linking technologies, we can make storage facilities convenient to use and more profitable.

Curtis Sojka is vice president of marketing for OpenTech Alliance Inc. Through its Alliance Partner Program, the company promotes cooperation between industry vendors to develop and support interoperable solutions. OpenTechs patented, full-service kiosk, INSOMNIACTM, significantly reduces facility management costs, improves customer service and helps increase revenues. For more information, call 480.235.4528; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.opentechalliance.com.

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