Building and maintaining a Web presence is key to self-storage business success, and your facility website is a crucial component. When developing it, in addition to thinking about things like search engine optimization and user experience, think of it as creating a customer conversion machine.
Before you start building, you need to know the kind of website you want, what you expect it to do and how, and who’s going to do the work. Let’s look at what you should strive to get out of your website, pitfalls to avoid, and some technology that can help you create a successful, prospect-to-renter converter rather than a “flop.”
Planning Your Machine
When attempting to create a better functioning self-storage website, you ultimately want it to bring in leads and output rentals—hence, conversion machine. The first step is to decide all the things you want it to do. Can it allow customers to make reservations? Make payments? Should it e-mail those who make a reservation? These are all important questions, and the answers will impact almost every part of the build.
Once you’ve determined what the machine is going to do, the next step is to focus on exactly how it will do it. This is dependent on outside factors, such as your facility-management software, as well as internal factors like your technology stack and architecture.
When investigating potential software-as-a-service (SaaS) vendors for a management software that will successfully integrate with your website, be specific about your requirements. Instead of asking, “Can your system handle rentals via your application program interface (API)?,” the better question is, “Will we be able to rent a unit using various payment methods and attaching different metadata via your API?” What’s the difference? The first question will often lead to a Web-development project being six months overdue vs. completing on schedule.
A decade ago, APIs were discussed only by software engineers and project managers. Now, they’re everywhere, seemingly doing everything. Want to accept credit card payments? There’s an API for that. Want to scan a barcode on the back of a driver’s license and extract the information? There’s one for that, too. In fact, Apple’s 2009 iPhone 3G slogan “There’s an App for That” could easily be “There’s an API for That!”
So, just what the heck is an API? In simple terms, it’s a tool that allows you to interact with something. Sometimes, that interaction will be calculating metrics based on information you supply, while other times, it could be storing or retrieving information from a database.
The functional requirements you determined for your website in the previous section are essential for being able to integrate with any API. After they’re understood, the next step is to read the API’s documentation and determine the steps necessary to perform the various actions. This’ll be different for every vendor and can often take weeks, depending on the complexity.
Once the API specifics are known, it’s wise to build a proof-of-concept (PoC) site that demonstrates the functionality in action. A PoC can be instrumental in the early discovery of problems that could completely change the final website. It’ll also often identify the data your “machine” will need to store and transmit.
Of course, storing and transmitting information brings another concern to the table: data security. Given the number of breaches that seem to occur across myriad industries every month, consumer awareness regarding private information is at an all-time high—and should be. Data security is incredibly important, to your customers and your operation as a whole.
The first step in addressing security is to have an adequate policy in place. Anyone with access to sensitive customer information should be informed of his responsibility to keep it private. The number of individuals with access should also be strictly controlled. Data leaks aren’t always the fault of outside actors.
Next, you’ll need to adhere to all relevant standards, such as PCI-DSS (Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard) for credit card processing. These specifications exist to help protect businesses from common pitfalls that can easily lead to a leak or breach.
Your website developers should be very familiar with the Open Web Application Security Project (OWASP) Top 10. The list identifies the 10 most common Web-application security vulnerabilities and ways to fix them. OWASP provides several free resources and tools to assist in testing your website for these (and many more) vulnerabilities.
Managing the Team
The functionality of your conversion machine must be well-planned and completely understood by the people responsible for building it. While a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, a Web-development team is only as strong as its weakest process. For most teams, vulnerabilities are revealed during the requirements-gathering stage. An adage fits very well here: “Every hour skipped in planning is paid for by 10 hours in production.”
Once your website requirements are understood and the vendor APIs have been tested, it’s time to break your requirements into small chunks so they can be tackled more easily by an individual developer. This process is key to any kind of problem-solving and happens to fit nicely alongside many different project-management methodologies.
The most prevalent methodology I’ve experienced in the software industry is Agile Scrum. A full explanation is beyond the scope of this article, but suffice it to say it’s a process you should be familiar with before beginning any type of software-development project. If Agile Scrum doesn’t fit within your company or project-design philosophy, that’s fine. The important part is to use some kind of project management, aside from sticky notes stuck to the bottom of a computer monitor.
Avoiding a Flop
Unfortunately, there are no set steps to guarantee a pain-free Web-development project. There are simply too many variables that can set off a chain reaction leading to failure. However, here are a few tips that have served me well over the years:
- Gather and understand your requirements before coding begins.
- Set clear expectations for the developers, project managers and software testers.
- Live up to the expectations of your developers, project managers and software testers.
- Create a PoC before committing to a vendor API contract.
- Always focus on security.
- Never be afraid to walk away from a piece of functionality that just isn’t working.
Building a website that’ll serve as a customer-conversion extension of your self-storage operation can be complicated, but the results will be more than rewarding. Commit to working with a reputable Web developer to help you envision and create a website that delivers a smooth experience for users while growing your online visibility and converting more prospects into paying tenants.
Eric Schmiedel is director of software development for Las Vegas-based Store Space Self Storage, which operates 28 facilities in six states. Eric has more than 10 years of experience in platform development, including four focused on the self-storage industry. Before joining Store Space, he was a software engineer for National Storage Affiliates Trust. For more information, visit www.storespace.com.