By Rachel Adams
Technology is like the ocean: Only a small portion has been explored, with vast amounts still waiting to be discovered. Advancements in technology are like waves, crashing into the beach and bringing trinkets for all.
Self-storage operators everywhere, pack your bags! We're going to the beach. Or rather, were going to explore the waves of technology crashing into self-storage businesses, washing ashore the industrys top tech tools that can help you run a more efficient and safer facility while attracting convenience-conscious consumers.
Phone-Tech Tools Expand Operations
A phone is one piece of technology that's easy to handle. That is, until you're faced with the decision to greet a walk-in customer or answer an incoming phone call. In a scenario like this, self-storage operators are turning those calls over to call-reporting centers. In the event an employee cannot take an incoming call, the call center can.
A call-center representative will assist customers just as a facility manager would by answering questions, taking payments and renting units. "Our calls are answered more efficiently and, in most cases, faster than they can be answered at each individual store," says Margaret Martin, executive vice president for the Pegasus Group, a real estate development and management company operating 60 facilities under the Central Self Storage brand. The company uses a full-service call center by OpenTech Alliance Inc., a Phoenix-based provider of self-storage rental solutions and technology.
Call centers can also help operators measure the effectiveness of advertising and sales reps by tracking call statistics and recordings. "It helps [operators] understand what advertising sources are working and allows them to judge our effectiveness as sales people as well as the effectiveness of their staff, says Tron Jordheim, director of PhoneSmart, a call center and offsite sales force serving the self-storage industry and other property-management fields.
Other phone-service companies such as CallPotential provide software for call tracking, lead management and employee evaluations. The company's tool links phone interactions to renter inquiries, prospective renters and delinquent accounts to manage leads, advertising and employee performance. "By automating and assisting the manager with systems, their job is simplified," says Phil Murphy, president of CallPotential. "Higher quality interactions and rental revenue result almost immediately."
Brett Henry, president of California-based Trojan Storage, has been able to expand his companys portfolio from one facility to 10 in just a few years by using technology such as call-tracking software. "We expanded our 10th property this month, and I now rely exclusively on existing technology to supervise our growing staff," he says. "Today's technology allows me to supervise our properties with far less offsite staff compared to what was required 10 years ago to manage the same size portfolio."
An integrated phone-payment system, or pay-by-phone system, is another service operators are using to decrease fraud, generate revenue and improve a facility's customer-service model. Pay-by-phone is an integrated voice-response system that allows tenants to make secure payments over the phone, when it's convenient for them, through a voice-prompted teller.
"Pay-by-phone processing is a critical piece of a site's payment strategy," says Michael Roberts, vice president of business development for XPS Solutions, a provider of telephone sales and customer-service support to the self-storage industry. "Fraud claims are on the rise in self-storage, largely due to the poor business practices being used to collect payment information over the telephone. With an integrated pay-by-phone solution, you eliminate 100 percent of the risk of fraud."
In addition to reducing this risk, Roberts says operators can generate revenue by charging a fee to process the payment via the phone. "A payment-processing fee has been widely accepted by tenants who want to make a payment before a late fee is levied," he says.
Web and Mobile Devices Offer Ultimate Convenience
While phone services provide additional convenience for tenants and operators, online-marketing and Web-design services help operators capture the tech-savvy or convenience-conscious consumer. Using these services, operators are able to take online payments and reservations through a facility's website via multiple management-software providers.
"This tool helps operators run a safer and smoother operation by allowing their corporately branded website to have high-tech features without having to invest millions in code development," says Izzat Dajani, company partner of StorageClicks, a provider of online-marketing and Web-design services to the self-storage industry. "We are able to take online payments securely right through the familiar website our customers tenants know and trust."
Herman & Kittle Properties Inc., which develops, builds and manages self-storage and other commercial properties, uses Web-based services to provide customers with real-time rates and inventory, as well as integrated services like Google Maps, driving directions and online-payment options.
Allowing prospects access to real-time inventory and providing options like online unit reservations ensures tenants can rent at their convenience. "Contrary to some schools of thought within the storage industry, our experience has been that by providing the consumer with online tools and purchasing/move-in options that are not bound by standard business hours, we've been able to capture sales when it's convenient for the customer," says Scott McLaughlin, regional manager of Herman & Kittle. "Don't get me wrong, customer service is important; but customer convenience must not be overlooked."
In today's mobile world, companies are taking it a step further and offering these services on mobile platforms. StorageClicks launched the Mobile Site Platform in 2012, which helps self-storage operators create mobile websites that seamlessly connect mobile devices to their mobile-optimized website. Dajani says the future for self-storage and technology will rely on the stupendous growth of mobile devices. "As a result of what's happened in the past year or so, we now know that folks are using their mobiles devices more than they use their PCs," he says.
Mobile devices also provide another medium with which to communicate with tenants, via SMS test-messaging services. Last year, self-storage services provider Storage Network Advantage LLC (SNA) and SMD Software Inc., provider of SiteLink self-storage management software, launched the SNA Collections Manager, a tool that combines hardware and software technology to send phone and SMS text messages to past-due tenants.
SNA also offers Web-based services. "We spend a lot of time focusing on how to convert online traffic to rentals, and are constantly testing and optimizing our online reservations system to refine how we tell our story through video, pictures and words, says Drew Hoeven, principle at SNA and Westport Properties Inc., which operates more than 40 self-storage facilities under the name US Storage Centers.
Automated Kiosks Expand Hours, Reduce Costs
Automation is another technology trend that's been popping up at facilities, employing tools such as self-serve kiosks and automated locks. Kiosks integrate with a facility's property-management system to let customers rent units, make payments, purchase locks and complete the lease process. Some also allow customers to engage in a two-way video conversation with a live storage counselor for assistance.
"From a business standpoint, we believe self-storage operators can rent more units if they are open for business longer than their competitors," says Robert Chiti, president and CEO of OpenTech. "[Kiosks] extend business hours (not office hours), reduce payroll costs and offer a more cost-efficient plan to support a self-storage facility."
Martin uses kiosks to reduce payroll costs and increase customer convenience. "Having self-service kiosks at all of our stores makes it convenient for our customers to pay their accounts or rent units 24 hours a day," she says. "It takes less time to rent through a kiosk than it does going into the store, and the receipt and lease are e-mailed to the customers. We should always think about how we can make the process easier and more efficient for our customers, and the answer is through technology."
Similarly, automated locks provide convenience and save time for operators and tenants. The fairly new technology eliminates the need for operators to place and remove manager's locks on empty units and overlocks on delinquent unitsboth necessary but time-consuming tasks. The INSOMNIAC ILock is a wireless, battery-operated, individual unit-locking system that can be controlled from the manager's office. In the event a tenant has not paid rent and has an overlocked unit, the tenant will regain access to the unit once a payment is received. This gives tenants greater ability to access units outside of office hours.
In addition, the units remain locked even when the exterior lock is cut, which provides added security. "The added protection is a competitive advantage, and like gate-access control, cameras and alarms, the locking system provides an amenity that could justify higher rental rates," Chiti says.
While tech tools help facilities operate more efficiently and smoothly, often times the most important aspect of technology comes down to the customers, who want more convenience and greater options. "By providing our customers with these types of tools, we're effectively increasing the chance that a customer will complete their transaction online and bypass our competitors in favor of leasing their storage unit from [us]," McLaughlin says.
Chiti adds: "Using technology to accommodate fast-moving consumers with on-the-fly service is how self-storage businesses are winning more market share and incremental dollars. Technology specific to self-storage is simply a means to stay competitive today and moving forward into the future."