By Kay Miller Temple
The self-storage industry is no exception to every modern business whose management software is changing to embrace SMAC: social media, mobile applications, analytics and cloud. Software improvements don't just add to the bottom line for facility owners, they provide employees with a streamlined workflow and tenants with a customer-focused rental experience. In this article, you'll get insight to recent innovations in industry management software and how you can use it to improve your business.
From its present relationship of mutual respect, business software and social media could evolve into a more integrated partnership. For now, social media's role in day-to-day business operation makes for an important conversation where potential software interfaces are concerned.
Business websites should be connected to Facebook and other social media tools, according to Chris Pennington, marketing manager at SMD Software Inc., the provider of Sitelink management software. But he cautions that unless storage operators are making regular, authentic and relevant posts, results may be lacking. "Rebranding or retargeting is often more powerful than a social media presence," he says.
Social media and branding on the Internet is a "must," according to Shaina Cossairt, business development consultant for QuikStor Security & Software, another provider of software for the self-storage industry. Facility owners should discuss search engine optimization (SEO), websites and social media with their vendors, she says, to understand how software can be “the hub” of their modern marketing campaigns.
"There was a time when having a simple ad in the Yellow Pages was all a self-storage facility required for its marketing campaign," she says. "Wow, have times changed! Social media and branding yourself on the Internet is a must to compete nowadays."
Software companies are also embracing the mobile movement by adding applications for self-storage businesses and their customers. Apps that provide real-time information and connect simultaneously with other facilities offer convenience, says Mark Smith, senior vice president of product strategy for Centershift Inc., a company that designs applications to integrate websites, call centers and smartphones.
Some apps enable managers to pass a self-storage unit and instantly know its status. Details can also be noted in the app and recorded for follow-up.
Mobile apps also provide convenience for tenants, says Paul Darden, president of District Manager, a provider of self-storage management software. For example, customers with smartphones can receive texts about upcoming or delinquent payments. "They can then immediately make payments right from their phones," Darden says.
Websites that are deemed mobile-responsive allow a self-storage business to be found more easily online and for rentals to happen immediately. "Fewer and fewer reservations are being made by traditional PC users," Smith says.
Management software programs that incorporate revenue-management tools are a necessity in today’s competitive environment. In addition, the software should allow data analysis of unit rates and availability so operators can better manage their rental income. "When occupancy is high, rates should be increased; and when they are low, rates should be decreased," Pennington says. "Either way, income benefits from higher rates or higher occupancy."
Operators who manage several sites face another challenge: keeping pace with what’s happening at each site. Software programs that include easy-to-read infographics are one way to show the performance at multiple sites, according to Ramona Taylor, president of Space Control Systems Inc., a company that offers programs for rental-counter and customer management.
A "dashboard-view analysis” of all facilities will use icons to indicate sites that are not performing up to par. "It’s a quick and easy way to see where management should direct its time and attention," Taylor says.
There are also advances in software-analysis systems on the horizon. Expert systems and artificial intelligence will soon be introduced into the self-storage industry, according to Darden. Data mining will provide answers on improving income, including tenant-by-tenant analysis.
One move many self-storage operators are making is toward a Web- or cloud-based program. Essentially, this software enables authorized users to access a facility’s information from any Internet connection. There's no CD to purchase and no worries about having enough hard-drive space on an office computer to run programs. Vendors handle the complexity of program building and information storage, and users enjoy the simplicity of logging on to access it.
The benefits of cloud-based software are "enormous,” Smith says. "Having your facility's data in an accessible environment not only allows you access at any time, from any location, but also allows your data to be integrated seamlessly with a website, call center or reservation aggregator.”
Up of 40 percent of self-storage businesses are now using some form of cloud-based management software, according to Pennington, who lists these advantages:
- More integrations. A program that integrates with additional vendors offers more opportunities. Lower credit card rates are one example. This allows a business to add to the bottom line and cut operating expenses.
- Easy accessibility. An Internet connection or smartphone allows users to have access and file-sharing. Employees can review documents and e-mails even when they’re away from the office.
- Increased security. Cloud computing can be more secure than traditional IT infrastructure since providers usually build multiple levels of security and redundancy into their data centers.
- Business resiliency. Studies show that more than 50 percent of small companies will go out of business within a year of a major data loss. In a cloud environment, if a laptop is lost—or worse, the whole office—a business can be back at work in no time since the information and files are securely in place.
A Change in Programs
While it doesn’t happen often due to the cost, training and business disruption associated with such a major move, there are times when a facility owner will opt to change software programs. Before making the switch, however, owners should consider whether the new software will truly generate more revenue, says John Fogg, general manager of Sentinel Systems Corp., a provider of security-access systems and management software to the self-storage industry. Regarding the disruption to business, Fogg suggests owners ask themselves:
- Will my managers buy in, resist change or possibly leave if I change software programs?
- How much data entry will be required to catch up between changes?
- What is the cost for gate-access software interfacing with the new program?
Taylor suggests that in addition to considering the functionality needed by site managers to accomplish tasks such as error correction and providing customer assistance, the needs of accountants and management teams should also be considered before changing programs.
Daily reports of credit-data breaches at high-profile businesses such as Target and Neiman Marcus are leaving customers concerned about how any company they do business with handles sensitive data. The self-storage industry’s major program providers have linked with credit card processing companies to be compliant with the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI-DSS).
"The best way owners and operators can be safeguarded is to link with one of these processors who have been approved by their software provider," Fogg says.
Moreover, sensitive data should not be stored on a property computer, Smith advises. But if it is, he says it needs to be encrypted, providing "an enormous roadblock to potential thieves."
"Your software provider should be in constant compliance with the payment card industry’s audit standards," Smith adds. "This helps to ensure that systems are in place and working to prevent unauthorized access and use of sensitive customer data."
Users Prompt Innovation
When it comes to innovation and upgrades in self-storage management programs, listening to customer (operator) requests is key, says Smith. "We try to keep a close ear on what they are seeing and doing, and how our software can potentially help them."
Software providers keep their customers' suggestions—large or small—in mind to determine advances that may benefit the majority, Cossairt says. "The day-to-day users of software can provide the best insight of what does and does not work well for them."
Software evolution is not driven just by industry changes and technology, but also by self-storage operators who sometimes need individual program flexibility. "Staying in touch with customers, listening to their concerns and problems, and working with them to come up with solutions is critical to building good software," Taylor says.
The Speed of Innovation
In 1965, Intel's co-founder, Gordon E. Moore, predicted that computing hardware advances would double about every two years. That interval has proved a debatable but a good rule of thumb. Current software advances can be summarized by SMAC. But by next year, another catchy buzzword or phrase will likely appear. What will remain unchanged is the relationship between self-storage owner/operators and their management-software companies—a relationship that keeps customers satisfied and businesses profitable.
"When all is said and done, self-storage software still boils down to the day-to-day main functions of taking payments, renting units and moving people out,” Fogg says. “How information is handled is what makes a program become feature-rich—marketing, reporting and data accessibility. Don’t be fooled by bells and whistles. Evaluate software based on the mainstream operations of your business."
Kay Miller Temple is a physician and recent graduate from the master’s program at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. To reach her, e-mail [email protected]