Savvy self-storage operators are taking advantage of technology to gain a competitive edge and command a premium price in the marketplace. They’re enriching new facilities by installing the latest tools, and protecting existing ones with upgrades. This enlightened approach to competitive positioning is based on the idea that today’s consumers are seeking the rewards technology can deliver in the areas of security and convenience, and willing to pay for an enhanced experience.
Enhancing the Customer Experience
Experience management is a recognized business discipline influencing a wide range of commercial sectors, including self-storage. In a competitive environment, the customer experience (CX) can be a differentiator that builds brand loyalty, protects margins and drives more dollars to the bottom line. Developing effective CX strategies starts with becoming more customer-centric and looking at interactions through the consumer’s eyes. The goal is to increase participation and engagement, which means identifying all the points of connection where customers research, compare, buy and use products, from start to finish.
Consumers who are seeking self-storage will generally start with an Internet search. They’ll focus on finding a site in their community and then extend their search by visiting websites, taking virtual tours and reading online reviews. Eventually they’ll select one or two locations for onsite visits. This means the self-storage CX starts with multiple touch points in the both the digital and phyical worlds.
CX-Based Technology Strategies
Jason Bohman is president of Southern Optimized Security Systems in Hiram, Ga., which specializes in low-voltage installations of video surveillance, access control and burglar-alarm systems. He’s an advocate for using technology during the design phase to improve the CX.
“Honestly, I think architects and engineers that design [self-storage] facilities should have a clearer understanding of how our industry is changing technologically,” Bohman says. “We are not just creating 10-by-10 boxes anymore, but rather, an experience.”
Bohman describes how his company uses technology to enhance the CX for self-storage clients: “I have become a huge fan of the marketing aspects of security, not just the security portion of it. We add our own flavor to the video surveillance by installing things like public-view monitors in the elevator lobbies, and pinhole cameras in the entry-gate keypads, and smart TVs that allow streaming advertisements and such. We also like to add personalized wording to the keypads’ LCD screens.”
Bohman believes technology can be a key differentiator for protecting a storage facility. “Not only do we install audio amplifiers, we make sure they are public-address (PA) amplifiers, so the site manager can do an ‘all-call’ to every speaker in the facility,” he says. “We also install wireless access points (WAPs) to all floors in a multi-story site, so Internet connection loss is not an issue. I think these are some of the little things most folks miss that can be added with a nominal investment, and I believe it is the little things that set your facility apart from the other sites just down the road.”
Planning and Budgeting for New Sites
Security and access-control technology should be analyzed from the perspective of owners and tenants, Bohman says. “I think rather than discuss bits and pieces of equipment, we should really concentrate on what low-voltage systems are designed to do in a self-storage facility. Are we securing the office? Are we opening a sliding door? Are we streaming music to lessen the sounds of creaking floors? Although these all sound like simple questions, we are on the right track with our train of thought.”
Bohman is also willing to address how developers and contractors should be budgeting for technology systems. “I’ve found that low-voltage systems, whether they be for security, telephone or audio, should encompass around 2 percent to 3 percent of the overall project budget,” he says. “For example, a $10 million project should include approximately $200,000 in systems. In our region of the country, that number is currently closer to 0.5 percent to 1 percent of the overall budget. But I think we will see an increase over the next five years as more solutions come into play and automation takes over the traditional way of managing a site.”
Solutions That May Be Overlooked
The fundamental value proposition of a self-storage facility is secure space, which means operators should consider the technology solutions that are best matched to the demands of that promise. It’s a good idea to consult with expert technicians when planning for site security.
Bryan Sweeney, senior technician and sales for SOS Security Solutions Ltd. in Surrey, British Columbia, has identified some of the solutions that may get overlooked by owners or general contractors. “We shouldn’t assume that any one system is sufficient for securing a site,” he says. “Layering security is important. Controlling the access points gives you a record of ingress and egress at the gates of your facility. Surveillance systems can document license plates, faces and movement throughout your site. Facility and perimeter alarm systems work great as a preliminary indicator that your site has been breached, and they provide an audible and visual response that deters criminals from lingering. And finally, individual locker alarms are an important line of defense against customer-content theft. These systems work in harmony to protect your staff, customers and assets.”
Bohman has also identified some security features that may get overlooked in the planning stage. “I like to include a panic button at the front desk, in case of emergency, as well as a backdoor exit,” he says. “Other features to consider are intercoms in the hallways, large flat screens that show the camera views and electronic rules signs, walk-through gates next to the lift gates, plus a camera aimed at the front door so customers instantly see themselves on the big screen. Also, Web cams for each customer photo that can be dropped into their ledger. Operators should always require the tenant’s Social Security number and a valid photo identification that can be copied.”
Delivering an enhanced CX is a proven approach for retaining tenants, and customized solutions build customer loyalty by offering features that aren’t easily duplicated by competitors. In turn, improved retention means more dollars go directly to the bottom line, because it’s easier and less expensive to keep existing tenants than to acquire new ones.
The customized solution is well-illustrated by a recent SOS project. “In 2017 we secured a facility with 32 private wine cellars, and each door was equipped with proximity access control,” Sweeney says. “These were private rooms, not sheet-metal lockers, which made the site unique. We also installed a number of access-control points, each to be used by a different customer, which meant we needed to create over 32 different access-control areas in the software, as well as over 32 different access levels.” The end result was a solution that reflected well on the operator and created a superior CX for the high-end wine connoisseurs who became tenants.
Upgrading With New or Emerging Technologies
Self-storage owners can protect their existing sites with technology upgrades that improve security. Sweeney has identified the risks associated with relying on outdated equipment and technology. “Operators are at risk if their equipment can’t deliver the quality data that allows them to take action against criminals or people with malicious intent,” he says. “Older, low-resolution cameras will rarely give you the pixels per square foot you need to recognize a license-plate number or collect facial detail. This information is crucial in identifying an individual for apprehension after a crime has been committed. And failure to alarm both the building and the locker-alarm points allows criminals to traverse physical obstructions such as doors, windows and gates, without being detected. This failure places your business at an increased risk of break-in.”
SOS delivered a sizable upgrade in 2017 for a customer who wanted to retrofit units with wireless door alarms. “This site was large, with 1,900 lockers to be secured,” Sweeney says. “This solution gave the operator the ability to monitor the position of every door and secure a unit without gaining access to it, which was a convenience. Securing that many units without acquiring a single key is amazing.”
Bohman sees technology upgrades as a way to enhance the CX, improve customer loyalty and produce quality referrals. “It only takes one or two disgruntled customers to express their frustration that a clicker didn’t work, or something happened on the site and the camera wasn’t working that day. Those things have a trickle-down effect that negatively impacts referrals and potential clients. I’ve seen it happen many times in the past when this risk could have been easily avoided by properly preparing the site and conducting regular systems checks,” he says.
Identifying the Next Trends
Delivering a superior CX doesn’t mean doing everything for the customer. Sometimes the best strategy is to enable self-service functions users can see and appreciate. This approach matches the goal to increase participation and engagement.
Bohman is an advocate for technologies consumers use every day, including mobile devices and cloud-based software, noting the migration to these technologies is underway. “I think we are already seeing this transition with the Millennial generation,” he says. “What 18-year old doesn’t spend eight hours a day on his smartphone? Most of them don’t even know what a PC is, much less a CRT monitor or a dial-up modem. With the ability to search for a self-storage facility nearby, upload their personal data for their leasing agreement, and then pre-pay the first month’s rent, what more convenience could you possibly add? With the addition of apps that give tenants the ability to open gates and doors, everything is within a finger’s touch, literally.”
Sweeney emphasizes the benefits of remote access for operators that use cloud-based software. “The ability to monitor and control your site remotely is a powerful management tool,” he says. “It provides peace of mind and reduces unnecessary trips to the site.”
He also notes the security considerations implied. “It’s important to keep cyber-security in mind with networked or cloud-based systems. Be sure to hire a knowledgeable and trusted installation team when deploying a networked solution that is protecting your assets and well-being.”
Automating in the Near Future
As technology continues to evolve, self-storage operators will be able to automate some of the functions currently handled by onsite managers. Bohman and Sweeney believe automation and remote access will change how storage sites are equipped and managed.
“I think self-storage facilities will be 100 percent automated in the next five to eight years. Automation is not out of reach, but it will certainly require an upfront investment in the technology of the facility,” Bohman says.
Sweeney notes that both tenants and operators will benefit from these technologies. “Inevitably, like we’ve seen in the surveillance, access control, security alarm, and AV industries, we will see self-storage security make a shift into the Internet of Things (IoT),” he says. “Customers and owners alike will use smart platforms that connect to various control systems through their mobile devices. I expect operators will push for remote connectivity so they can monitor and control facilities from centralized platforms while off-premise. They’ll see fewer onsite service calls because their support teams will troubleshoot remotely via the connected IoT platform. There will be fewer false alarms with layered remote verification for video, access and alarm systems. Mobile connectivity, via IoT integrated systems, will improve productivity, especially when overseeing multiple facilities.”
Sweeney describes the daily routine for a site that’s more fully automated. He envisions that someday the facility manager will walk up to the store entrance and use a palm print to unlock the door and get any site error messages; turn on the coffee and lights; and forward to his phone or other device an instant update of what happened since yesterday’s closing. That update would show all areas of the facility are OK; all clients are paid up; three rentals occurred; and those new tenants were sent an e-mail confirmation and chose the following time slots to appear onsite today.
Maximizing the Customer Experience
While technology upgrades can provide the foundation for an improved CX, the best strategies address engagement in both virtual and physical settings and will include provisions for maximizing the investment through:
- Teamwork: Seasoned self-storage operators know this is a key component, so they train and retrain employees who interact with customers. Staff must be able to explain the features and benefits of any new technology, and they should be taught the best ways to answer questions and concerns.
- Communication: It’s appropriate to promote any technology improvements through advertising, press releases and social media.
- Evaluation: Customers are likely to share their good and bad experiences through social media platforms and online reviews, which means storage operators can evaluate the success of their strategies by monitoring online posts.
Self-storage operators can improve their competitive positioning by installing the latest technology in new facilities and upgrading existing sites with retrofits. High-resolution cameras, mobile technology, cloud-based software, wireless connections, remote management, tenant apps and automation provide the tools you need to attract and retain tenants.
Stan Hosler is a content writer for PTI Security Systems, a provider of access-control and security systems to the self-storage industry. Company products include keypads, wired and wireless door alarms, mobile apps, video-surveillance solutions, and security software that integrates with most management software on the market. To contact the PTI team, call 800.523.9504; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.ptisecurity.com.