When technology fails, self-storage owners and operators should be prepared to rent units, take payments and write receipts without using a computer. Here are some tips on being prepared when using a computer to run a self-storage facility is not an option.

June 8, 2009

5 Min Read
No-Computer Disaster Plan: Operating Self-Storage Without Technology

“Get out your pencil!” I can still remember how much I hated hearing the teacher say those words because it usually meant a pop quiz. Well, I don’t want to disappoint you, so here is your one-question test: How would you operate your facility for an extended period of time—two days, a week or longer—without your computer?

How would you rent a unit? Take a payment? Tell a customer his unit number or how much he owes? How would you answer the question, “What would the prorated rent be if I move in this afternoon?” It’s an ugly picture, isn’t it?

This question came to me as I heard about power outages from the wicked weather some parts of the nation endured this spring. It really hit home when my main file server crashed. I forgot how much fun it is working on a laptop with backup files. Let’s examine the question above, which will hopefully encourage you to revisit your disaster planning and day-to-day office procedures.
Backing Up Data

How often do you back up your data to a medium or server outside your main office? The cost of a backup system will pale in comparison to what you’ll spend trying to recover from a data loss without one. And I’m not just talking about your facility operating data.

What about all those other little things you’ve added to your computer and taken for granted, for example, the “remember me” feature on the log in page for so many programs and websites? When I lost my server, I was amazed at the number of unique login passwords I couldn’t remember.

How about when the service tech says, “Now take out one of the original disks that shipped with your computer 30 months ago and load it into the disk drive.” I admit I’m guilty of not having kept good records of every website I use on a regular basis or kept track of every disk that shipped with my computer.

Let’s get back to the more mundane issue of taking a payment. A customer is standing in front of you and politely asks, “Could you let me know how much I owe today?” Your deer-in-the-headlights look won’t instill a great deal of confidence, and your inability to collect a payment from a willing customer could quickly become crippling.

Periodically printing your rent roll may seem like a waste of paper until D-day arrives. Just writing out a receipt for the customer on a blank sheet of paper makes it look like you might put the cash in your pocket. Or how about taking a credit card payment with no computer? Do you even have any credit card charge slips buried in an office desk somewhere? Do you know what phone number to call for manual approval?

Without being able to hit the “F6” key to automatically bring up your vacant unit list, do you know what units are ready to rent? When I managed a portfolio of 35 stores, it was a pet peeve of mine to walk into one of the facilities and ask the manager where the closest, vacant 10-by-15 was—and get a blank stare.

I know some days are crazy with the phone ringing and people walking in with questions, but everyone should find time to print out a vacancy list and know what products they have for sale.
Have a Disaster Plan

A “disaster” doesn’t have to mean the roof to the office has blown off or the third-alarm firefighters have arrived at your door. It could be as simple as an electrical surge or lightning that fries your computer. Until you get another computer, install the new software and load the backup data, that pencil had better be sharp and ready to go.

Some owners and managers have a file cabinet in the back of the office containing all of the manual paperwork necessary to keep the facility running. Items like a receipt book to provide a professional-looking receipt along with a separate record of the payment can be a gift sent from heaven. A stack of credit card charge slips with a step-by-step procedure outlined with telephone numbers can keep you in business. If you rely on your computer to print leases, having a dozen pre-printed would put a smile back on your face.

In the Disaster Recovery Journal, Geoffrey H. Wold writes, “The primary objective of disaster recovery planning is to protect the organization in the event that all or part of its operations and/or computer services are rendered unusable. Preparedness is the key.

The planning process should minimize the disruption of operations and ensure some level of organizational stability and an orderly recovery after a disaster.” Does your planning live up to that standard? I know that after my near-death computer-server experience, mine will.
Today’s Challenges Are Tomorrow’s Profit

This is the theme for the Inside Self-Storage World Expo in Washington, D.C., Oct. 5-8. This expo comes at a watershed time in America’s history. Will we be on the verge of an economic recovery or dragged kicking and screaming closer to the abyss? ISS has engaged a number of industry veterans from the owner, manager and supplier ranks to provide third-party feedback. The group is called the Educational Advisory Committee. I’m very proud to have been asked to serve on this board.

There has never been a more important time to gather and discuss the issues, problems and opportunities facing our industry than now. As we consider what lies ahead in 2010, I urge every owner to take a hard look at his budget and consider investing in his future by attending as well as bringing key team members to share in the year’s last major tradeshow and educational opportunity.
Jim Chiswell is the owner of Chiswell & Associates LLC. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. He has served for a number of years on the Inside Self-Storage Editorial Advisory Board, is a moderator on the SelfStorageTalk.com interactive online community and is faculty member of the Self-Storage Training Institute. He can be reached at 434.589.4446; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.selfstorageconsulting.com.

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Techno-Lingo in Modern Day Self-Storage Management


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