Inside Self-Storage Magazine 03/2001: Providing Online Services

March 1, 2001

7 Min Read
Inside Self-Storage Magazine 03/2001: Providing Online Services

Providing Online Services

Use the web to get up close and personal with your customers

By Steve Benson

Ifyou're not taking steps to offer your self-storage services to customers online,you're about to be left in cyberdust. Today, more than 83 percent of CEOs areembracing the web for their businesses, and 13 percent are now in the process ofdeveloping an Internet strategy, according to statistics from, an onlineresource for information executives. Statistics also show a mere 2 percent ofbusiness owners claim to have no web strategy or any plans to build one.

The popularity and excitement associated with the Internet is something anybusiness can share, especially one that strives to be innovative and isconstantly rethinking its business strategies. The convenience, speed andsavings generated by use of the web are just a few of the driving forces behindself-storage operators beginning to offer their services to customers online.

More and more consumers are going online to pay bills, shop, and managesavings and checking accounts. Self-storage operators around the country arecatching on to the trend and seeing the benefits in the form of reducedoverhead, customer attraction and retention, and increased profits.

Yes, the Internet is exciting and can change the way you do business, but itcan also be intimidating, confusing, sometimes overwhelming and expensive. Ittook my company close to a year of planning and development to redeploy itswebsite so we could better meet the needs of our customers. Following are sometips and techniques to help make your experience easier.

Get Up Close and Personal

The name of the game is customer service. Our philosophy is, "Becomeintimate with the customer." The driving force behind our decision toprovide customer services online was to do just that. In exit surveys, ourcustomers told us they wanted a way to pay and manage their accounts online, andthat they would use such a service if provided. That was one of the first signswe needed to provide online services. We also noticed our existing website(launched in 1998) had low usage. With the Internet explosion taking place, wewanted to really take advantage of that medium to provide a needed service toour customers.

We made it a priority to give our customers the ability to make monthlypayments online. Every self-storage operator is concerned with receivingcustomers' monthly payments on time. The web can be a tool to help capture someof those payments.

To avoid creating more work at the main office or any additional paperwork,both of which lead to increased overhead, your website should be programmed toroute customer payments to the facility where he is actually renting. This mightnot be the most economical plan for national storage operators, but it helpsclose the gap between customers and operators. Most web designers or programmerscan make this happen and set it up so the site manager can process the paymentat his own convenience. After the transaction occurs, the manager should followup with the customer either through e-mail or a phone call to notify the paymenthas been cleared.

Security is a big issue when using credit cards online. The easiest way toensure your customer's credit-card number is not seen by an outside source orhacker is to use encryption. An encryption program will scramble a credit-cardnumber until a certified user or the manager of a site can access it. Encryptionalso gives most consumers peace of mind.

For customers to get the full benefit of your website, you will first need tolet them know it is available and functioning. We have found success by placingsignage at each facility, adding messages to monthly bills, runningadvertisements in different publications such as the Yellow Pages and relocationmagazines, and word of mouth. If customers are paying their monthly bills inperson, managers can tell them about the new service and how it works, or evenshow them an example by logging on to the site and demonstrating.

Attraction and Retention

The Internet can be one of the best tools to win new customers and keepestablished ones. Every day, self-storage operators are considering ways to keepand attract customers. What services they offer online may have a stronginfluence in that arena. Companies can offer several different online featuresto their customers:

  • The ability to make monthly payments

  • A virtual suggestion or comment box

  • Record updating

  • The ability to notify managers of move-out dates

  • The ability to reserve units

  • A change-of-address form

  • The ability to make account-balance inquires

  • A report of property problems, such as jammed locks or broken gates

It is more convenient for customers to take care of these needs at home orwork than it is for them to drive to the facility itself. There are severalother features that can be considered such as web cameras to monitor your siteor online purchases of boxes and other packing supplies. These innovative onlinefeatures can be the best way to differentiate yourselves from your competitors.

Do Your Homework

Spendwisely. Before you even consider launching a website for online services, youneed to know how much you are willing to spend and what you can get for yourmoney. Check out different web designers, because their prices vary. We weresurprised to discover there are companies that will design the programming foryour website for $3,000, and others that will design it for $150,000. You candesign your site and have it running for a lot less than you think by shoppingaround and choosing what's best for your business.

Companies should take a hands-on approach in the design and programming ofthe site. They should also be sure to have someone available who knows andunderstands the programmer's terminology. Designers will use strange terms, suchas "cold fusion," "search-engine optimization" and"file transfer protocol," that most people have never heard before. Itis important you understand what they are talking about.

Operators should also develop a strategy and goals for the site. Set yourgoals and be sure the company you choose to design the site will help youachieve each one. Also be sure to keep it simple. You can have a site that isfunctional and easy to use, and at the same time have it look high-tech. Takethe time to look at other sites--in and out of the storage industry--andexamples of what can be done before you make a decision on one particulardesign.

The hardest part of the design for us was building our navigation system.Remember: If your site isn't easy to use and navigate, your customers won't useit.

Positioning for the Future

The web is here to stay. One of the best reasons for having a website thatallows your self-storage customers to manage their accounts and make paymentsonline is to prepare your business for the future. Providing benefits such as24/7 access so customers may take care of needs on their own time is not thefuture--it is already here. The time is coming when we will use the Internet tocomplete everyday tasks. If companies make the investment now while they canstill make changes according to consumer needs, they will be far ahead of theircompetition.

Operators should have an in-house site coordinator who can make decisions andmanage your online system so it easily aligns with your organization's currentstructure. This employee should also be able to work with and understand graphicartists, designers and programmers. Promotion is another important key to havingsuccess on the web. Storage operators should also try to monitor their site'sactivity and capture results, such as the number of people paying online.

My final suggestion is to keep learning. We are still learning every day.Ultimately, being able to differentiate yourself from the competition andprovide a valued service to consumers on the Internet will make your businessstand out above the rest.

SteveBenson is the owner of Morningstar Mini-Storage, which has built and operatedmore than 50 award-winning self-storage facilities in North and South Carolinasince 1980. In addition to its regular operations, the company also donates theproceeds from 5 percent of each facility's units to charity. For moreinformation, visit

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