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Software Soundoff: What Self-Storage Operators REALLY Want

May 1, 2008

10 Min Read
Software Soundoff: What Self-Storage Operators REALLY Want

Choosing the right management software for your self-storage operation is critical to setting up the success of the business. The diverse nature of players in the industry has underscored the need for software developers to engage clients in meaningful discussions to better understand what users really need and want in their management software. Understanding what this means from the perspective of a small or single-facility operator, as well as a large player or a multi-facility operator, will provide a holistic point of view.

Windows or Web-Based Options?

A new entrant to the industry will be looking at integrating a solution with minimal investment. Off-the-shelf, Windows-based management software serves this purpose. From the business perspective, evaluate vendors who offer a turnkey solution so that you do not have to integrate multiple solutions. Often, self-storage operators do not anticipate the need for onsite or remote installation, refresher training for the staff on demand, 24/7 technical support, and remote-data backup services when zeroing in on the management software suitable for their businesses.

The added value brought by such services may not be immediately apparent but, in hindsight, will prove to be indispensable to the stability of the business. In the long term, businesses can look to embrace e-commerce and take their self-storage businesses online, allowing customers to make reservations, rentals, payments and more through their websites.

In contrast, established multi-facility players are looking at a different set of challenges because they are well past the details concerning a new entrant into the industry. Multi-facility players are largely looking for ways and means to generate new business, reduce operational costs, streamline their processes, and improve customer service while continuing to remain highly competitive.

Standardization across all locations becomes the key for imposing better operational controls. Financial investment in technology and appropriate infrastructure is not a deterrent here. Web-based management software encompassing a centralized database with local backup architecture goes well with this kind of a setup. A centralized database ensures real-time data is at the fingertips of the managers, facilitating quick analysis and decision-making, and enabling them to rapidly react to market conditions.

Moreover, the information is accessible with just a click of the mouse, regardless of geographic location. Local backup capability prevents the facility operations from coming to a standstill in the event of Internet failure and ensures that facilities can continue to operate in offline mode until the connectivity is restored.

The industry’s leaders have already explored and leveraged the enormous potential offered by Web-based management software. They have embraced e-commerce in a big way to offer online reservations, rentals, account review and payment capabilities to their customers, as well as promote business growth by means of a call center interface option to the management software.

The benefits realized are quite significant in terms of increasing the customer base, reducing labor costs, improving reach and service, and decreasing the cost per transaction, thereby propagating better internal controls. The focus is now slowly shifting toward building business intelligence software with in-built revenue management and competitive pricing modules. It is no surprise that there is already talk of creating unmanned storage sites in the distinct future.

What Do Customers Really Want?

With the goal of presenting ISS readers with numerous industry perspectives, we have invited a cross-section of self-storage management software users to provide thoughts on the intrinsic value in today’s products, and what users really would like to have in future product releases. Here’s what they had to say ... .

Andrea Hughes, General Manager of Mini-Pac

Persiano: You operate one of the biggest self-storage businesses in California and Hawaii. How critical is management software and support for a business as large as yours?

Hughes:With more than 1,800 units, our day-to-day volume of transactions is very high. For an extremely busy facility like ours, the self-storage management software must be flexible, easy to use, and allow us to rapidly perform transactions. We have found Windows-based management software to be perfect for our business.

The software is critical but the software provider needs to have responsive support to keep my management solution running at peak performance. There is no such thing as a management-software solution that does not require support and maintenance. We have found chat-based remote support to be extremely easy to use, virtually instantaneous, and able to resolve almost all of our needs. Onsite support is generally reserved for major rollouts of software at new locations.

Persiano: What other factors did you take into consideration when choosing management software for your business?

Hughes: Ideally, we preferred going with a total-solutions provider who, in addition to offering a great piece of software, also provided data conversion, onsite implementation, customizations, and training services so that we could hit the road running. The other aspects we took into consideration were 24/7 software support, since we are open seven days per week, and remote data-backup services for offsite storage as a disaster recovery measure. Entrusting our data, essentially our business, to a solutions provider is a big deal, so we had to be certain we were partnering with the right outfit.

Also, we have found that complementary features can make a huge impact—like having the ability to enter important and unlimited notes into the collections module for each client, interfaces to leading gate and alarm systems, multi-user security, rapid export and import functions, broad system interfaces, website statistics and an executive dashboard.

Persiano: What does the future hold for you as far as management software is concerned?

Hughes: Actually, one of the key areas is payment online with debit/credit card. We are already in the process of moving forward with this kind of solution. We have already taken our business online by allowing our customers to make reservations through our website, and soon we plan to offer online payment capability in tune with the current trend in self-storage industry. Our customers have been asking for it and we look forward to making it happen. The next frontier for us will be integrating a module for a call center to help us in executing payment reminders and collections.

Ray Bartolacci III, R.A.B. Management Corp.

Persiano: You’ve been successfully operating three self-storage facilities in Pennsylvania and are preparing to open additional locations. What was the decision-making process behind your selection of Web-based management software for your locations?

Bartolacci: As an individual actively involved in real estate business, I am always on the move and need to be on "top of things" for my self-storage business. Dialing into the sites or calling on my manager to see how the stores are doing isn’t my mode of operation. I need direct access to real-time data from anywhere at anytime, and I need to be able to make changes to the specials or rental rates on the fly based on changing market conditions within my region.

It made sense to implement Web-based management software that offered centralized database architecture. In addition to the ubiquitous access, I can rest assured that catastrophic events will not put me out of business. I have everything stored both onsite and offsite, and I know that I will always be able to gain access to my critical business data.

Persiano: You are using an e-commerce site. Why did you make this leap, and how has the site transformed your business?

Bartolacci: Having an e-commerce site means that I am not always waiting for the phone to ring. I can use Internet marketing techniques, such as search-engine optimization, to attract prospects and build my client base. I have expanded my reach to a wider audience.

Accepting online reservations and payments has also helped us generate additional business as well as earn the goodwill of our customers. I have reduced my operational costs and improved customer service. The transformation has been significant, and I would recommend it to anyone seeking to accelerate their business growth. The best way to tackle an e-commerce site is to find a provider who offers a front-end and back-end solution.

Persiano: What is the primary feature that you look for in self-storage management software?

Bartolacci: I couldn’t ask for more if the self-storage management software came in with a built-in revenue-management module. The ideal module would enable us to better interpret our business and spot trends and variations early enough to plan for higher yield management. The self-storage industry is becoming more competitive by the day. Having this kind of a tool at our disposal would certainly give us the competitive edge to stay ahead in the demanding market place.

Rolly Curtis, Stor-All

Persiano: Rolly, you are an industry veteran and have been using self-storage management applications for many years in your facilities in the Southeast. What is your perspective on the evolution of the industry, and what do you view as the intrinsic value of the software?

Curtis: I have seen the self-storage industry progress from archaic card-indexing systems to the use of localized databases. Gone are the days when legacy applications ruled and the corporate offices spent hours consolidating data to gain a measure of their market share.

The value of the next-generation management software lies in its ability to centralize operational control, standardize operations across all sites, offer a localized backup capability to cope with Internet breakdown, and enable quick and easy reconciliation of information to facilitate swift analysis and decision-making. Data is like gold in our industry. Without it, we cannot effectively survive in what is becoming an incredibly data-driven environment. It’s my opinion that most of the software developers are scrambling to deliver a product that leverages a centralized database. I am only aware of a few who offer this feature.

Persiano: How do you see your business leveraging the benefits of hi-tech management software?

Curtis: Throughout our day-to-day operations there are many improvements. The manager’s life is better from an operational perspective, and the benefits to our customers through faster, easier service delivery are real. In particular, an online presence is a must and a key constituent of any business plan. We have plans to take our business online to exploit the immense potential the Web has to offer. Phone-based and call center reservations are other options we are exploring in enterprise-level self-storage management solutions.

Persiano: Where is the future of management software headed?

Curtis: I foresee the management software of the future evolving to include business intelligence that could lend itself toward studying customer behavior, identifying patterns, forecasting trends, etc. A competitive pricing component is another aspect that could be embedded into the management software to help track your competition.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of dealing with one centralized database. Working with multiple databases is a labor-intensive nightmare. Our ability to streamline and automate operations via database centralization is the only way to sustain your business and grow in an industry characterized by huge consolidations and fierce competition.

Shaping the Future

Self-storage management software has and continues to shape the future of the industry. Manual, labor-intensive tasks have been replaced by Windows and Web-based applications that streamline daily operations and even automate reservations, rentals and online payment via an e-commerce site.

The value of the next-generation management software lies in its ability to centralize data for real-time access to support the decision-making process, standardize operations across all sites, offer local backup capability against Internet breakdown or disasters, and enable quick and easy reconciliation of information to facilitate swift analysis. The introduction of a business intelligence capability will further enable individuals using self-storage management software to study customer behavior, identify problems and forecast trends. 

Michael Persiano is the chief marketing officer and Sachin Bhakta is the vice president of development of E-SoftSys, headquartered in Blue Bell, Pa. E-SoftSys is a total-solutions provider for the self-storage industry in North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific. For more information, call 800.469.1740; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.selfstoragemanager.com.

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