The way we interact with computers changes approximately every 10 years. First, we used punch cards, then keyboards and monitors, then the mouse, which was followed by touch screens. Each of these changes meant learning new skills but ultimately improved the way we engage with technology.
The next user interface is voice-driven. Think of Alexa, Google Home and Siri. A voice-activated device can enable all kinds of hands-free functions at self-storage facilities, from opening gates or doors to answering data-specific questions such as, “Who was the last person who entered the property?” Enabling these types of abilities is like giving the manager an office assistant, allowing him to quickly perform actions and tasks.
Voice-enabled, artificially intelligent assistants are being rapidly adopted in the U.S. today. Software firm Pegasystems Inc. recently asked Americans whether they believed they had interacted with artificial intelligence (AI). Only one in three said yes, when in fact, almost 85 percent had done so. AI is touching more facets of our lives, and we need to start thinking about how it can improve the self-storage industry and our customers’ experience.
AI for Business
While voice interactions with AI assistants are fast becoming commonplace in the home, Amazon is looking to bring the same benefits to the commercial sector with Alexa for Business. The service has three main components: management tools, an application program interface to integrate with existing applications and infrastructure, and Echo devices, which can be configured for individual tasks or used in shared locations such as conference rooms or lobbies.
Alexa devices open a vast array of features and functionality. Some of the skills that are useful for businesses include:
- E-mail management, which allows you to read, reply and manage e-mails
- Website monitoring, which allows you to learn the status of your websites
- Schedule management, which allows you to set reminders and confirm completion for tasks such as self-storage facility maintenance
Because these devices are cloud-based, they can easily be enhanced and expanded. Cloud-based systems allow for easy improvements without the high cost of upgrading older PC-based technology. Self-storage operators who are using antiquated tools should investigate newer platforms that allow for additional functionality, increased security and lower cost of ownership. Some are already experiencing multiple benefits by employing voice-enabled devices at their locations.
“We’ve seen numerous times where overcoming a language barrier sealed the deal in securing a rental,” says Natolie Ochi, president of SKS Management, which operates 23 self-storage properties in California. “We see future benefits of voice-driven functions at our properties, from having Alexa open our gates to giving the manager a daily briefing report, setting reminders, and so much more.”
Here are some common ways to use voice-enabled devices and platforms at your self-storage locations:
Language translation. If a customer who doesn’t speak English enters your facility, you can ask the device to translate your speech into the customer’s language and vice versa, omitting the language barrier and facilitating a unit rental. It vastly improves the customer experience for non-English speakers.
Control other facility devices. Voice technology can also be used to control thermostats, gates, doors and more. For example, you can simply say, “Open the front gate.” There’s no need to stop what you’re doing to find the clicker or open the access software to perform this simple function.
You can even ask the AI to begin the work day, which might include turning on lights, starting the coffee-maker, telling you the weather or breaking news, or relaying the number of rentals the facility had via the self-serve kiosk or online reservation system during the night.
Obtain information. Instead of having to look up information on the facility computer, you can simply ask the device, “Who was the last tenant on site?” or “How many tenants are on the property?” If you run daily reports on occupancy, rental rates and other key metrics, the technology can provide data that will help you better operate and manage the site. You could even set this up as part of your morning briefing.
Data security and privacy are significant concerns today with all this new technology. Amazon and Google say their assistants only start recording information after they’ve heard the wake phrases “Alexa” or “Hey Google.” Users can delete any information that was stored.
The attack vector for smart speakers is small, meaning a hacker would have to access Amazon or Google or your physical device. Your laptop and Web browser, which store more critical information, are much more open to cyber-threats than a voice-controlled device.
Adapting to Demand
“Amazon, Apple and Google are investing billions to make voice recognition the main way we communicate with the Internet. We need to take proactive steps to ensure we’re part of this new shift in user experience,” says Robert A. Chiti, CEO and president of OpenTech Alliance, a provider of self-storage kiosks, call-center services and other technology.
Investigate the benefits of incorporating voice-enabled devices into your day-to-day operation, including how people use them and how they can enhance the customer experience. As with any new technology, it’s important to choose an open platform that allows for integrations with many devices as opposed to a closed, end-to-end solution.
Just as Web and mobile search displaced the Yellow Pages in how customers find and use self-storage, voice-enabled devices can drive even greater change. As consumers use these platforms, the more functionality they’ll expect. Potential self-storage users will ask their device for the closest facility, then to reserve a unit, pay their rent, schedule a move-out or perform other functions. Facility operators should think about how they’ll use this new technology to stay competitive in a quickly evolving industry.
Jon Loftin is vice president and IOE (Internet of Everything) product owner for OpenTech Alliance Inc., a Phoenix-based provider of self-storage kiosks, call-center services and other technology. He has more than 25 years of hands-on experience in the storage industry, specializing in technology advancements, particularly for access control. For more information, call 800.481.7459; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; visit www.opentechalliance.com.