World of technology

Thriving in a High-Tech World: How Technology Is Changing the Self-Storage Industry

The self-storage industry has sometimes been “painfully slow” in adopting new technology, even when the customer base demands it. But more and more operators are embracing automation, the cloud, mobile apps and even robots. See how these tools are changing our business and the customer experience.

When National Self Storage (NSS) opens its newest property in Marana, Ariz., this spring, it’ll include many of the features expected of a modern facility. The multi-story building in Dove Mountain, a master-planned community about 40 minutes north of Tucson, will include climate-controlled units, security measures and covered loading. It’ll even honor the history of the area with a 45-foot stone tower inspired by the nearby golf club and signage like the historic Fox Theater in town.

The front office, however, is where the site will deviate from industry tradition. Rather than the standard service counter found in thousands of storage facilities worldwide, this property will offer three rental stations with a tenant interface (TI) to offer customers as little or as much help as they desire in completing a move-in, making a payment or otherwise interacting with the business. The stations will include 24-inch touchscreen monitors that, much like the kiosks found in grocery-store self-checkout aisles, will guide users through the transaction with prompts.

“The rental stations will also have features that give the managers more tools to complete the sale, including interactive facility maps, unit-size-guide videos and live competitor pricing,” says Travis Morrow, president of the self-storage division of Strat Property Management Inc., the management firm that oversees the NSS portfolio.

This shift in office design is about more than streamlining the rental process and creating a paperless environment. It’s intended to mirror similar experiences customers have at the bank and retail stores, and when shopping online. “We pay close attention to customer experience, and creating a system that keeps current with modern consumer experiences is important to us,” Morrow says.

The self-storage industry has sometimes been “painfully slow” in adopting new technology; but the customer base is demanding that it wake up and pay attention. Tech-addicted generations of consumers are leading the charge for more self-serve options at faster speeds. “Technology creates efficiencies and conveniences that consumers come to expect from the business they transact with, and we need to continue to live up to that expectation,” Morrow says.

These days, more and more self-storage operators are offering online reservations and billpay, and many have added self-serve kiosks, allowing the facility to be “open” around the clock. But these innovations are just a fraction of the tech-based opportunities available to benefit facility staff and their tenants. Let’s explore some others.

Automation in Use

One area of technology in which the storage industry has lagged is automation. “Nearly every sales experience I can think of, I can do without interfacing with a person—whether that’s getting a car wash or cash, renting an airplane seat or hotel room, or buying nearly any physical product out there. Yet, most self-storage facilities still can’t rent you a unit without a person being involved,” says Brad Minsley, co-founder of 10 Federal Cos., which operates 10 unmanned facilities in North Carolina.

The company categorizes its technology offerings into three areas: sales, operation and remote monitoring. The sales category includes its leasing-capable website, kiosks and a call center. Remote monitoring relates to security measures as well as maintenance components such as the HVAC system. 10 Federal has also developed an overlock-release system that allows tenants to remove an overlock upon making a payment. Now the company is working on a 360 virtual-reality rover to conduct walk-throughs, and seeking ways to modify the construction process on future projects with technology.

10 Federal has even introduced a new system to sell merchandise. Rather than offering a large vending machine or locker system, it has created a static display of moving and packing products with UPC codes customers scan with their Amazon app. “Then decide if they want the items delivered to them in two hours, two days or whatever speed they need,” Minsley says.

Automating its facilities has not only reduced 10 Federal’s staffing expenses, the company is providing a better customer experience. “We can service the customer 24/7, whether that’s leasing a unit, taking a payment or removing an overlock,” Minsley says. “And if the customer does want to talk to someone, our call center is available 91 hours a week, which exceeds your typical operator's availability.”

Although the new NSS facility will only be partially unmanned, its TI menu allows users to rent a unit, make a payment, view a facility map and even peruse a competition survey. Using a customer workflow designed by StoreLocal, a co-op owned by independent storage operators, the interface will guide the customer through a transaction from start to finish. In addition to the touchscreen, the device will include a driver’s license scanner to import the tenant’s information and photo into the site’s management software. It’ll also have a credit card scanner to process payments.

“The TI is not only for the tenants to interact, but it’s also designed as a sales tool for the manager, which is where the facility map and competition survey come into play,” says Morrow, adding that the new Marana site will be used as a beta test. If proven successful, the system will be rolled out to other stores in the NSS portfolio.

Another operator that relies heavily on technology to run its sites is Storage Express. In addition to offering online rentals and a call center, many of its 93 properties have 24-hour rental centers that can process the move-in and dispense a lock. “It’s been our operating model since we started into our industry. We think we do it really well!” says marketing manager Janna Jackson.

Staff Impact

Some managers might fear all this automation will leave them jobless, but that’s simply not the case. “The manager is still critical in this consumer experience. Customer service is a core value of ours, and the intent of this system was never to reduce payroll; but it will free up the manager to focus more on sales. We’ve got 600 units to rent still,” Morrow says.

Not only will managers have more time for sales and other responsibilities, automation allows them to interact with a larger base of current and potential customers. “Many tasks that are in day-to-day operation are repetitive in nature and are being replaced and enhanced with systems,” says Phil Murphy, president of Next Door Self Storage, which uses an assortment of tech-based products and services at its 14 facilities in Illinois.

For example, operators who once called past-due tenants to request a payment can now send messages during a set time and to a greater number of recipients. These systems, including text messaging, allows operators to communicate with customers on other matters as well, such as holiday closures, facility specials and referrals.

Providing information quickly to a broader audience is vital for operators looking to connect with younger generations. “Millennials communicate differently from Baby Boomers,” Jackson notes. “They’re more apt to text and don’t leave voicemail messages, let alone listen to them.”

Murphy likens this communication shift to the “have it your way” slogan from fast-food giant Burger King. “Customers want to interact with businesses the way they choose, not the way you choose,” he says. “If they can’t interact with you that way, they’ll choose somewhere they can.”

In the Cloud

One area in which the self-storage industry has kept pace with evolving technology is management software. Today’s programs go well beyond tracking units and processing payments. They can oversee a site’s revenue-management plan, provide reports operators can use to analyze marketing campaigns and facility performance, and integrate with other programs to automate and enhance a facility’s security and management system.

“Software companies are frantically keeping up with the industry needs for data in many different varieties,” says Rodney Vernon, vice president of business development for DOMICO, a provider of standalone and Web-based management software to the self-storage industry.

One aspect in which software has especially excelled is cloud technology. Most industry programs now offer some form of cloud computing, and more operators are tapping into to its power. “Software that is accessible on any mobile, tablet or desktop device, and on any browser, allows owners to manage their facility from any device, anywhere, at any time,” says Toni Colasso, national sales manager for the U-Haul Self Storage Affiliate Network, which offers a Web-based management software for storage operations.

The cloud also allows multiple-site information to be used together or in comparison. “You can have multiple sites on the screen side-by-side so you can tell which ones are doing things the way you want and which ones need improvement,” says Kevin Taylor, president of Space Control Systems Inc., another supplier of self-storage software.

Web-based software that’s integrated with a mobile-friendly website to support online rentals is a must in today’s competitive storage markets, says Jimmy Sorenson, co-founder of Easy Storage Solutions, an industry provider of software and other technology. “Consumers are always on their phone, and they are constantly finding what they need by searching through their Web browser,” he says, stressing the importance of text messaging as a communication platform. “Your management software should have a way to e-mail and text-message notices to tenants.”

To get the most from your software, regardless of platform, it helps to be familiar with all its features. “Operators can get the best results for their existing software by fully understanding what their software has to offer,” Colasso says. “They should always be aware of the features made available to them and how to use them to their advantage. Every software has something to offer; it’s just about understanding and utilizing what you have.”

A good way to stay informed about new features and updates is to contact your vendor every year, Taylor advises. “Most companies send out newsletters telling customers about the new additions, but if you’re like me and receive countless e-mails every day, you may miss something important. It never hurts to check in with your vendor and talk to them about the best way to take advantage of their software.”

Operators who are opening a new facility or considering a software change need to think about the user experience of onsite management and tenants. The product should interface smoothly with other programs, be easy to use with intuitiveness of flow, and provide accurate data, Vernon says.

Mobile Apps

While there are apps for everything from online banking and shopping to social media and gaming, few have specifically targeted the self-storage operator or user until recently. At the forefront are apps designed to secure rentals and give customers easy access to the facility. The driving force behind these advances is, of course, consumer demand.

“As Millennials are starting to become a larger percentage of tenants using self-storage, they want to interact with operators using technology, specifically smartphones and apps or responsive mobile websites. They expect to be able to accomplish most if not all of the rental and ongoing interaction via their smartphones,” says Terry Bagley, vice president of business development for Janus International Group LLC, a manufacturer of roll-up doors and building components that also provides the SecurGuard smart-lock system.

Multi-site operators like AAAA Self Storage & Moving, Mini U Storage and YourSpace Storage are keeping pace with this demand by offering a mobile app that operates similarly to other mainstream platforms, providing tenants with options to rent a unit, pay their bill, and even gain access to the main entrance gate or buildings from the convenience of a smartphone. Tenants can also view their access history, and even be notified of alarms and access activity.

Operators who employ mobile apps will also enjoy improved marketing. “The entire population checks their phones on average once every 12 minutes, and that is a conservative statistic,” says Aaron Harwell, owner of SpiderDoor. “The chances of that consumer seeing your app’s logo on a regular basis is present, and it is wonderful for your business.”

Robotics

Although it may seem futuristic, there is at least one robot making its way into the self-storage industry. Keylo, a service robot designed by French engineering company Wyca SAS, allows facility operators to interact with customers autonomously or remotely. And while a U.S.-based operator has yet to incorporate the machine into daily operation, Keylo boasts several users in Europe, including Bluespace, an operator with 30 sites in Spain; Kingbox in Toulouse, France; and Zebrabox, which has eight facilities in Switzerland.

Much like a self-service kiosk, Keylo is designed to assist customers through the rental process, but with one big difference—it’s on wheels. This enables the machine to offer a facility tour or just lead a customer to a unit. “According to Google, 74 percent of clients want to see the unit in person before leasing it,” says Wyca co-founder Matthieu Besozzi. “By using a robot, clients visit the facility, discuss it with the manager, digitally sign the lease agreement and retrieve a lock.”

Keylo can also connect customers via its screen with a live counselor to answer questions. Consumers are already becoming more comfortable using two-way screens on smartphones and via Skype when communicating with others. “Their life has dramatically changed over the last 10 years, and they expect these great technologies to make part of any service, self-storage included,” says Besozzi, who predicts kiosks and robots will work collaboratively in the future.

Wyca signed an exclusive distribution agreement last year with OpenTech Alliance Inc., a provider of self-storage kiosks, call-center services and other technology. “The kiosk will receive the client outside the facility and the remote agent will switch to the robot once the client is inside the property,” Besozzi says of the partnership.

Getting Started

If all this new tech is making your head spin, you’re not alone. One reason many operators shy from adding new technology is because the options are mind-boggling. Those who’ve already paved the path recommend starting with the basics. All storage businesses should have management software, and a mobile-friendly website that can take payments and reservations.

“At this point, customers should be able to rent a unit from you without walking into your office. That means they access your website, select a unit, sign up for insurance, sign a legal lease, make a payment and get a gate code. All of that should happen smoothly from their cell phone,” Morrow says.

From there, you can consider adding a kiosk, access-control app, electronic locks, call center or even a vending machine to automate at least some aspects of the operation. “Talk to other operators who are using technology and see what’s working well for them and what isn't,” Minsley suggests.

Before adding new gadgets and gizmos, you need to make sure they make sense for your business. “It’s easy to get caught up in fancy new trends. If you think something is cool and flashy but forget to look at the real-life implications, you may be trying to push something on your tenants that they may not be ready for,” Sorenson says. “Self-storage shouldn’t be complicated. The key is to provide enough technology to keep up with demand but not to overwhelm tenants with flashy tools that don't provide a lot of extra value.”

And while the price tag to implement new technology should always be a factor, it shouldn’t be the sole one. Although these new tools and services are less costly than in year’s past, there will still be upfront expenses, meaning operators need to weigh the pros and cons. “All of the current technologies offer some form of return on investment, cost savings or increased level of security,” says Dave Brown, general manager at 2D Electronics, a provider of access-control and security products. “Each operator needs to determine which of those technologies best suit their business requirements.”

For those nervous about making the commitment to new technology, Besozzi offers this advice: Don’t be afraid. “Technology, when it’s well-implemented and when people are correctly trained, is the path to growth. Due to the increasing competition in self-storage, investing in technology is crucial to keep your costs low and to differentiate yourself from competitors.”

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