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Virtual Management in Self-Storage: Combining Automation Technology With a Human Touch

Unattended self-storage facilities have had their challenges, but virtual management blends human presence with technological advancements to improve operation and the customer experience. Read how.

Unattended self-storage facilities have come a long way in the past few years. While automation has been around for quite some time, technology has improved radically, streamlining a number of operational processes. We’re now seeing forward-thinking operators take the unattended model a step further, leveraging technology to embrace virtual management.

The virtual-management model is far more practical and personal than it may sound. What is it exactly and how does it differ from unattended operations you’ve seen previously? Let’s find out and answer yet another important question: How can virtual management save you time and money?

The Virtual Model

Simply put, a virtually managed self-storage operation uses technology to bring a facility manager face to face with tenants—with no need for him to be on site. When a customer walks in the lobby door, he sees a large monitor and a call button. He’s then greeted by a live person onscreen. In most cases, this “greeter” is a district manager who represents the brand across five to 10 stores, someone with a wealth of experience and customer-service skills.

Numerous companies across many industries have adopted this service model in the past decade. Early adopters, including leading hospitality and travel brands, have driven innovation and efficiencies in tech-assisted customer service. Not long ago, airline gate agents, rental-car representatives and hotel desk staff were required to complete nearly every step of the check-in process on behalf of the customer, doing things such as:

  • Entering personal and payment information
  • Providing boarding passes, rental agreements, bag tags, room keys
  • Verifying documents
  • Booking and rescheduling
  • Managing seat/car/room selections

These labor-intensive processes often created long wait times for customers and left sizable room for human error. Efforts to move more quickly resulted in incorrect or incomplete data capture, incorrectly tagged travel bags, erroneously programmed room keys and other similar mistakes. Technology now allows customers to complete online reservations, mobile check-in, mobile boarding and self-serve bag checks on their own, allowing agents to focus on higher levels of service for those who have questions or need assistance.

Companies like Hertz, Hilton and major airlines have increasingly found ways to enhance the virtual customer-service experience. Most are automating processes without going fully unattended. This provides users the opportunity to interact with a service agent as much—or as little—as they’d like. Similarly, customers at virtually managed self-storage facilities have the option to interact with a live, onscreen facility manager if and when they choose. Benefits enjoyed by these sites include transactional speed and efficiency and a reduction in per-store labor costs.

The Importance of Interaction

There’s a pervasive trend in U.S. consumer buying habits and preferences today: More and more people are using technology to avoid speaking to a customer-service agent. In particular, mobile apps and smartphone browsers are being used to not only book services but to authenticate and automate access. Mobile scanning and biometrics are common because they help save time.

Now, these same conveniences can be achieved in self-storage. But with technology touching almost every aspect of our lives, you may be wondering, why have a virtual manager at all? Why not just go fully automated? Perhaps having a live manager pop up onscreen in lobby of an attended facility seems like overkill when the customer found the facility online and used his phone to rent his unit and access the property, all without any help at all.

Still, consider that some tenants—especially women—may feel uneasy being alone at an unattended site. A kiosk or call-center recording likely won’t alleviate that tension. An onscreen human presence helps to alleviate any fears. Even the knowledge that a facility has push-to-call VOIP stations throughout a building can be enough to make a wary customer feel safer and more secure.

Making the Transition

In the past, unattended self-storage facilities didn’t have the access technology necessary to completely eliminate the need for an onsite manager. Before 2017, a fully integrated, automated door-locking solution wasn’t readily available. This lack posed a very real challenge, particularly when it came time to overlock a unit or cut a lock. Both actions required the intervention of a staff member. Even if an operator collected a fee for either service, he and the customer suffered inconvenience in the process. Today, with advanced smart-lock technology, an overlock or lock release can be completely automated. No more wasted time and energy!

Typically, unattended self-storage facilities have relied heavily on call centers to assist customers. However, these services can be costly. Some are understaffed, resulting in long hold times. Some are staffed with inexperienced agents who lack customer-service skills. Any instances of poor service negatively impact your customer experience and bottom line.

Virtual management closes the gap between full automation and human interaction. Just because a manager isn’t physically on the property doesn’t mean he can’t assist customers in real time! Using two-way video and audio communication as well as an electronic doorbell in the facility lobby, you know when someone needs help. You can see him through a camera and talk to him through a speaker. An offsite manager can be just as present with visitors as he would be in a traditional office setting.

In fact, virtual service can reach far beyond the lobby. Managers can monitor activity from cameras throughout the property, overseeing all gates, driveways, hallways, elevators, units and more. With the use of advanced technologies, self-storage operators have successfully transformed the old unattended model into a virtual-management model that adds a human touch for a better customer experience, lower costs and smoother operation.

Rachael Wheeler Dempsey is a copywriter for Janus International Group, a global manufacturer of turnkey self-storage building and security solutions, including roll-up and swing doors, hallway systems, portable-storage solutions, door-replacement programs, and the Nokē Smart Entry system. To reach her, call 770.343.4146; e-mail [email protected]; visit

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