Automate To Proliferate

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New Technology Answers The Call For Smartphone Advances

Technology of the 21st century continues to knock down the doors of self-storage facilities, opening new opportunities to improve efficiency as well as the customer experience. While many of the new technology tools can extract a large investment from owners, smaller operators who have fallen behind the curve can still play catch-up without breaking the budget.

A major focus of this technology is to make it easier for digitally connected customers like millennials to do business with storage companies.

“We’re seeing a huge push toward automation and self-service tools, whether that’s automated overlocking using tools like DaVinci Locks or Janus’s SecurGuard Smart Entry System; iPads or tablets for e-sign at the facility; or online self-service tools like online rentals, reservations, bill pay, and autopay,” says Jana Haecherl, storEDGE marketing communications specialist in Westwood, Kan. “We expect to see a continued push toward automation across all business models.”

Targeting Smartphones

Research shows that more customers are accessing websites from smartphones versus desktop or laptop computers. Given that reality, the smartphone has become the target of much of the emerging technology being adopted by storage operators.

It makes sense since the smartphone has become a lifeline for millennials as well as older customers who have developed a trust and comfort level with mobile devices that provide links to entertainment, purchasing, transportation, and online banking, not forgetting communication.

“It’s not just millennials that are using this technology,” says Christine DeBord, director of marketing for Janus International in Temple, Ga. “We’re finding people of all ages not only have phones but are using them for checking into flights, reserving hotel rooms, executing bank transactions—things that in self-storage we would ask the renter to do in the rental process right from their phones.”

If operators want to attract these consumers to storage facilities, they will need to supply similar tools such as those seen in the transportation and lodging industries.

“More operators are providing the digital tools such as document e-sign, online bill payment and move-ins, and two-way texting to attract more device-driven customers,” Haecherl says. “More customers will expect to access nearly all storage-related functions from their smartphones, tablets, and other mobile devices.”

Self-storage vendors are developing hardware and software products and apps that allow smartphone users to perform a wide variety of functions, including virtual tours, autopay, online rentals, and to open gates and storage units remotely.

“Our customers can use cell phones or iPads by logging into a website and pulling up reports,” says Tom Smith, president of Empower Software Technologies in Murrieta, Calif. “But we’ve also added the ability to do online payments, online reservations, and online move-ins via a cell phone, iPad, and whatever device they want to use.”

In order to engage in the mobile movement, it’s imperative for operators to have mobile responsive websites that configure web pages to the smaller format of smartphones. Mobile users have smaller screens than desktops and laptops and less time to spend finding information on the go. Unless a website is “mobile responsive”, your business risks losing untold amounts of business.

“Having a mobile responsive website is key to a successful interaction with a mobile user,” confirms Haecherl. “When a website or web/native app has actionable tools—like online move-ins with digital lease signing and gate access—and mobile-centric communication—like two-way texting—it makes it much easier for mobile users to do business with self-storage brands online, resulting in more online rentals and increased revenue for your business.”

Virtual Gatekeepers

Atlanta-based Universal Storage Group (USG) has gone all-in with many of these new technology solutions. “We’re now converting all of our stores over to PTI Easy Code, so customers can use their phones to enter properties,” reports Anne Ballard, president of marketing, training, and developmental services for USG.

According to the 2017 Self Storage Association Demand Study, a majority of storage tenants ranked gate access as the most important facility feature. It’s no surprise that self-storage suppliers have stepped up to the plate to answer the call for easier gate access.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based PTI Security Systems offers gate, door, and elevator entry with Easy Code, which fully integrates with PTI door alarms and compatible electronic locks. Easy Code remotely opens doors or triggers gates and provides access and alarm activity notifications.

Ballard notes that Phoenix-based Open Tech Alliance has a new product called INSOMNIAC Centralized Intelligence Access (CIA) that is Bluetooth-based and can control multiple devices.

“Customers can use their phones for entry,” she says. “They pull up to the gate and Bluetooth recognizes the cell phone number associated with the account, and the gate automatically opens and can let them into hallway doors.”

INSOMNIAC CIA utilizes the hands-free secure access from the Storage Genie mobile app, which uses beacon technology to securely grant access to a storage property while the phone stays in the customer’s pocket.

Janus has introduced a new version of the SecurGuard Smart Entry System, a wireless, cloud-based digital key solution that allows tenants entry to the facility using only a smartphone.

SecurGuard provides authorized tenant entry (or restricts entry) to access the gate, man-door, floor, and individual units using a smartphone app or wireless phone key fob. SecurGuard also provides constant monitoring of all entry points including individual units, unit door and lock status, and motion sensor and smartphone notifications.

“What we are seeing is automation of the rental process and overlock process with this solution,” DeBord says. “Online rentals have almost always been a kind of reservation. Now you have a smartphone app as soon as you pay for your unit. Your property management software sends a text message that links you to download an app that gets you into the gate and into the unit. It’s a fully automated rental process.”

With motion sensor technology located inside and outside the unit, facility management gets an alert if someone tries to break in or use a code without permission.

“The motion sensors can detect if people are living in units or if there is motion on site after hours,” DeBord says. “We put motion sensors that detect thermal signatures inside of the unit door that connects to our smart entry system. If someone is living in a unit, right away you are going to get a notification that there’s a heat signature inside of a locked unit. If it’s one in the morning and no one’s supposed to be on site, but someone is walking down the hallway, now you know that as well. It becomes a proactive tool rather than a reactive tool.”

The industry typically uses keyed overlocks requiring the property manager or maintenance crew to remove the overlocks of vacant units or the spaces of delinquent tenants. New technology is automating the overlocking process so that someone doesn’t have to physically attach or remove an overlock.

SecurGuard automates the overlocking and release process and potentially eliminates lock cutting. If a tenant is late on the rent, the system prevents their unit access. As soon as their balance is paid, the manager can instantly restore access with the push of a button.

The DaVinci Lock from 10 Federal in Raleigh, N.C., is another tool that automates overlocking. Components include the DaVinci Lock, a standard four-digit combination disc lock, and the DaVinci Software System, which decrypts the DaVinci serial code and returns the unlock combination code.

With this device, the self-storage customer is able to make their delinquent payment, enter the DaVinci serial code, receive the unlock combination code, and remove the lock on their own.

The new lock system frees overlocking responsibility from facility managers, allowing the entire process to be executed even during off hours. It also helps owners of unmanned facilities to address overlock issues.

Digital Equals Paperless

Many self-storage companies are going paperless given the fact that more and more transactions are handled digitally.

“We’re going live on all stores with eSign with SiteLink, so we no longer will print leases, and that technology is going to save us a bundle on printing costs and paper,” Ballard says.

This feature also allows USG to go live with online rentals, since the software automatically feeds unit availability and pricing to the website. Since the customer inputs all the pertinent data, selects the unit, and signs electronically, it saves the manager from having to fill out lease forms.

SiteLink eSign lets storage tenants sign more agreements, letters, and forms faster at stores, on a website, and by phone anywhere day and night.

Another mobile tool growing in popularity is two-way texting that can send late notices, surveys, and reminders to customers over the smartphone. Empower incorporates texting into Storage Commander, but with a wrinkle.

“Usually what you find is a software package will incorporate texting, which allows the manager to open up a text message box for a particular customer type,” Smith says. “We decided to have more control over the content of text messages, so we created a function within the configuration manager where a district manager or owner can create text messages that the manager can pull from. They can create those in advance, they can spell check them, and they can make sure the wording is correct and the right message is going out to the customer base.”

The text message can be a reminder that the rent is due, or a unit will go into auction, or that maintenance work will be done at the facility on a certain date. These pre-defined, or “canned” messages will better ensure that the wording is legally correct and free from grammatical and spelling errors.

“We also tie that function into the core of the product, so when a customer goes late, say after 10 days, you can have a text message go out on the eighth day to remind them you’ve got two days before you go late so you can come in and make a payment,” Smith says. “It will automatically be generated and sent out when that day arrives, so the manager doesn’t have to get involved with that.”

In-Office Digital Displays

Another function software packages are addressing is EMV technology. MasterCard, Visa, American Express, and Discover imposed a liability shift in 2015 that affected merchants accepting credit cards for payment. Merchants who did not switch to new EMV chip technology terminals for credit and debit card transactions could see banks offload the cost of fraud to the store.

Many self-storage operations are lagging behind in EMV compliance, and now Smith says credit card companies are going to charge fees to merchants who use the swipe method on terminals to process credit cards containing a chip.

“Our customers have new terminals and they can use the chip side as well as the swipe side if the card doesn’t have a chip on it,” Smith says. “The machine has a keypad on it, so it allows debit cards to run. That saves the merchant one or two percentage points on transactions.”

New technology is designed to save the manager’s time and help with accuracy, and Smith mentions a peripheral device that reads driver’s licenses and military IDs and runs off the Storage Commander system. With a cost of around $300, the device reads either the magnetic stripe or the 2D barcode of the ID.

“This device during move-in allows the manager to put the driver’s license into the device and it fills in the move-in screen with that data, so they don’t have to type it in manually,” Smith says. “This makes things more accurate and a whole lot faster because all the information is instantly brought over to the screen.”

Another time-saver is a display terminal the customer can use during the move-in process to select tenant insurance, review the contents of the merchandise they are purchasing, and view the move-in contract electronically. The tenant can also digitally sign the contract, which is immediately put into customer’s record in the computer.

Low-Cost Technology

Smaller self-storage operators can make incremental steps to automating facility processes in affordable ways. No matter the size of your budget, automating parts of your operation might be easier than you think.

“We love to use low-cost technology that’s quick and easy to deploy,” Ballard says.

One thankless and time-consuming task that begs for automation is the collections process. USG uses Tampa, Fla.-based Storage Collections to provide automated payment reminders to tenants.

“Storage Collections makes two voice mails and two texts to customers who haven’t paid in full to remind them to pay,” Ballard says. “On the text, they can hit a hyperlink and it takes them to a payment window on the website.”

She estimates the cost for average facilities is less than $20 per month per store.

Ballard also identifies Open Tech’s INSOMNIAC XpressCollect as another automation tool. XpressCollect is an automatic payment reminder and collection system with conversion rates up to 10 times higher than direct mail or do-it-yourself collection calls, according to Open Tech.

Operators of all sizes can tap into a multitude of industry resources to begin their technology search and open their eyes to an emerging arena of automation.

“It’s important to do your research, talk to other operators, and attend trade shows when you’re looking at new technology to get the full picture of what’s available,” storEDGE’s Haecherl recommends.

“The best bang for the buck is to go to national conferences and see the technology on the tradeshow floor where vendors will give full demonstrations and show how it works,” adds Ballard. “You can attend classes to learn what the latest is.”

In addition to attending tradeshows, Empower’s Smith recommends reading industry trade magazines and exploiting the resources state self-storage associations have to offer.

Also, software providers and technology vendors are good sources in identifying automated tools you’re not currently using that could help reduce costs and produce additional income.

Automation is advancing in self-storage and more operators are embracing new technology to streamline operations, secure the premises, and free up staff time to better serve customers.

“Advanced security features are increasingly important when it comes to differentiating yourself from competitors,” Haecherl says. “With premium security features like digital access control, smart storage units, and Bluetooth overlocks, storage facilities can charge a premium rate for space.”

Be sure to provide adequate manager training to better ensure a successful transition to the new technology. Once managers see how these new tools can free them from mundane, repetitive tasks, they can spend more time marketing the company and creating a better customer experience.

David Lucas is a freelance writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a regular contributor to all of MiniCo’s publications.

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