Competitive Positioning

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Keeping Pace With Technology To Protect Your Investment

By Stan Houser

Savvy self-storage operators are taking advantage of technology to gain a competitive edge and command a premium price in the marketplace. They are enhancing their investments in new facilities by installing the latest technology, and they are protecting their investments in existing facilities with technology upgrades. This enlightened approach to competitive positioning is based on the idea that today’s consumers are seeking the advantages that current technology can deliver in the areas of security and convenience, and that tenants are willing to pay for an enhanced customer experience.

Enhancing Customer Experiences To Build Loyalty

Customer experience management (CEM) is a recognized business discipline that is influencing a wide range of commercial sectors, including self-storage. In a competitive environment, the customer experience (CX) can be a differentiator that builds customer loyalty, protects margins, and drives more dollars to the bottom line.

Developing effective CX strategies starts with becoming more customer-centric, looking at commercial interactions through the customers’ eyes, trying to see the world from their perspective. The goal for CX strategies is to increase customer participation and engagement, which means identifying all the points of connection where customers research, compare, buy, and use products—from start to finish.

Consumers who are seeking a self-storage facility will generally start with an internet search. They will focus on finding a site in their local community, and they will extend their digital searches by visiting websites, taking virtual tours, and reading online reviews. Eventually they will select one or two locations for on-site visits and meetings with site managers. This means that the self-storage customer experience starts with multiple touch points in the digital world and in the real world.

Technology Strategies Based On Customer Experience

Jason Bohman is president of Southern Optimized Security Systems in Hiram, Ga., a company that specializes in low-voltage installations of video surveillance, access control, and burglar alarm systems. Bohman is an advocate for using technology to improve the customer experience during the design phase. “Honestly, I think architects and engineers that design the facilities should have a clearer understanding of how our industry is changing, technologically,” Bohman says. “We are not just creating 10-by-10 boxes anymore, but rather, an experience.”

Bohman describes how his company uses technology to enhance the customer experience for his self-storage clients. “I have become a huge fan of the marketing aspects of security, not just the security portion of it,” Bohman says. “We add our own flavor to the video surveillance by installing things like public view monitors in the elevator lobbies, and pinhole cameras in the entry gate keypads, and smart TVs that allow streaming advertisements and such. We also like to add personalized wording to the keypads’ LCD screens.”

Bohman believes technology can be a key differentiator for protecting the owner’s investment in a self-storage facility. “Not only do we install audio amplifiers, we make sure they are public address (PA) amplifiers, so the site manager can do an All-Call to every speaker in the facility,” Bohman says. “We also install wireless access points (WAPs) to all floors in a multi-story site, so internet connection loss is not an issue. I think these are some of the little things that most folks miss, that can be added with a nominal investment, and I believe it is the little things that set your facility apart from the other sites just down the road. It’s the attention to details that helps our clients fill their facilities with tenants faster than the rest.”

Technology Planning And Budgeting For New Sites

According to Bohman, security and access control technology should be analyzed from the perspectives of both owners and tenants. Bohman says, “I think rather than discuss bits and pieces of equipment, we should really concentrate on what low voltage systems are designed to do in a self-storage facility. Are we securing the office? Are we opening a sliding door? Are we streaming music to lessen the sounds of creaking floors? Although these all sound like simple questions, we are on the right track with our train of thought.”

Bohman is also willing to address how developers and contractors should be budgeting for technology systems. “I’ve found that low voltage systems, whether they be for security, telephone, or audio, should encompass around two percent to three percent of the overall project budget,” Bohman says. “For example, a $10 million project should include approximately $200 thousand in systems. In our region of the country, that number is currently closer to 0.5 percent to one percent of the overall budget. But I think we will see an increase over the next five years as more solutions come into play and automation takes over the traditional way of managing a site.”

Site Security Solutions That May Be Overlooked

The fundamental customer value proposition of a self-storage facility is secure self-storage, which means self-storage operators should consider the technology solutions that are best matched to the demands of that promise.

It is a good idea to consult with expert technicians when planning for technology systems and site security. Bryan Sweeney, senior technician and sales for SOS Systems, Surrey, B.C., Canada, has identified some of the solutions that may get overlooked by owners or general contractors. “We shouldn’t assume that any one system is sufficient for securing a site,” Sweeney says. “Layering security is important. Controlling the access points gives you a record of ingress and egress at the gates of your facility. Surveillance systems can document license plates, faces, and movement throughout your site. Facility and perimeter alarm systems work great as a preliminary indicator that your site has been breached, and they provide an audible and visual response that deters criminals from lingering. And, finally, individual locker alarms are an important line of defense against customer-content theft. These systems work in harmony to protect your staff, customers, and assets.”

Bohman has also identified some specific features of site security that may get overlooked in the planning stage. “I like to include a panic button at the front desk, in case of emergency, as well as a backdoor exit,” Bohman says. “Other features to consider are intercoms in the hallways, large flat screens that show the camera views and electronic rules signs, walk through gates next to the lift gates, plus a camera aimed at the front door so that customers instantly see themselves on the big screen. Also, web cams for each customer photo that can be dropped into their ledger. Operators should always require the tenant’s social security number and a valid photo identification that can be copied.”

Developing Sites With Customized Solutions

Delivering an enhanced customer experience is a proven approach for retaining tenants, and customized solutions build customer loyalty by offering features that are not easily duplicated by competitors. In turn, improving customer retention means more dollars go directly to the bottom line, because it is easier and less expensive to retain existing customers than to acquire new ones.

The customized solution is well illustrated by a recent project completed by Sweeney and SOS Systems. “In 2017 we secured a facility with 32 private wine cellars, and each door was equipped with proximity access control,” Sweeney reports. “These were private rooms, not sheet metal lockers, which made the site unique. We also installed a number of access control points, each to be used by a different customer, which meant we needed to create over 32 different access control areas in the software, as well as over 32 different access levels.” The end result was a solution that reflected well on the operator and created a superior customer experience for the high-end wine connoisseurs who became tenants.

Upgrading Sites With New Or Emerging Technologies

Self-storage owners can protect their investments in existing sites with technology upgrades that improve security. Sweeney has identified the risks associated with relying on outdated equipment and technology. “Operators are at risk if their equipment can’t deliver the quality data that allows them to take action against criminals or people with malicious intent,” Sweeney says. “Older, low-resolution cameras will rarely give you the pixels per square foot you need to recognize a license plate number or collect facial detail. This information is crucial in identifying an individual for apprehension after a crime has been committed. And failure to alarm both the building and the locker alarm points allows criminals to traverse physical obstructions such as doors, windows, and gates, without being detected. This failure places your business at an increased risk of break in.”

Sweeney and SOS Systems delivered a sizable upgrade in 2017 for a customer who wanted to retrofit lockers with wireless door alarms. Sweeney says, “This site was large, with 1,900 lockers to be secured. This solution gave the operator the ability to monitor the position of every door and secure a unit without gaining access to it, which was a convenience. Securing that many units without acquiring a single key is amazing.” 

Bohman sees technology upgrades as a way to enhance the customer experience, improve customer loyalty, and produce quality referrals. Bohman says, “It only takes one or two disgruntled customers to express their frustration that a clicker didn’t work or something happened on the site and the camera wasn’t working that day. Those things have a trickle-down effect that negatively impacts referrals and potential clients. I’ve seen it happen many times in the past when this risk could have been easily avoided by properly preparing the site and conducting regular systems checks.”

Identifying The Next Technology Trends

Delivering a superior customer experience doesn’t mean doing everything for the customer. Sometimes the best CX strategy is to enable self-service functions that customers can see, use, and appreciate. This approach matches the goal mentioned previously: to increase customer participation and engagement.

Bohman is an advocate for technologies that consumers use every day, including mobile devices and cloud-based software. Bohman notes that the migration to these technologies is underway. “I think we are already seeing this transition with the millennial generation,” Bohman says. “What 18-year-old doesn’t spend eight hours a day on their smartphone? Most of them don’t even know what a PC is, much less a CRT monitor or a dial-up modem. With the ability to search for a self-storage facility nearby, upload their personal data for their leasing agreement, and then pre-pay the first month’s rent, what more convenience could you possibly add? With the addition of apps that give tenants the ability to open gates and doors, everything is within a finger’s touch, literally.”

Sweeney emphasizes the benefits of remote access for operators that use cloud-based software. “The ability to monitor and control your site remotely is a powerful management tool,” Sweeney says. “It provides peace of mind and reduces unnecessary trips to the site.” Sweeney also notes the security considerations implied with cloud-based software. “It’s important to keep cyber-security in mind with networked or cloud-based systems. Be sure to hire a knowledgeable and trusted installation team when deploying a networked solution that is protecting your assets and well-being.”

Automating Site Technology In The Near Future

As technology continues to evolve, self-storage operators will be able to automate some of the functions currently handled by on-site managers. Both Bohman and Sweeney believe that automation and remote access will change how self-storage sites are equipped and managed.

“I think self-storage facilities will be 100 percent automated in the next five to eight years,” Bohman says.  “Automation is not out of reach, but it will certainly require an upfront investment in the technology of the facility.”

Sweeney notes that both tenants and operators will benefit from technologies that enable automation and remote access. “Inevitably, like we’ve seen in the surveillance, access control, security alarm, and AV industries, we will see self-storage security make a shift into the Internet of Things (IoT),” he says.
“Customers and owners alike will use smart platforms that connect to various control systems through their mobile devices. I expect operators will push for remote connectivity, so they can monitor and control facilities from centralized platforms while off premise. They’ll see fewer on-site service calls because their support teams will troubleshoot remotely via the connected IoT platform. There will be fewer false alarms with layered remote verification for video, access, and alarm systems. Mobile connectivity, via IoT integrated systems, will improve productivity, especially when overseeing multiple facilities.”

Sweeney describes the daily routine for a site that is more fully automated. “I think someday a manager walks up to the store entrance, uses a palm print to unlock and get any site error messages, turns on the coffee and lights, and forwards to their phone or other device an instant update of what happened since yesterday’s closing, and then lets us know all areas are okay and all clients are paid up and three rentals occurred since closing and all were sent a confirmation and chose the following time slots to appear on site today,” he says.

Maximizing The Customer Experience With Technology Solutions

While technology upgrades can provide the foundation for an improved customer experience, the best CX strategies will also include provisions for maximizing the investment in technology through teamwork, communications, and evaluation.

Seasoned self-storage operators know that teamwork is a key component of an effective CX strategy, so they train and retrain the employees who will be interacting with customers. Employees must be able to explain the features and benefits of any new technology, and they should be trained on the best ways to answer customer questions and concerns.

A fully developed CX strategy combines leading edge technology with effective communications. Technology upgrades are newsworthy, so it is appropriate to promote these improvements directly to the community through advertising, press releases, and social media.

Customers are likely to share their good and bad experiences through social media and online reviews, which means self-storage operators can evaluate the success of their CX strategies by monitoring online posts. As previously mentioned, the most effective CX strategies will address customer engagement in both virtual and physical settings.

In summary, self-storage operators can improve their competitive positioning by installing the latest technology in new facilities and by upgrading existing sites with retrofits. High-resolution cameras, mobile technology, cloud-based software, wireless connections, remote management, tenant apps, and automation give self-storage operators the tools they need to attract and retain tenants by enhancing the customer experience.

Stan Houser is a contributor for PTI Security Systems, the global leader in access control and security solutions for the self-storage industry. PTI provides the most innovative, durable, and reliable security products including keypads, wired and wireless door alarms, mobile apps for both tenants and facility staff, video surveillance solutions, and powerful security software that integrates seamlessly with most management software on the market today.

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