Unmanned. Manless. Autonomous. These words continue to crop up in self-storage industry ads, articles, speaking sessions, seminars, and more. “Unmanned self-storage” has frequently been billed as the future operating model of choice as industry technology has evolved to catch up to commercial standards. This trend was accelerated by COVID-19, as we know, as individuals and businesses increased their use of technology to combat the challenges created by the worldwide pandemic. Tenants were required to overcome previous barriers to adoption, and remote facility management became more a matter of necessity than choice. Yet, much like the larger world, which even as it’s begun to reopen will likely never return to pre-COVID norms, operating models will likely never revert to what they once were. Many of the technology changes, and staffing challenges, look like they’re here to stay.
Technology can be a powerful tool to manage any self-storage facility. When implemented skillfully, technology and other third-party services can help self-storage operators:
- Improve the efficiency of their day-to-day facility operations,
- Reduce frustration throughout the customer journey,
- Gain insight into their operation at a portfolio and property level,
- Maximize revenue-building opportunities and increase customer value, and
- Enhance employee, tenant, and stakeholder satisfaction with your operation.
But what some operators overlook, and what these scholarly efforts often gloss over or altogether ignore, is the benefit of (or arguable need for) technology that supports human intervention when needed throughout your property. Articles that focus purely on the use of technology to remove the human element from the equation have missed the mark. Your facility will always need people to manage some physical tasks, your customers need people to resolve unexpected challenges, and you need people to help grow your business.
The Self-Storage Sweet Spot
A variety of tools and services exist, from vendors both in and outside the industry, which can help you manage your facility remotely, but people are a critical element in that equation. In a hiring period marked by “The Great Resignation” and rising employment costs, this differentiation makes an argument for a new type of self-storage operating model—one based on the notion of hybrid staffing, with facilities augmented by technology and remote services, which are scalable and responsive to the demand at your facility.
For a facility that feels like it runs itself and provides a five-star customer experience, there are three questions every self-storage operator must ask when adopting new technology or contracting third-party services:
- How does this help my team focus on value-creating activities?
- How does this remove friction from the customer experience (and build loyalty)?
- How will this impact my scalability and bottom line?
One other element to consider as you evaluate tools and services to support your self-storage operation: It’s particularly important for your systems to integrate with your property management system, as that’s akin to the brains of your operation. Before you commit to any new vendor, make sure you know which systems their solutions support.
The market has exploded with new technology and services designed to supplement on-site operations and support remote facility management. One such service offers phone-based facility managers to handle daily administrative tasks, rent units, resolve tenant issues, manage tenant delinquency and collections, schedule on-site maintenance, and more. These services differ from traditional BPO call centers due to the complexity of tasks performed. While call centers offer important supplemental support, agents can generally only assist with payments, reservations, and customer inquiries.
Automated tools are also available to make managing monthly payments and collections as painless as possible for you and your tenants. People have proven far more apt to respond to a text over a call. According to MessageDesk (https://messagedesk.com/blog/text-messaging-statistics-facts-stats-insights/), texts from an unknown number are seven times more likely to get a response than a voicemail and 84 percent of consumers won’t answer a call from an unknown caller. Text-based communications, automated SMS payments and reminders, and text-to-pay services exist to increase channels for tenant communications and make payments as easy as possible for you to collect and your tenants to pay. These payment services, which send an invoice to your tenant via text message and allow them to make a payment via a link, have proven to notably reduce delinquency and accounts receivable for storage operations. In spite of their preference for text-based communications, MessageDesk notes that 76 percent of consumers would still like a real person to be on the other side of that text-based experience, rather than a chatbot, which underscores the need for systems supported by live customer support.
Self-service kiosks, with their ability to provide a full-service rental and payment experience anytime, is one of the most essential pieces of technology that can allow operators to eliminate an on-site staff presence while still meeting customer demand. For decades, kiosks have enabled operators to refine their operations to increase rentals and reduce customer friction across every interaction. With a kiosk on site, facilities remain accessible and open for rentals or payment transactions whenever there is tenant demand. New kiosk technology, which enables customers to connect to a real person at any point in the rental process via live video chat, addresses the needs of those people who do require human intervention, giving you the benefit of live customer service staff while not requiring you to physically staff your office.
In addition to supporting a hybrid model, which allows operators to reduce operational costs and optimize resources, self-serve kiosks offer multiple advantages to self-storage operators, including increases in sales and on-time payments, increased accessibility of service, marketing and brand advantage, extended rental and payment hours, improved data accuracy, and the ability to cater to people that prefer technology or want to limit person-to-person interactions.
Components And Pricing
Kiosks, particularly with the recent advent of live video chat to provide anytime help, are currently the only alternative to a live person that provide customers with the full rental experience. However, not all kiosks on the market are built the same. Full-service storage kiosks should offer extensive customization options and support the following features and functions for your self-storage property:
- Always at your property, ready to complete a rental or take a payment when your customer wants to complete a transaction
- Credit card reader, bill acceptor, and ACH capture to accept multiple payment types 24/7
- Cloud-based integration with your PMS system to provide real-time updates on pricing and inventory and automatically apply rental payments within your PMS
- Allow tenants to select a unit, sign a lease, purchase insurance, and buy locks
- Digital camera and on-screen recording to capture digital recordings of all transactions
- Digital signature capture and driver’s license scanner to help verify tenant identity
- Offer two-way live, bilingual customer support (many models support live video chat and remote control)
- Proactive remote monitoring of kiosk status and component health
When you evaluate which kiosk is the right fit for your facility, consider the physical needs/limitations of your space, your budget, the features that are important to your operation, and any long-term software and hardware support your chosen vendor provides. The costs associated with kiosk technology run a wide range. When evaluating potential technology, it’s important to understand what’s included in the base price, if the system was built to address specific nuances of the self-storage industry, and the costs of ongoing service, support, and hardware. Some generic models can start at a low base price but do not include vital components such as card readers, LCD touchscreens, enclosures, kiosk software, software and management support, and future replacement or product failure costs (components that will quickly drive your final investment much higher than you originally anticipated).
Access, Security, And Technology Management
Your physical facility represents perhaps one of the largest challenges to manage remotely—and you will still need someone to visit your property, whether that’s maintenance staff, a district/regional manager, or part-time facility manager or custodian, to complete hands-on tasks that can’t be automated (whether you outsource is up to you). These operational needs include anything from lock checks and cash collection to cleaning and maintenance of the facility itself. But recent developments in self-storage technology have certainly made the management of your physical property and the systems that support it easier.
Internet Of Everything
One of the biggest innovations, only introduced to self-storage in 2018, is the idea of an IoE, or Internet of Everything. This cloud-based technology, while similar to an IoT (Internet of Things), combines data, people, processes, and things (smart devices) into a single platform. This technology is designed to help facility operators proactively manage site operations, integrate devices, and enhance the customer experience, while capturing and reporting actionable data to more effectively manage your self-storage operation. By integrating these elements into a common platform, users can derive more value and insights than they would from fragmented or separate platforms.
The primary benefit of an IoE platform for an “unmanned facility” is the ability to both monitor and control a smart device remotely, regardless of the manufacturer. This allows operators to select the “smart device” that works best for their operation. There are several vendors in the industry that market technology connected to a central dashboard or control center, but be sure you understand what third-party connections are possible (or already established) and the level of control and business analytics built into the platform. Many systems are restricted to the solutions offered by that vendor, which will leave you either with your second-choice system, additional costs to upgrade, or siloed data systems.
Valuable data is stored in a facility’s property management system, website, access control system, spreadsheets, and other data stores. This segregation of data creates gaps or makes it difficult for operators to analyze data and make educated business decisions. An IoE platform has several benefits–the biggest and likely most untapped being consolidated data. With a consolidated data store, or “Data Lake,” it is possible to eliminate these silos of information. The consolidation of data helps drive the second benefit of an IoE platform, which is Business Intelligence or BI. BI gives operators actionable insights that allow them to make better decisions for operations, efficiency, and revenue. Another benefit of these platforms is the ability to receive alerts when something happens at the property, enabling quick response time, higher quality customer service, and prevention of maintenance and security issues.
Cloud-Based Access Control
Your gate, particularly at a site that does not offer an on-site office, is often viewed as the front door to your property. Your access control system should be a powerful tool in your overall facility management. Cloud-based technology, connected to a central system backed by an IoE, enables you to manage single gates to multi-site portfolios from anywhere with tools to monitor visitors’ activity and facility operations.
While cloud-based systems are quickly becoming the standard for access control industry-wide, they are a must-have for an unmanned self-storage operation. The other component these operators must employ is a keypad—ideally one with a display screen to clearly communicate with tenants. While touchless access is gaining traction, we are likely several years off until widespread adoption is common. Tenants still need a keypad to enter a code and access your facility. A keypad with a display provides the added ability to clearly communicate with your tenants if their account is delinquent, code is wrong, or your facility is unexpectedly closed. Other features you should consider in your evaluation is the ability of your system to set predictive maintenance triggers and automated alerts for on-site activity (to help you gauge if you need to send someone to your property), and a tenant mobile app to support hands-free access, push notifications, app-based communications, mobile payments, and more. As we already know, consumers are demanding more and more channels to engage with companies, and an app can play a valuable role in enhancing your customer experience.
Other features offered by some sophisticated systems can help put that tenant experience, and the efficiency of your operation, over the top. Ask if your access control partner can integrate with service-based solutions, such as a call center, to help resolve tenant gate concerns remotely in real-time. There is never a better time for technology that supports the quick resolution of customer issues than when a tenant is trapped behind a gate and your property or district manager is at dinner 50 miles away. Other tenant support features, like Text Me My Code, can equally reduce customer frustration and save your staff valuable time spent on calls to address simple billing or account issues. Similarly, if your access control connects to industry overlock solutions, whether rudimentary or smart, tenants can resolve account delinquency on their own.
AI And Security Monitoring
Another innovation gaining ground in the self-storage industry is the use of Artificial Intelligence or AI. This can be something as simple as an Alexa device that enables your remote staff to open the front gate or check on the status of the property, such as who was the last person to enter. Another way that AI can benefit your remote operation is through the use of video analytics combined with existing CCTV or camera systems. These AI devices can evaluate the video image and immediately stream that image to a virtual security team who can make a real-time decision on how to respond to the incident. These proactive security monitoring tools can help you protect your property and tenant assets, increase efficiency, reduce security costs, reduce liability, and improve the customer experience in self-storage operations.
Storage Websites And Marketing
A good foundation is critical to your self-storage facility. Similarly, your website is the base of your revenue-building business and key to your operational success. This is true for any operational model, but particularly relevant for those wishing to operate without on-site staff. Your website will quickly become one of the primary ways prospective and future tenants engage with and rent from your storage operation. It’s important to ensure your online presence is designed to capture and convert tenants, which all starts with your self-storage website.
Top platforms available in the industry today not only support the basic function of an online storage rental transaction but act as all-in-one marketing solution that can help you increase the lifetime value of your tenants (LTV) and build your self-storage brand. As you consider which platform or provider is right for your business, look for the following features to help grow your business:
- Fast website load speeds (ideally two seconds or less)
- Responsiveness across devices (desktop, tablet, mobile)
- Value-based pricing tools to increase revenue per rentable square foot
- A user-friendly content management system that gives you full control of your site content
- Visual mapping tools to bring your facility to life and help increase conversion
- Built-in search engine optimization (have your site audited today to see where you may be missing the mark)
- Integration to your property management system for real-time inventory management
- Tools to track your customer acquisition costs and channel performance to understand your marketing ROI and refine your digital marketing efforts
- Integrated marketing tools that align your digital efforts for a seamless customer journey
Perhaps the most important thing to remember related to your website is that you should view it as a living, breathing thing. This isn’t the field of dreams, where if you build it, they will come. Your website cannot be static; as it ages, and if left with little maintenance, the code and content quickly become outdated, making it harder and harder for search crawlers to find and parse its content. This means your rankings suffer and it becomes harder and harder for customers to find you. As you evaluate solutions, consider how easy the platform makes it to keep your content up to date, as well as the team and expertise backing it up. If you don’t have the manpower to maintain a site with dynamic content, consider partnering with a vendor that also offers full-scale marketing services. Their additional expertise and efforts around things such as search engine optimization (SEO), paid advertising (PPC), paid social media, reputation management, and more can help amplify your online rentals to help you meet and exceed your customer acquisition goals.
The Nitty Gritty
When you evaluate the technical specifications of automation and outsourcing solutions, consider the pros and cons each technology, and the vendor that supports it, offer to your self-storage operation. Before you buy, consider:
- Off-The-Shelf Vs. Purpose-Built Solutions
Tenant and facility management software and hardware is abundant, meaning your choice for a technology/services partner is equally broad. However, not all solutions are created equal. Systems specifically designed to address self-storage operational challenges offer unique advantages over generic technology solutions. Be wary when evaluating “industry technology” as well. Make sure your vendors own both their hardware and software, as this will impact your long-term costs and the shelf life of your solution.
- Closed Vs. Open Technology
Many vendors offer all-in-one solutions that, while perhaps straightforward, lock you in to the tools available on their platform that are often weighed down by features you don’t need and missing ones you do. While this may eliminate the time and effort needed to evaluate independent products and services, you lose the freedom to choose the best systems for your unique facility needs. On the other end of the spectrum, some vendors provide open platforms that integrate with a variety of popular third-party technology so operators can integrate any property management software, call center, or other system they add or acquire.
- Immediate And Long-Term Support
Support will be critical to the successful implementation of your software, service, or device— from purchase and adoption to long-term maintenance and ongoing software upgrades. When you evaluate a solution, consider the product support provided by the vendor. Are there clear avenues to get your issue resolved? Do you have a clear point of contact? Are you a number in a ticket system, or can you access same-day, live telephone technical support? Will the vendor continue to support the product, or will it become obsolete?
This hybrid of technology and human talent allows an operator to have the right person performing the right activities at the right time, helping you gain operational efficiencies, enhance your customer experience, and expand your self-storage operation with ease by leveraging an “unmanned” facility model.