The Sweet Life of Remote and Self-Service Rentals   

by Tron Jordheim, Store Here Management

What does convenience mean for self-storage shoppers?  When people realize they need a self- storage unit, what do they do? What frame of mind are people in when they look for a storage place?

Convenience used to mean finding a storage place close to your home, within easy driving distance. It meant having a location on a main street with an easy in-and-out driveway. To some, it meant easy access to the units and the property with electronically con- trolled gates, wide drives or hallways, good lighting and doors that rolled easily and stayed open without any trouble. Convenience used to mean getting a quick and appropriate response when calling on the phone. These things are all still important, but our world has changed.

Mobile phones are powerful computers and communicators which almost all of us have in our hands all day long, and they have changed us. Shopping services like Amazon have changed us. Instant access to information and targeted ads has changed us. The various easy pay options available with a tap or two of our fingers have changed us. Google, Facebook and Instagram have altered us.

The self-storage business has typically been slow to adopt technology advancements for a variety of reasons. I started in the storage business when fax machines were still the highest tech tool the slickest and smartest opera- tors used to streamline their business processes and get a jump on their competitors.

History is repeating itself. Many facilities are full enough that many of us take a “why worry?”  attitude. Rental rates are pretty good in almost every market, so why spend money or time to figure out new technologies at this point?

There are a few ways to think about this. One way to think about it is to consider that the people who wait to react to serious trends have trouble catching up. So why be the one who has to play catch-up and suffer a loss in occupancy and revenue while you figure it all out after your competitors are already doing it?

Another way to think about it is to consider that some portion of your potential customer base is already living in the mobile, two-clicks, buy-it-now on the small-screen world. If 10 percent of your potential customer base lives like this, why would you make yourself unappealing and impossible to do business with 10 percent of your potential new customers? The truth is, it is more like half or three quarters of your potential customer base already conduct a large portion of their transactions in the digital world.

You may not notice it yet only because your nearest competitors may be as far behind the times as you are. Maybe I am being unfair. Perhaps you are trying to be a part of the new world and I have been too harsh. In any case, there are some basic methods for making remote and self-service rentals available to a wide range of customer preferences.

Customers interact with you in three ways: 1) they stop at your site, 2) they call you on the phone, and 3) they look at your website. There are excellent quick and simple ways to rent to all of these types of people. You’ll need a few basic items first. Your store management software needs to be web-based and robust. It needs

to integrate well with other tech tools. This is easier than ever as the tools and software available to us are better than they’ve ever been, and the design makes the user interfaces easy and simple to use. Having said that, your staff needs to be comfortable with technology (or become comfortable with it.)

A part of your consideration must be the simplification of your rental routines.  Go and rent a unit from yourself. Have a friend rent a unit from you. Carefully audit the experience and the time involved. Streamline everything. Simplify everything. Shorten the time needed for everything. Of course, you still need to do all of the compliance tasks and all the new customer education. But you can automate a lot of this. Send follow up emails with instructions, tips and how-tos.  Set up paperless leases with e-sign systems. Consider using tablets for your staff to obtain the e-sign signatures from people in person when you are doing leases at the desk.

The other consideration will be how your remote rentals check in. Will they do “self check-in” or an “office check- in?” Self check-ins get a gate code and a unit number and find their own way to their unit and move in without assistance. You can add the cost of a lock to your initial rental fee and have a lock waiting in the unit. (Note: TSSA does not recommend leaving units unlocked, but this is a judgment call.) Your systems allow you to select a small number of units in different sizes to be available to people for self check-in. If you use self check-in, then you must carefully audit units frequently to make sure someone did not move into a different unit than was assigned to them. You also need to set your rules so that you have a clean lease and the correct contact and identity information for any issues that might come up later such as lien sales and so on.

Office check-ins are easy. The person who rents remotely comes in during office hours  to show identification, checks in with the manager to ensure compliance items have been completed and follows you to the correct unit.

There is no reason you can’t use both systems. Depending on how someone rents from you, you can use either one or the other.

For the people who stop at your site, you can offer a kiosk. When properly integrated, a kiosk offers a simple and efficient way to select and rent a unit.  Typically, your kiosk customers will use self check-in. Many times the kiosk customer is someone who doesn’t care to deal with anyone in person, and the kiosk can give you 24-hour service if you’d like. So it is a good solution.

You will also want to consider installation and security issues. Depending on how you do the install and what sort of application you are looking at, you can spend between $1,000 to $20,000 on the kiosk and anywhere from a few hundred dollars for a very simple install to tens of thousands for a complicated install. You’ll pay anywhere between $75 to $500 a month on maintenance. The point is that there is a kiosk for just about every store or every application.

For those tenants who prefer to call, they can rent a unit right over the phone. When you set up your system so it is easy to rent over the phone, easy to send the e-lease and easy for someone to check in, then the easiest thing an employee answering the phone can do is rent the caller a unit.

This is a “one thing leads to another” situation. A system that makes it easier for your staff to rent over the phone also makes it easier for your customers. Soon your employees find it easier to rent units over the phone, so that’s exactly what they do. Before long, the employees find it less productive and less helpful to set up reservations, take lead information and give out pricing when the more efficient thing to do is rent a unit over the phone. Read this paragraph again. Then read it again.

Operators who adopt this way of thinking are often renting more units to phone callers than they are writing phone leads and reservations combined. Read that sentence again. This is powerful stuff. Taking callers off the market like this greatly increases your overall conversion rates of inquiries to rentals, makes your ad spending more efficient and allows you better options for revenue management.

Your online visitors expect an easy self-service option. Think of your own online habits. If you went to a site for information on how to acquire an object or hire a service and you could not do a transaction, wouldn’t you just move on to another service? I think you would. Use the same audit style to audit your online experience. Use your software and technology integration to create a simple and intuitive path for renting on- line. Do not rely on your own preferences to build the system. Use best practices from other e-commerce sites. Use best practices from other self-storage operators who have already been doing this well for many years. Find people who are not involved or interested in self storage to test the user interface.

When your online remote rental system is set up well, you can find that the majority of online transactions will be rentals rather than leads and reservations. Here again, you can take many shoppers off the market and greatly improve your advertising efficiency.

Adding tablets to your staff’s tool chest makes them more mobile to move around the property with potential customers and makes it so much easier for customers to transact business with you. It never hurts to show your customers you have good technology. People are impressed with businesses that try to keep up with trends and give them the level of service and convenience they expect in this new world.

One unexpected benefit from moving full force into remote rentals will be the time you save your staff. When the rental process, check-in process, and lease approval process becomes briefer and more efficient, your staff will have more time to develop relationships with customers, do the maintenance and cleaning needed to make a storage place attractive and participate in community outreach.

They’ll also need some time to analyze the information coming from the remote rental systems to help you understand trends, opportunities and bottlenecks as well as time to work on troubleshooting and updating the new systems. Even great systems need maintenance and all good systems come with bugs and glitches that need attention and patience.

You might think this is not worth the bother. You might think this is an expensive and disruptive undertaking.

If your successes with going to remote rentals is half as good as I see with other operators, then it is absolutely worth the bother. It will cost money, take time and need attention, but the tools, vendors and experts are available.

It won’t necessarily be easy. You may have gotten into self storage because you were a good builder, a good real estate investor, a good site selection expert or a smart entrepreneur.

You may not be a good leader, a good executive, a good technologist, or a good people manager. You didn’t need to have those characteristics to do well at self storage in the past. But that was then. This is now.

If you are doing remote rentals already, review your systems carefully and improve the heck out of them. If you are not yet living in the digital world in your storage life, get with it and make it look good.

Tron Jordheim is the business development manager for Store Here Management. He was formerly the chief marketing officer of one of North America’s largest privately held self-storage companies, and director of the industry’s leading award-winning call center. Jordheim is a frequent speaker at global self-storage events and a contributor to industry trade journals. He started his first business in the sixth grade with a roll of paper towels and a can of window cleaner and has been running businesses ever since.