Remote management technology is having a big impact on the self-storage industry, as facility owners increasingly turn to machines to reduce their labor costs. That’s being accomplished with automated kiosks that can rent out units, sell locks, dispense security gate entrance codes, and connect renters with customer service representatives.
Bob Copper’s consulting firm, Self Storage 101, trains facility managers. He said more self-storage facilities are gravitating toward remote management. Why? It’s hard to resist a system that enables you to operate a facility with very little on-site management.
“A lot of facilities are run that way,” Copper said. “There are big operations with 60, 80 properties with no managers. It is very common and getting more so.”
At remotely managed facilities, customers interact with devices that looks much like ATMs. These automated kiosks “usually are hooked up to a call center where you can talk to someone on the phone, and they walk you through the rental process,” Copper said.
Some of these machines are placed in unstaffed lobbies, which provide customers with shelter during bad weather. There’s usually a map on a wall to show people where they can find their newly rented units. Typically, there’s little maintenance involved, Copper said. “They are very reliable,” he said of the machines.
When you are talking about running a remote facility, it doesn’t mean you won’t have someone there. You will have someone there for limited times, on a regularly scheduled basis.
— Robert Chiti, CEO of OpenTech Alliance
If they get nervous about not having people on-site, facility operators are able to check what’s happening at their properties through security cameras that can be monitored online, Copper said.
“Every time I go to a convention, some owner is showing me his facility on his phone [using] the cameras he has there,” he said.
“The only disadvantage is not having someone there to show people the unit,” Copper added. “Sometimes people have to be sold on renting, and if there is no one there to do it, that is a disadvantage.”
Embracing the technology
Robert Chiti is a member of the Self Storage Association’s governing board and CEO of OpenTech Alliance, which sells self-service kiosks, call center services and other technology for self-storage facilities. Chiti said there’s no way to entirely eliminate the need for employees at storage facilities.
“When you are talking about running a remote facility, it doesn’t mean you won’t have someone there,” he said. “You will have someone there for limited times, on a regularly scheduled basis.”
Most facilities that are operated by kiosk have someone stop by from time to time to sweep out units and make sure everything is in order, Copper said.
Amy Hitchingham, vice president of the Argus Self Storage Sales Network, a network of real estate brokers who specialize in self-storage facilities, said she has seen more facilities turn to self-storage kiosks to cut labor costs.
One of the appeals: Not having to pay an on-site manger to be there during slow times, when there’s little to do, she said. Having a kiosk “seems to make sense, rather than paying someone to sit there for X hours a day,” Hitchingham said.
As facility owners and customers become more accustomed to using the machines, the adoption of kiosks will grow, she said.
“It’s the nature of things,” Hitchingham said. “Things are headed that way.”
Losing the human touch?
Not everyone is welcoming the replacement of human beings with machines, however. In Scottsdale, AZ, Faith Cole is the on-site manager of Inner Space Mini Storage.
Cole, who lives at the facility, recalls the days when resident manager jobs like hers were more common. She questions whether machines really can serve the needs of self-storage customers as well as people can.
If an emergency arises and someone needs to access a unit when the security gates normally are locked for the night, an on-site manager can open them, Cole said.
“We live here,” she said. “We can let them in. It is more personal attention.”
Chiti said the growing use of two-way video screens on kiosks is enabling remote customer service representatives to assist tenants. While no one would mistake a machine for a human, Chiti said technological advances are making the kiosk experience more personal.