In August, Christopher Elliott of Forbes wrote a column opining that technology automation, particularly online chatbots, are “obliterating” traditional customer service as we know it. While he makes many good points and it’s true that the traditional customer service model as our grandparents knew it is certainly fading away due to increased reliance on AI and automated technology, it just isn’t the case overall.

Back in Elliott’s good old days, it took twice - maybe four times - as many hands to manage a self storage facility as it does now. From bookkeeping and security to collection calls and office busy work, managers did it all, and all this “stuff” left a lot less time to tend to the most important aspect of the business: the renters. For managers who didn’t have the privilege of an extra set of hands, it meant long hours, poor work life balance, and, ultimately, a high manager turnover rate for business owners.

A day in the life of today’s self storage manager looks a lot different - if business owners are willing to give modern technology a chance. Automated self storage technology, like e-sign, two-way texting, rate management, and auction management lifts some of the burden off managers’ shoulders so that they’re free to focus on winning new rentals, helping customers, and marketing the business. The truth is, customer service is alive and well in self storage - thriving even. In fact, we can expect an even greater focus on customer service in the future as managers continue to receive more technology support - even in the form of online chatbots.

In this blog post, we discuss how technology and automation affect customer service with Jim Ross, host of The Self Storage Show podcast and owner of Self Storage Domination Management. Ross has been busy in 2018 - he recently rebranded his consulting company and wrote a book on profitability in self storage management - but he snuck in some time out of his busy schedule to chat with me about how owners can create a competitive advantage in today’s market with the help of technology and superior customer service. Check out the full interview below!

storEDGE: As a consultant, you have a wealth of knowledge on self storage and you talk to a ton of leaders in the industry for your podcast The Self Storage Show. What do you think is the most surprising or most exciting thing to come out of 2018 so far?

Ross: Well it’s not anything new, but people are finally realizing that just because you build it, it doesn't necessarily mean they will come. There's so much more competition in the industry now, even compared to a few years ago - you really have to have smart strategies and marketing behind your brand. And you need to have that before you even start building. There are many many ways to strategize and gain a competitive advantage. I was recently interviewing the owner of Trachte Building Systems and they know all of the stats for storage builds - all of the hot areas, all of the boom cities, because they're building them - and I walked away from that my eyes wide open as to how overbuilt we are right now. Right now we’re seeing a lot of people coming into the industry with no strategy, and the longer they sit back without providing real training to their team or having a real marketing plan to stand out, the harder it’s going to be to succeed long-term with new competitors popping on every corner. I think in a few years, we’re going to see a lot of owners without a competitive strategy getting a slap in the face and waking up to the reality of the competition in the industry, and they may end up closing their doors permanently if they can’t stand out. So that’s what I really try to stress when working with today’s owners - having a marketing strategy, providing high-quality manager training, and using the right technology tools to win rentals. All of that is going to give storage owners a much better chance at standing out from the competition, and that’s the whole name of the game now. With how overbuilt and competitive the industry is right now, you have to stand out to survive. You’ve got to be the first one they call. That’s what I always preach. And once you get that phone call, how are you actually going to convert that lead? You have to have a plan.

storEDGE: Where does technology come into play in a self storage business’s strategic plan?

Ross: When I talk to owners about how they can stand apart from the competition, self storage software is one of the first things we talk about because it’s integral to manager training, over-the-phone sales, manager happiness, and operational sustainability - the cash part of the business. If the managers are away from the phones too long, they're not maximizing profit. The more you can take off the shoulders of your managers with automation, the happier they're going to be and the more time they'll have to really talk to customers. The happier the managers are, the better your sales are going to go, and the more money you're going to make. It's just the nature of the industry. When your team is bogged down with all this busy work that could be easily automated with today's technology, they're not happy and they're not going to stay very long. Then you'll end up having to worry about replacing them and finding a new manager, and in the meantime, your customer service is suffering and your rentals are going down. It's just a bad cycle.

“With how overbuilt and competitive the industry is right now, you have to stand out to survive. You’ve got to be the first one they call.” Jim Ross Self Storage Domination

So, first and foremost, I talk to owners to find out if there is any way they can automate busy work tasks to increase manager efficiency and boost their happiness. The main automation that stands out to me are e-sign and SMS texting. E-sign is so much more convenient for the user and saves owners a ton on paper. And with texting, it's much easier for the manager to collect rent and it's much better for the overall customer experience. Automation makes the work easier for everyone involved, which is the way it should be. And it makes managers happy. It just makes sense to utilize the modern technology that people prefer using. I remember making all the collection calls. No one likes making collection calls. Renters don't like answering and managers don't like hounding people for money. I mean if you were a tenant, would you pick up that phone call? No. It's a waste of time, honestly. Either the tenant is just chronically late and they're not going to answer the phone, or if you do get a hold of someone and they can't pay, they'll be full of excuses and nasty to you and it affects the managers negatively. It makes the whole team unhappy. But with texting, you can just fire off a message to the tenant with a link to pay their overdue bill and it's much less confrontational and much more effective. Plus, people pay more attention to it than an email and they check it much faster than they check email. I check my email maybe once or twice a day, versus checking my phone dozens of times a day. If my phone dings, I'm taking a look at it. So overall, it's much more effective in getting tenants' attention and achieving the goal of collecting rent. And just texting alone can change delinquent collections and overall manager happiness dramatically. There's a whole psychology to it - it really is less confrontational and more friendly, and then managers don't feel like they’re badgering people, and tenants don't feel like criminals for being late on rent. Time equals money. With any time you can save automating that kind of stuff, add it all up and managers have more time to focus on the important things, like customer service and security. And it directly affects their job happiness when they're being bogged down with busy work, and they’ll have more time to make sales.

“Automation makes the work easier for everyone involved, which is the way it should be. And it makes managers happy. It just makes sense to utilize the modern technology that people prefer using.” Jim Ross Self Storage Domination

For years, I’ve given this segment called “Every Call Counts” as part of my self storage manager training. In the training, I’ll call storage companies, act like I’m a customer, and record the conversation without identifying details. And nine times out of 10, the calls are just atrocious. The managers aren’t even trying to sell. They’re just like, “what size do you want” and “here’s the price,” and the call is over. It’s almost always worse than you’d expect, so it’s really important for the owner to be able to listen to the way managers are handling phone calls and track how their team is selling over the phone. I've always used and recommended tracking numbers - I've done that forever, since people were using floppy disks to backup their data. But tracking calls was just one extra step and one extra website you had to go to until storEDGE started including that in the software itself and had it built into the actual platform. Having the recorded phone call feature helps tremendously - it's one thing to have managers listen to other phone calls and laugh at what didn't go well, but it's so much more effective when they're actually listening to themselves, stepping away from it, and looking at it from the customers' perspective.

storEDGE: How do phone calls compare to online rentals or walk-ins when it comes to driving revenue?

Ross: Online convenience is an essential part of the picture, but storage is still very phone-based when it comes to rentals. It really is - the phone is where sales happen. And once someone actually comes to your facility site, they're definitely going to rent. Very rarely does someone go through all the hassle, show up, and say, “well, thanks a lot” and leave without a lease agreement. Decisions are made when customers pick up the phone. Your rentals are won and lost in phone call presentation. So, being able to record your manager calls in-software makes it easy to train the managers together on what works and what didn't work, and what needs tweaking and what needs tightened up. Because every call is a little different - you don't want to sound like a robot. There's a flow and a cadence to selling over the phone. When you can actually listen to a phone call back, you listen better to what the customer is saying and hear things you didn't hear the first time. With just a little training and the right technology, you can teach your manager how to sell like a pro in just a few days. Listening to phone calls makes all the difference in the world - it gives managers the confidence and self motivation they need to want to do better.

“Decisions are made when customers pick up the phone. Your rentals are won and lost in phone call presentation.” Jim Ross Self Storage Domination

storEDGE: So you see software as being one of the most important tools for standing out from the competition, because you're using call tracking to actively train for customer services, as well as online rentals and e-sign to provide the automation needed to help customers serve themselves.

Ross: Exactly. You have to do it right on both sides of the equation. You can use your software to market yourself against the competition in cooperation with your website, and that's essential. But the follow-up is also key. Going back to when I was cold calling these storage sites as a secret shopper, more often than not, I would hang up and there would be no follow up. The only ones to call me back and ask me whether or not I'm still interested in renting a unit are the brands that have superior technology. In the storEDGE software, you have simple lead follow up that’s front and center for the managers. As an owner, you can whether or not calls are going out in a timely manner to follow up on these lead conversations, and find out if they actually ended up renting as a result. You don't want to hound them, but follow-up is important and it usually ends up in a rental. It shows the customers that you actually care and you want their business. So often I hear stories of managers who aren't actively making phone calls and kind of having a ‘take it or leave it’ type of attitude, and that's just not good enough anymore. If you have the right phone call communication, the right technology, and actually follow up promptly with the customer, you're going to increase your chances to get the rental and stand out from the competition, which is incredibly important now that there are so many options within a three mile radius of the consumer. And when I say three mile, that was the name of my old company - 3 Mile Domination. Because I believe that's the most important thing owners can do, is stand out from the competition in their three mile radius and dominate the area with high-quality customer service.

storEDGE: What’s the number one thing today’s storage owners can do when it comes to technology and customer service to stand out and win rentals?

Ross: Right now, because of how overbuilt we are and the changing game of the industry, lead follow up can really be a differentiator. But for any self storage location, you really have to step up your customer service game to compete. If you don't, you're going to lose rentals. More and more clients I work with are automating, which is fantastic because it lets us focus more on customer service. Even if you're the first in your market, you're still competing against new people and there is still a level of service you need to create. You have to raise your game up, especially when it comes to selling over the phone. Presentation is key. I talk to some of the best in the industry at selling over the phones, and I love training managers how to sell. I take my little Frankenstein-sales presentation with me and we train managers and talk about how to listen on the phones and talk to customers like a friend and how to bring personalized service into the business. So overall, I’d say just maximize the technology you have and maximize the training for your managers to make customer service your focus.

“If you have the right phone call communication, the right technology, and actually follow up promptly with the customer, you're going to increase your chances to get the rental and stand out from the competition, which is incredibly important now that there are so many options within a three mile radius of the consumer.” Jim Ross Self Storage Domination

storEDGE: What do you think is the biggest challenge with customer service and technology in self storage right now?

Ross: It's not so much the customer service, quite honestly, it's resistance to change. It’s getting owners to jump on board and try new technology. I was recently chatting with a storage owner from Colorado who was looking for help with management. She said, “I think I've just got a few questions.” But of course she was using an ancient, out-of-date program for her storage software and after I told her, “oh yeah, there are a few better things out there than what you're currently using, and it might help with your management.” And I have that conversation often. It really comes down to the old saying - just because it's the way you've always done it, doesn't mean it's the right way or the best way. There are so many things that have changed in the industry recently, and there are technology options that have changed along with it to better support managers. People can kind of have blinders on and think well, what I'm doing right now is working okay and I'm staying afloat, so why rock the boat. And I get it - it can be a pain in the butt to change. Change is hard, no matter who you are. But if you're willing to change and try some new things, your managers can really make a switch and really drive revenue. One of the things that really stands out when I speak with owners about software is automating rent increases. That is one of the main drivers towards improving technology when I talk to owners who aren't interested in changing. When owners find out they can automate rent increases and they figure out how much more money they could be making with pretty much little to no effort, you see the light bulb come on. Because those rate increases have a direct effect on income and the facility's profitability. But everyone hates change. Especially if they've been in the industry a long time, and in storage, a lot of people are so behind the times with what's currently available and what today’s consumers want. So I try to teach owners to get over that fear and be open to trying new things. And after all is said and done, I've never met someone who tried something new that's more efficient and more profitable for their business who regrets it and wasn't grateful for the push to go through the process of changing.

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We couldn’t agree more! At storEDGE, we love technology and we’re thrilled to be working alongside consultants, thought leaders, owners, and managers to shape the self storage businesses of tomorrow. To learn more, get in touch with Jim by emailing him at jim@selfstoragedomination.com and download The Self Storage Show app or subscribe via your favorite podcast player.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this article, you may also like: Client Spotlight: Extra Self Storage, 5 things to know before you become a self storage owner, and Competing with the REIT next door: How small storage businesses can thrive in today’s market.