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Remote Property Management Panel

July 14, 2022 | Categories: , ,

Unattended Operations Panel Q&A Recap

Self-storage operators have made a remarkable shift from tech-less to tech savvy in the last 5 years. 

With new software available to support fully contactless renting and management, the rise in  "unattended," "remote," or "hub and spoke" self-storage sites comes as no surprise. Whether you’re new to the industry and you don’t know where to begin, or you’re just looking for more insight on the future of your sites, this discussion is a great resource to get a better understanding of what remote property management is all about. In this session, our panelists talk about a multitude of perspectives and aspects within remote property management: what they have experienced in owning & managing remote sites, how technology has become a vital part of of improving and growing their business, what to expect when integrating technology into your remote managed operations, as well as general best practices and tips for running a site remotely.

Getting started in self storage, you’ll see there are a lot of parts moving around at the same time. To run efficiently, having technology catered to your facilities’ needs is a sure fire way of guaranteeing a more effective and efficient business model. CallPotential is here to make that happen. With our customizable software integrated into your operational model, you can improve your sales, increase your leads, automate your collections, and control your operations with ease. 

If you missed our latest webinar, check out the recap below (or watch it here!) as we discuss technology's role in remote self-storage management with this impressive lineup of expert panelists and CallPotential power users:

Questions & Answers

What is “unattended operations?” What is different between unattended operations and the traditional model?

    • Bob: “You need good management to be successful in self storage. You don’t have to be sitting behind the counter at a facility. You can still have great people answering the phone and taking care of customers. Whatever we call it, whether it’s unmanned or virtual or automated, it boils down to the fact that we all run our facilities without having managers sitting there all day behind the counter. We have other people managing those facilities usually in a call center environment, and we found that to be a more effective and efficient business model. Having people sitting there on site has been the most difficult part of our business in the last few years and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better, finding someone who can work and show up everyday. But in our environments, you don’t have to actually replace anybody that day because your business isn’t dependent on someone sitting there behind the counter all day.”

    • Jim: “I focus on areas of excellence. Like the call center, they have their focus handling the calls. Doing sales, presentations, customer service, that aspect of it. Then your next aspect as you’re looking to split responsibilities is that ‘boots on the ground’, doing the maintenance, that’s their zone of excellence. Then you have your management – whether management is overseeing things or they are the ones putting the pieces together. I found that by separating those areas like that is a better way to look at unmanned operations.”
    • Alex: “Our company started based on what I would call these smaller, unmanned facilities - which used to be such a normal term for just a small facility. Maybe under 200 units, a random location, secondary or tertiary market. Five or six years ago, it was common to run those small facilities like that. But even today and within the last few years, you’ve seen this shift where you can take these automated factors and this remote management style and apply it to a lot of facilities. With different sizes comes different challenges. You might have it that it’s not completely remote in the traditional sense, but whoever does show up as your “boots on the ground” is not doing the traditional role that a property manager would be. They’re not doing sales, they’re going in and cleaning & turning over units, cleaning & checking the property, things like that. What you’re seeing with remote management is we can really take this to any scale. I don’t think there’s a certain size requirement, I just think there’s a misconception that you can be completely remotely managed on all ends. Because no, there’s still going to be payroll, there’s still going to be things that you need to have happen if you want to be functioning at a high level.”

    • Gary: “There will always be a need for someone in a janitorial service, so that can’t be remote. But the management can be done anywhere. I think there's a time like that where you’d want a dedicated sales person to be promoting and doing all the things behind the scenes, but they do not need to be sitting at a facility behind a counter waiting for people to walk in, you know, make a payment or anything. You know, that person can be located anywhere and be just as effective marketing  their facility as they could be if they were on the facility, in fact possibly even more. Because if they aren’t getting distracted by all the normal things that distract people in a storage facility – lost codes, correct checks – all those things just go away when you don’t need someone on site.”
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  • Why should I internalize my call center?

    • Jim: “To me, that’s the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd priority. You’re nothing without a good call center when people are taking that call. As much as we wish it was as simple as going to the website, renting the unit, and then you don’t hear from them again – it’s just not the case. 70% of people are still picking up the phone, getting that consultation while trying to find that unit. If it’s making sure you don’t have the right agents, being top notch in what they do, this model doesn’t work frankly – it can fall apart. This is the cornerstone of everything. You need great call center agents.”

    • Bob: We could not function without our in-house call center. We did have to create one in-house, and we use CallPotential to make that work. We found after trial and error that none of what I call these ‘off-the-shelf’ call centers, which I’m a big fan of, are geared toward unmanned facilities. They only take inbound calls, so someone else has to make the past due calls, someone still has to do the auction process, someone still has to handle the overlock process… so, while the environment is still a call center environment, we actually call our agents property managers because they are managing the property as opposed to just taking calls. Again, they’re not sitting behind the counter but they are certainly managing the property in the same way. Doing a lot of the same things except they’re not sitting there, and so our business isn’t dependent on someone being there. The fact is that most people rent the unit before they get to the facility now. They don’t just pull up and rent, they do it before they get there. So having someone sitting there all day waiting for a rental just doesn’t seem to be as effective or needed there like it used to be.”

    • Gary: “If they can’t do it from their couch at 8 o’clock at night, they’re probably going to rent from someone else. Even with our call center, our hours are extended well into the evening because there are people who function after 5pm. The flip side is you do have to have some of that technology in place, because that younger generation is even more adverse to eye-to-eye contact than ours becoming.”

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  • What does renting through the phone entail? What does the process of renting over the phone look like?

    • Alex: “With all the great automation technology that’s out there today, the goal of any remotely run facility is to make it feel like it's not. That even if the customer does show up at your front door, wanting to rent, there is an easy way we can get their stuff without them feeling like they have to be there sitting in front of someone in an office for it to work. Technology is a big key. We have all of our managers set up so they can see the cameras, they have access to the gate systems and whatnot so if that customer is dying that bad to look at their unit and make sure it’s the right one they want to rent, we can get them in there and watch them go into the unit and help them actually see where they’re going, and get them through that process, just as easily as if we were on site. We’ll take their information, drivers’ license, collect data, get them through E-Sign, and make sure they sign the lease before we actually get them through and process cards. Then we’re making sure they’re happy with their experience there. The goal is you don’t want them to feel like it’s a remote facility, but just like it’s a normal transaction you would make anywhere else.”

    How does security come into play? How do you address security issues in your operating model?
    • Bob: “It hasn’t been an issue for us. Nothing changes between this model and a traditional model’s needs with security. When we design a property from scratch, we don’t design it any differently if it’s going to be unmanned, we just don’t put a big office in there. It’s got the same cameras, keypad system. If you’re asking yourself, ‘If you’re not going to be there all day, what about crime potential? What about security issues?’ I’d ask you, ‘Do you experience a lot of crime now between 9am-5pm?’ Of course not. If there are already issues, it’s probably at 3am and you’re not there anyway. We have not found any difference in the security issues because we don’t have issues while we’re there during the day anyways. You don’t need anything more than what you would have already.”
    • Jim: I think part of the question is also about trying to vet people that are renting at the facility. I think there’s a misconception that renters will say, ‘Oh, this is unmanned so I’m going to rent there and clean them out.’ I get that. But frankly, that’s just one of the fears that is unjustified. I haven’t seen any results of anyone taking advantage of these facilities. Welcome to storage! It happens. I haven’t seen any correlation of it being better or worse, it’s just the same as it’s always been.”
    • Phil: “That’s what I’ve noticed as well, there’s no real noticeable difference in my own properties. I’ll have issues with break ins, or having a unit filled with something I don’t want, but it hasn’t stopped because a manager is or isn’t on site.”
    • Alex: “Something that I’ve always recommended, whether it’s a management company or someone else, if you’re moving people in remotely, or it’s remotely managed – verify your move-ins. Verify them, talk to them, make sure they know how to get to the facility, just check in on them. If you can sense anything suspicious is going on, you can take measures to make sure you verify and understand the situation to determine if there’s an issue before anything happens.”
    • Bob: “The thing to keep in mind when it comes to online move ins, is that they are almost always leaving credit cards. In the 20+ years I’ve been doing this, if people give you a credit card with their name on it, it’s like leaving their ID behind. They’re leaving something that is easily trackable, that’s easily dealt with as opposed to someone who drops off cash. You don’t really have issues when people leave credit cards like you would with people who leave cash all the time. We have found that issues really go down because of that. Another thing we do is give everyone free locks. A free box is in their unit with a keychain, a big disc lock, things like that.”
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  • How do you handle maintenance?

    • Gary: “We have at least one person at every facility. We call them CPOs, or Chief Pretty Officers. That’s what I want them focused on – making sure the facility remains pretty and attractive to someone driving by, or someone pulling in for the first time. I want them to say, ‘Hey! This is pretty nice!’ How often they’re there depends somewhat on the size of the facility, the location, the area, but usually at least once a week. Many others are 2-3 times per week. If someone’s left trash behind, the CPO is coordinating with some local resources to get rid of it. Lean sales work the same, and they’re given a list of units to record or take pictures of, and they process the unit for sale. No different than if they were a full time manager, or someone working there 40 hours.”

    Is there a particular store-to-agent ratio?
    • Bob: Bringing our own call center in house, we have found that you need a good number of stores to get to the point of where you can have your own. It’s not a 1-1 trade; you can’t have one property and one call center agent because that person can’t cover enough hours. If you have one store, you have to have 2-3 people. But if you have 100 stores, then it’s less than 1-1 because there’s coverage. So, if you have 1 store and you don’t want to use an actual call center, you’re probably going to go where you have someone that takes calls some hours of the week. But a lot of that’s going to be answering machines, return calls. Because they aren’t going to be able to take calls 24/7, unless you get two or three people per store. That’s why most companies don’t have their own call centers, because it’s just too big an investment, because it’s not a 1-1 trade at all.

    • Jim: I’ve noticed that a rough figure is that one agent can handle about 8 stores. This ties back in with the scale; if you don’t have any stores it’s difficult to run your own call center. You’ll probably have to hire third party, and utilize another company to help you plug that in. One person can’t run 12 hour days, 7 days a week, it just doesn’t work. You’re going to have to have multiple people. I hear a lot of people say that, but you have to have the stores to back it up.

    Has technology like pay by phone and call routing impacted the number of agents you need?

    • Bob: Absolutely. When we implemented those technologies with CallPotential, it allowed us to grow and add more stores without necessarily having to add more agents. Doing some of those things like pay by texting, we have been able to implement a solution through CallPotential where if people want to call-in and make a payment through an agent, we will charge for that. That has been cut down, because we have 8 other ways to pay. Actually talking to a human being just to give a credit card should be the last thing they do. That’s helped us grow without needing to add more agents.
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    What hours should I have call support open for?

    • Alex: I’m a little different from the others on this one as we do more of a hybrid model; a lot of our stores are run remotely with hours available by appointment. One manager out of a location will handle 4-5 stores in the region and manage everything from maintenance to property checks and things like that. We also have some typical office hours, our typical phone hours during the day for really true manager-handling stuff, auctions, processes, different aspects of it. Then outside of it we do use some call center services. We like to have coverage anywhere up until 6pm-8pm. Sometimes we have some earlier staff to handle the 8am times. For us, we like to see phones between 8am-7/8pm.

    • Gary: We are 8am-7pm six days out of the week, and a few hours on Sunday morning. We do not adjust for time zones, and we’ve been able to get away with that working with the East Coast and Colorado. That gives us 70 hours a week. For some people, they think they still need that traditional in house person. But we answer the phones 70 hours a week. A traditional in house person would not. To go off Jim’s point, if you have 1 person and they’re scaled up to handle 8 facilities, it’s a lot easier to train that 1 person to handle tenant insurance and sales at 8 facilities than it is to train 1 person at each facility on whatever the markup product is. So there’s no question that not only is this more efficient but we are producing a much better sales agent for a facility than what we could do if we had a live body at each facility.

    What should I consider when looking for an employee for a remote managed property?
    • Bob: We have found that you can hire and train a better level of person in that remote  environment than we ever could at the site level. I mean, think about it. Your call center agents may answer the phone 40/50 times today, where the typical salesforce manager may get 1 chance to run a unit. So it’s very difficult to train someone to do something that they do so rarely, they just can’t ever be good at it. So we have found we get a lot better quality people, and pay them better, than ones that do when things happen on site. I only have 1 requirement when I hire someone; someone who can smile and is engaging with people. I can train anyone to take payment, but I can’t train someone to be nice, engaging and friendly. Because when the friendliest person in the world does this, even when there are mistakes made, it’s not the end of the world. But someone who’s grouchy, every mistake is blown out of proportion. They can ruin your business. Whether they are off site managers or onsite, hire friendly outgoing people we can train them to do everything else. We can’t train to be friendly and outgoing.

    • Alex: With the hiring process, go with the most basic stuff. A lot of your interviews probably start off with a phone interview. If you’re hiring for a remote person and that phone interview isn’t going well, if you think it is going to correlate somehow after you get them in there with training, it probably isn't going to. You’re not worried about an in-person interview when you’re hiring for a remote/call center agent/work from home person, you’re looking for how they present themselves in a phone fashion, in a virtual environment. There’s different characteristics that you’re looking for when you’re looking for an employee on site versus one with a virtual presence.
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  • Should I hire remote agents?

    • Bob: My employees all work remotely. We do bring any new folks into Birmingham where I live, but I’m not involved. Our call center managers live here, so we bring them in for a two week live training program. But most of the agents live all over the country. We manage all over the country, from FL - WA, so our call center is open 12 hours a day in every time zone. Like Jim said, I think that’s the new paradigm. We’ve had good success hiring that person that likes to work from home. There’s no worry about commuting, no dress code. It doesn’t matter. It’s been a great position for stay at home moms while their child goes to school, for retirees, young people who like to work until midnight, anyone. If we manage 100 properties with on-site managers, if any of those managers dies, quits, or gets fired, I would have to get someone else there tomorrow. But with 60-80 call center agents, if any of them dies, quits, or gets fired, there’s still the remainder answering the phone. So there’s no disruption of business, our clients don’t see a disruption. It doesn’t matter because we use CallPotential, so when that phone rings, an agent sees it wherever they are. They answer as if they're sitting there, so they can be where they want, work wherever they want. You know, one of our bests, works at home but every now and then, for a week at a time, he’ll go dog sit somewhere. And he’ll work from there! It’s been easy from that standpoint.

    • Jim: My employees are all remote. You cater to how people want to work now. People don’t want to be forced to be in office. If you have that availability to offer remote positions, as long as it’s not noisy, I’ve found much higher quality people when I am flexible.

  • How have you handled getting your customers familiar with the aspects of renting a unit? Familiarity with the area?
    • Jim: Pictures, video, pictures, video. That’s very important. The agents are taking the calls, they have to be able to have pop ups. To see what that location is, because each site is different. It’s got different things going on. How to get there, when you actually get to the site, where things are located, etc. It’s so important to have great pictures, video, documentation, notes, things like that. So that agent can very easily act like they are there, like they’re at the location helping them 1 on 1.

    • Bob: We also make sure that all of our agents have a Google Maps picture of all the properties. So they can tell customers ‘pull through the gate and you’ll be to the right’. Customers can guide themselves through the properties themselves. That’s especially important with boat & RV parking. You have to be able to tell people where the spaces are, how to get to it. Signage and all that stuff matters as well from a customer standpoint. We have multi story buildings. When they get off the elevator, there's a map of exactly how to get to the units. People ask me “how do customers know how to find their units?” Well, the same way you find your hotel room when you travel. No one walks me to my room. There’s a sign that tells me where it is and I know how to read a sign. I think the more signs you have the better. We put signs all through the property with the phone number. If you need something, we make it really easy.

    • Alex: My team makes fun of me because when I go and transition a facility, I do my own video walkthrough of the thing. From where the tenant walks in, they get my beautiful, lovely voice talking them through this whole process. ‘Here's some tricks, you’re at the front gate, here’s the keypad, go through her, etc, etc etc…’ And then it may be as simple as a drive through (don’t record and drive) and going around the facility and giving the video to your team members and when a new team member comes in, they can get in and get to know about it without needing to go there. Maybe it’s not feasible for us to get them to see it. So use the technology we have at hand. Use your phone, your camera, take pictures and video, make note of the weird things that you know because you’ve been to the property and your agents may not have. Take that little extra step to make sure your team is prepared for those situations.
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  • How do you distribute locks? Boxes? Do you recommend selling them on site?
    • Gary: We do not have retail sales. We give a free lock to each of our tenants, and that instantly doubles the security at the facility. We’ll give each new tenant a new disc lock and charge an administrative fee that covers that cost for us. I had an experience for a couple years with retail sales, and the return on that investment from a time and training and inventory standpoint, just did not fit our model. If you wanted to spend an awful lot of money to try and make 10 cents, in my mind that was having someone dedicated in an office wanting to sell a 49 cent box. So we gladly walked away from that and shut the retail area and moved forward. I know it works for people, but it just didn’t work in any of our scenarios. 

  • How do you gift a lock logistically?

    • Bob: We get our onsite people to have a supply of locks, brand new still in the package. So when they visit a property and see a unit’s been vacated, they clean it out, put a new gift bag in there with our lock, hand sanitizer, and key chain. Then they’ll put it in the unit, close it up and lock it, put a yellow seal on it, and tell the customer they’re ready to go, just snap the seal off it. Those yellow seals make it easier for our onsite people to do a walk-through, because if you’re walking the property and you see yellow seals, you know the units are good to go. If there’s no seal or lock, you can figure out why. It just makes it easier. But that’s how we “dispense” them, we just set them in the unit themselves. When they get there, they know they have a lock and don’t have to worry about finding one or buying one on the way. For 20 something years, I’ve never found I could make enough on merchandise sales to make it worth the hassle. Ever. I’ve seen people put in vending machines for locks; you’ll never sell enough locks to pay for that machine. We buy so many of them for 3-4 dollars a piece. Just give them a lock, charge them a fee like Gary said. But that’s how we do our locks. Our on site folks leave them in the units themselves. Whether it's a gift box or a bag, or just the lock itself, just leave it in the unit and secure that unit up.

    Do you utilize your offices?

    • Gary: I had that discussion with an owner this morning. They’re converting the old office and apartment into climate controlled, temperature controlled storage. He sees no value in ever having that scenario again with an office. So he’s going to grab an extra 1500 square foot storage space. No additional cost, there's already a roof and walls and everything. I have several owners looking to do that, or have done it. They are committed to better using their facility.

    • Bob: We’ve done a lot of both. A lot of the properties we have either bought or sold, or we’ve managed, have an office. So we’ve done two things: one is we converted the space and sometimes that’s the best use, or the other is a lot of times we’ve turned it into rentable space. We rent it to someone like an insurance agent or an employment office; someone who doesn’t need a lot of parking, but they’re great little office setups. We add them to the rent roll and rent them to someone. That’s what we’ve done with most of ours.

    • Alex: We still use some of our offices, because we do have some managers that prefer to be on site at some locations. We even gave the option of some flex hours, and they like doing that. But we also try to maximize our space within there. So if you have an office space that’s huge, and you have 2 or 3 extra rooms in there you’re not using, you could probably convert that into some climate controlled stuff. Even if you are running it remotely, sometimes it’s nice to have a little office. But some of these were full functioning offices with 2000 sq ft; you don't need it anymore. You need 200 or less to keep your cleaning stuff, maybe an electric panel, that’s it. I think we can all attest you have some facilities that's all inside of a 5x10. You have fit all that in a small unit and you’re done, and you can rent out the rest for rentable square footage.

    How can I get coverage for varying hours? (Closed Sundays but some are open? Need to close early? Missing a manager? Hybrid?)

    • Jim: It's not a 1 size fits all. I have some sites where it's 120,000 sq ft and they're in rent up. I’m not fully comfortable with doing a fully 100% unmanned property there. I'm waiting until it gets up to stabilization, and then cool. Then you can start taking it back and making it more automated. And that’s what makes the owners comfortable, and that’s great for me too. If that site underperforms, the first thing they’ll say is because we don’t have a person there, because we automated. It really depends on their comfort level. For a lot of times, the bigger facilities need to wait until they’re stabilized, then we can do this automated model. It tends to work out pretty well that way. But there’s always a good blend between the two.

    What's the biggest problem/lesson you’ve come across as you’ve gone into remote managed property?

    • Alex: I get asked this a lot. If you’re taking over some of these facilities that are older, things can still break, things can still happen. Make sure you have a layered system, even just on site or just a good reliable person for something. The joke I hear the most of, the little old lady that comes to open her unit and she just flings the door open and pops it out of the tracks. It’s 5 on a Friday night, and she needs someone to come out and close it. Who’s going to fix it? Maybe it’s a 1 off, remotely run facility, and then you call your onsite contact who’s supposed to help and he’s out of town. You need to make sure you have a few layers, a few back ups, you never know what can happen and it’s bound to happen that needs to be something to be fixed immediately. Regardless. That’s if you even have a manager too, because they’re only there a certain time and maybe they’re gone out of town already. Anything that can happen you should try to be prepared for.

    • Bob: For us, our biggest challenge is setting new customer expectations about what’s going on now if we have bought a property or manage a property that has had an on site manager. For example, say someone says, “I need my lock cut”. You’ll have to say, our guys come on Wednesday so you’ll have to wait. We have found over time that if you tell people what the expectations are and you stick to it, they’re perfectly okay with it. But when you’ve been doing things at a moment's notice and that’s what customers expect, that’s a hard thing to overcome. We’ve also taken over some properties that have a large percentage of cash payments. Well, that obviously is no longer. So what we’ll do is we’ll leave up one of those boxes with some prepaid envelopes so people can throw some money orders to us. But over time, that goes away. Then thirdly, I would say, if there were on site managers, transitioning over to how we ran our properties. We had a manager that had decided, no one has a debit card, no one’s paying a late fee, and no one is paying on time. In her mind, that was true. So the minute we didn’t keep that manager, we started getting customers used to the fact that none of that was true. We will charge late fees, we need cards, and now everyone understands. Sometimes we have a property that has a lot of boats and RV’s that's not organized or numbered because the manager knows where everybody is parked. You have to start to get that stuff organized, because no longer does that operate. So, a lot of the same things we do with the transition to automation, the same as we transition is when we bought a property that was not well managed. A lot of the same issues you just have to work through, but I think it’s all been worth it, I’ll put it that way.

    • Jim: What it really comes down to is that it’s not so much the new customers coming in, because they don’t know any better, it’s the current customer base when you’re changing things. There’s definitely a learning curve for the first few months for current customers. It takes a few months, frankly, to kind of retrain everyone. But for the most part, after a few months of learning curve for it, it’s sunshine after that!

    • Gary: I’d say there’s a bit of a learning curve for the owners as well. Because if you’ve had self storage and you’ve had a manager on site and you transition to a remote managed facility, you’re not going to get the same feedback from the facility as what you had when you had someone tasked with being there 40 hours a week. The CPO is going to report there’s a mattress and some junk left behind in a unit, what do you wanna do with it? You ask how much junk, and two days later they get a picture back to you. There’s no instant feedback and that’s the way a lot of things work. It’s a little harder to get gate repairs scheduled when you have to coordinate with essentially a third party person who doesn’t work at the facility all the time. But it’s all about the P&L statement. Isn’t a little bit of a delay worth it? That’s been one big adjustment for a lot of people that we work with; coming to grips with the fact that it is remote, and it’s not a full time manager sitting there playing Solitaire on the computer waiting for you to  call and ask them a question.

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