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.
Tune in as we discuss technology's role in remote self-storage management with this impressive lineup of expert panelists:
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P: Alright everybody, thanks for hopping in and joining us on our Unattended Operations technology panel. We have a couple great speakers with us, so as we’re going through we will be talking a lot about unattended operations, a lot about some of the things we have come across, not only on our own experiences but also things we see coming in the future. But first, before we do that, we want to do some introductions on the panel. So, Jim, you happen to be my top left corner so we’ll start with you if you wanna give a quick introduction!
J: My name is Jim Ross, I own and operate 3 Mile Storage Management. We’ve done property management for a lot more of the Unattended operation model, we’ve been doing that lately. Been in the business about half of my life – we’ll say that, i won’t say how long exactly. So, I’ve been in the business about half of my life. I do a lot of stuff in education as well – podcasts, summits, education as a way to give back to the industry. But, my bread and butter is definitely from management.
P: Great, and we won’t indicate how many years make up half a life so that way, you’re still safe.
J: You can guess!
P: Yeah, exactly. And Bob, what about yourself?
B: Sure! I’m Bob Copper, I own and operate Copper Storage. We own and manage a little over 100 properties right now. Growing quickly! I also have Self Storage 101 where we do hundreds of marketability studies. That’s where we started back many years ago. I’m like Jim, I’ve been doing this a long time. Maybe not quite half my life because I’m much older than Jim, but close to it. I started back in the 1990s so I’ve been doing it for a little while. Again, we’re like Jim because we only do Unmanned and automated facilities as far as management goes. Not as far as my studies, and we see that as a growing trend in the industry so we’re excited to be a part of it.
P: Sounds great. And then the man behind the curtain, Gary!
G: Good afternoon, I guess half a life might apply to me too. We bought our first one about 20 years ago, so I guess that’s charitable if that’s half my life. But I've been in the industry for over 20 years. Mostly ownership, but about two years ago we launched Storage Manager. Which is a third party remote management platform, and again we primarily handle unmanned and remote facilities only.
P: Great. Alex?
A: Awesome, well thank you for having me. And to keep the tradition alive, I have also been in the industry for about half of my life. Make sure we’re keeping our trend here all the way through.
B: Well that’s easy when you’re only like, 20 years old right??
A: Well, I wasn’t going to say it but you said it Bob. Thank you, there you go. I appreciate it. We are Erbs Management Group, we are a family owned and operated management group that focuses a lot on remote operations. We do have some other hybrid type operations, but for the most part a lot of remote operations across the midwest. We are owners and operators too, so yeah! That’s pretty much our story here.
P: Great! Gary, you got your camera working so it’s great to see you!
B: Hey Gary, go ahead and put it off.
P: And just for those who don’t know me, my name is Phil Murphy and I am the President and founder of CallPotential. I also own and operate 19 stores under the Next Door Storage brand. But we have a great panel here, going to go over a lot of information. But we want to go over a few things. We like to keep our sessions collaborative. So, for those that are on, you can drop it in the chat or the Q&A section, we recommend the Q&A section to make it easier. Any questions you have or anything you want us to go a little deeper into, go ahead and throw them out there. We’ll try to hop onto those as well. That being said, why don’t we start off with names. We have a lot of different ones. You have unattended, unmanned, virtual – all these things people are calling it, but what does it mean in your operations to take these “unattended operations”? What’s different from what would be a traditional operating model? Bob, why don’t we start with you?
B: In our case, I’ve been saying in my studies – I’ve done thousands over the years – you need good management to be successful in self storage. But what I say is, and more often than not, is you don’t have to be sitting behind a counter at a facility. You can still have great people answering the phone and taking care of customers. So whatever we call it, whether it’s unmanned or virtual or automated, whatever, it all 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 in our case, and we found that to be more effective and efficient business model instead of – and everyone who’s been in the business long enough knows – 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 and do that and then those people we need to replace the next day. 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.
P: Sure, anybody have any other takes on what that means to you or things you’ve come across?
J: Sure, I’ll jump in real quick. Just a quick side note – we talked about names. Can we go ahead and drop in the chat some stupid terminology for what this means? What do you like to hear? Is it unmanned, unattended, automated? I don't know, I just want us all to agree on one terminology. Anyways, in a nutshell I focus on areas of excellence. Like the call center, that’s their focus. Doing sales presentations, doing customer service, that aspect of it. It’s way more efficient. 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 it or they are putting all the pieces together. I found that by separating those areas like that, focusing on their areas of excellence, it’s good to look at it this way when it comes to unmanned – or whatever terminology we agree on – operations.
P: Well, it looks like “remote managed” is certainly taking the chat votes by storm. But you know Alex, question for you. We’ve talked about what that means. When you’re out there and looking at property sites, from an early time, many unmanned ones have that small property aspect. Are you still seeing that continue to be the case, or what size does it work? Is there a point where it doesn’t really work?
A: Yeah so over time this has really evolved. 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. Maybe random location, secondary or tertiary market. You know, 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 to the size of the facility - I'm not gonna say it doesn't matter because I don't think that's necessarily true, but you can take these automated factors and this remote management style and apply it to a lot of facilities. Up to 600, 700, 800 unit facilities, it comes with its different challenges when it gets to different sizes. Jim mentioned it before with different areas of excellence, you may not have it that its completely remote in the traditional sense, or it may be you might need some “boots on the ground’ that’s there more often, maybe 20-30 hours a week for these large facilities, but they’re not doing the traditional role that a property manager would be. They’re not doing sales, they’re not doing this, they’re going in and they’re cleaning units, turning over units, cleaning the property, doing property checks. So the job expectations and the expectations they have will be different than just saying, “Ok! This is a 600 unit property, here’s a property manager, you have to do auctions, sales, maintenance and everything. Now what you’re seeing with remote management we can really take this scale and say hey we have a great call center that just focuses on sales. We have a great source for boots on the ground, so I don't think there’s a certain size issue, I just think that people think “I can get to a 1000 units and do it remotely”. 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. It’s just that the job duties and expectations for that person are going to change. That’s my opinion on it at least.
P: Sure. And what about you, Gary? Is there a sweet spot or ideal size for an unmanned unit? Have you found an ideal size for these facilities, or is it wide open?
G: I’m gonna find myself agreeing with Alex completely. There’s always a need for a role, or someone in a janitorial service. But the management can be done anywhere. We just started leasing up a 700 unit facility in Iowa. 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.
P: And Bob & Jim, you had both mentioned a critical aspect being that call center. And internalizing that function. I know you use CallPotential to help run that call center, but how critical has been internalizing a call center been towards having that remote management?
J: I’ll jump in real quick. 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 just as simple as going to the website, renting the unit, and then you don’t ever hear from them, it’s just not the case. 70% are still picking up the phone and getting that consultation and going through that, you know, trying to find the right unit, doing the full walkthrough of renting a unit through the phone, helping them out. So it’s vitally important for sure. 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 for sure.
B: I’ll chime in and I agree 100%. We could not function without our in house call center. And we did have to create an in-house one – and of course we use CallPotential to make that work – because we found after trial and error, that none of what I call these “off the shelf call centers” that I’m a big fan of are geared towards unmanned facilities. They only take inbound calls, you know someone else still has to make past due calls, somebody still has to do the auction process, somebody still has to handle the overlock process. So, while the environment is still a call center environment, we actually call our agents property managers. They really are instead of call center agents, 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. And so you can function if no one is there. Jim was on it about rentals. People still do call, although they could use the website and do other things, but the one thing we found – and I think you’ll all agree – is the lease up. We’ve done the same thing. We manage properties over 80,000 square feet now that are 3 stories, unmanned facilities, and so I’m like Gary. I don’t think it really matters anymore with a system like this in place. The fact is that most people now rent the unit before they get to the facility. They don’t just pull up and rent. So 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.
G: I use the analogy with my kids, they’re 26 + 29, and they’ve been in the storage industry for their whole lives basically, and they wouldn’t dream of going to the facility to rent the unit. I mean, that’s just not in their generation’s mindset. So yes, they’re not every consumer, but if they can’t do it from their couch at 8 o’clock at night, they’re probably going to rent from someone else. So, you know, even the call center, our hours are extended well into the evening because there are people who function after 5pm, but the flip side is you do have to have some of that technology because that younger generation is even more adverse to eye-to-eye contact than our’s becoming.
P: Well, you must be on the right track because Jim Mooney says he agrees with you!
B: I don’t know if that’s a good thing.
P: So when it comes to rentals, we talked about renting up, how does renting through the phone look? Is it a critical thing, what does that process look like? Are you doing a whole walkthrough to e-sign or how does that work?
A: Well I think with all the great automation technology that’s out there today, the goal of any remotely ran facility is to make it feel like its not. That even if the customer does show up at your front door, wanting to rent, is there an easy way we can get them their stuff without them feeling like they have to be there sitting in front of someone in an office for it to work. So technology is a big key that we have all of our managers set up so they can see the cameras, they have access to the gate systems and that stuff so if that customer is dying that bad to look at their unit, 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. And then through the rest of that process, like you had just asked Phil, we walk them through the whole steps. We take their information, we’re taking their driver’s license, collecting the data on them, getting them through e-sign process and making sure they actually sign the lease before we actually get them through the finish line and get through processing the cards, and then we’re making sure that they’re happy in their entire experience there. Again, the goal is you don’t want them to feel like it’s a remote facility. Just like it’s a normal transaction just like you would anywhere else.
P: Great, so a question here from the audience. Eric asked, “How do you handle security?” Obviously you’re renting all these remotely. Is there concern about security? A lot of people have the “I’m standing in front of somebody I see whoever might be renting”, have you found concerns around that? How do you address that, or make it fit your operating model?
B: Well, it has not been an issue for us. Alex mentioned the cameras, the gates and all that, nothing changes. 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, and this question does come up alot. ‘If you’re not gonna be there all day, what about crime? What about security issues?’ And my question is, do you have a lot of crime happen now between 9 and 5? Of course not. If there are already issues, it’s probably at 3 in the morning and you’re not there anyway. So we have not found any difference in the security issues because again, you don’t have any issues while you’re there during the day anyway. So, we don’t think it makes any difference. Now, I think you have cameras and keypads, but you would have that already. So I do think those are important.
J: I think part of the question is also about trying to vet people that are renting at the facility. I think people think “Oh, this is unmanned, I’m going to rent there and clean them out.” I get that. But frankly, that’s just one of the fears that is just unjustified. I haven’t seen any results of “Oh, we’re gonna take advantage of this facility that is unmanned.” People are there, renting the unit, things like that, managers aren’t sitting there going “Oh, you look suspicious I’m not going to rent to you”, they’re just renting the units. So I haven't seen that correlation at all.
P: That’s what I heard as well, there’s no real noticeable change in my own properties. You know, with 19 stores, I have issues with break ins, or coming in and filling a unit with stuff I don’t want. It hasn’t stopped because there’s a manager on site. So, have you found the frequency of things like that has changed when it’s unmanned, or no?
J: Welcome to storage. It happens! I haven’t seen any correlation of it being worse or better, it’s kinda the same it’s always been.
A: Something I always recommend, whether it be a management company or anyone else, if you do an online move in, online or remote managed, it doesn’t just mean they signed up, never talk to them ever again and you’re completely done and that's it. Verify them, talk to them, make sure they know how to get in the facility, check in on them. Maybe they’re moving in this weekend. Usually, as soon as your managers are checking in on their facility and they see an online move in and they see that the address is 12345 Happy St or something they can say, “Eh, probably not a real move in''. They can lock them out of the gate until they can verify their address, understand what’s going on, and know if there’s an issue. Make them talk to you if you feel like there’s a security issue like that. But verify your move ins!!
B: But the other thing to keep in mind is that online move-ins are almost all 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. You don’t really have any issues when people leave credit cards like you do when people leave cash all the time. So, we find the incidents of issues really go down because of that. They’re leaving something that’s easily trackable, that’s easily dealt with as opposed to someone who drops off cash. The other thing we do, is in every vacant space, we give everyone free locks. A free box in there with a keychain, things like that, a big disc lock, even the most enterprising meth head is not going to get through that.
P: One thing we found with some of our customers is that, I know that they use e-sign texting, so once you go through that rental process … so you know, texting out the lease, to them to get them through e-sign to sign it. And steps to go out and validate like Alex talked about. Some of that data, we’ve seen that within the CallPotential system with sending out, and checking who it’s going to. So the next question we got is talking about property maintenance. You know, how is that handled? We’ve seen people with the first generation of remote management, and then an interim of a sort of “Hub & spoke”, where you might have a store and then regionalization, how are you guys approaching maintenance? Is it once a week? What does that look like? Gary, want to start it off.
G: We have at least one person at every location and we call them CPOs, Chief Pretty Officers. Because ultimately, that’s what I want them focused on. Making sure the facility remains pretty and attractive to someone driving by, someone pulling in for the first time, I want them to say, “Hey! This looks pretty nice.” So that’s their job. How often they’re there depends somewhat on the size of the facility, the location, the area, at least once a week. Many others are 2-3 times a week. They have varying responsibilities, some are capable of more than others. They’re all part time workers, and with that comes strengths and weaknesses, but that’s the general role. Maybe a couple McDonalds bags rolling around, some weeds they can spray, they call in to our team and work out. Or someone was driving a U-Haul for the first time and cut a corner too sharply, that’s gonna be escalated somewhere outside of our team. If it’s someone who left a mattress behind, then that’s just the CPO coordinating with some local resources to get rid of it. So you know it depends as far as the response, but that’s how we handle it, a CPO assigned to a facility.
P: Great, anyone else got anything different? How about the lean sale? We had a question from an anonymous attendee. Is your lean sale in line with your sort of Chief Pretty Officers?
G: Yup, exactly the same. 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 working there 40 hours.
P: Great. We had another question too, in terms of the call center side of things. I’ll open it up to anybody. Have you found there’s a particular agent to store ratio that’s worked for you? You know, how many stores is a typical agent able to cover? What factors into that? I’m sure size and volume are some things.
B: I was just going to say that has been, first of all, one of the more frustrating things is getting a call center to do it as I mentioned before. So bringing our own 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. So yeah if 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 and a lot of things. One is the people, because it’s not a 1-1 trade at all.
P: Have you found that technology systems like pay by phone, call routing, and some of those other things have impacted that quantity of the agents you need?
B: It has, we implemented a lot of those things with CallPotential, which allowed us to grow and add more stores without necessarily having to add more agents. Because doing some of those things like pay by texting, other things, we have even implemented through CallPotential where if people want to call in and make a payment and use an agent, we actually charge for that. That has cut down because we have 8 other ways to pay and actually talking to a human being just to give a credit card should be the last thing they do. And so that’s helped too, Phil, is implement some of the things you guys had suggested, by the way, and that has helped us grow without needing to add more agents.
P: Yeah and we have seen that a lot where people take the high cost side, which our most expensive resource, is typically been the people running the show. Adding a fee to be able to have that human interaction, let’s give them an option without cutting out choice. Jim, I think you were about to say something.
J: Yeah I mean, just a rough figure, is one agent can handle about 8 stores. This kind of comes back to the scale, like if you don’t have any stores? It’s kind of hard to have your own call center. You’ll probably have to hire that out, you’ll utilize another company to help you with that plug in. That's just kind of what I’ve seen for that, as a rough number.
P: And I’m assuming when you’re jogging with that you’re doing it on a first ring basis, because you don’t have that store level with a rollover, you’re getting all calls for all the stores coming in.
J: Exactly. And that one person can’t run 12 hour days 7 days a week, that 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.
P: And that’s a good addition, talking about the hours. Leave it up to anyone who wants to throw out some hours, what kind of coverage are you looking for your call center to be able to handle with unmanned? A typical store might be 9-6, are you looking to staff within that window or are you going for a different range? Are time zones a thing too?
A: I think I’ll hop in, but I stray a bit from the other guys here because we do more of a hybrid model. A lot of our stores are run remotely with hours that are by appointment only, but we’ll have one manager that would be more a “hub & spoke”. One manager out of one location, will handle 4-5 stores in the region. Everything from maintenance to property checks and things like that, so you know we will 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 to 6-8pm. Sometimes we have some earlier staff to handle the 8am times. For us, we like to see phones between 8am-7/8pm, and that’s central. We’re lucky to be in the same time zone, so I’ll let the other guys talk about that with time zones.
G: Similar to Alex, we are 8am-7pm 6 days a week, and then we throw a few hours in on Sunday morning to catch a few people. We do not adjust for the time zone and we’ve gotten away with it, working with the east coast and Colorado. That’s just where we kind of sit at that 8-7 mark. But that gives us 70 hours a week, and for most people, in their mind they still need that traditional in house person, ok… but we answer the phones 70 hours a week. And your person isn’t. Because mine are truly answering the phone 70 hours a week, they’re not also going to the bank, doing unit checks, and everything else. So to go off Jim’s point, if you have 1 person and they’re scaled up to handle 8 facilities, it’s a heck of a lot better and easier to train that 1 person to handle tenant insurance, sales at 8 facilities then it is to have to train 1 person at each facility to handle that tenant insurance, sales or 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.
B: I was going to mention it, we have found that you can hire and train a better level of person in that 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 and do things, 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.
P: Have you found there’s a different skill set that you look for? You mentioned a better quality, have you found there’s a different skillset for what you’re looking for with those agents rather than the store managers?
B: Well, I tell our folks I only have 1 requirement, one aspect, 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. How to be engaging. How to be 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.
G: I spent a couple decades in the insurance industry, and the first person that I hired, I told him to smile when they answered the phone. They looked at me like I was just dumb. You know, you can tell. You can tell if that person answers the phone with a smile. Absolutely a great point, Bob.
A: And you just mentioned Phil, with the hiring process, go with the most basic stuff. A lot of your interviews probably start off with a phone interview. 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 the in person interview when you’re hiring for a remote/call center agent/work from home, you’re looking for how do you present yourself in a phone fashion, in a virtual environment, how does that work? There’s different characteristics that you’re looking for. When you’re looking for an employee on site versus one with a virtual presence.
P: Alex and I were both just at the Illinois show last week, the CEO at ExtraSpace talking about their call center, and pre COVID they were 100% in the office, the typical room you’d expect, and everybody was in Salt Lake. When COVID hit, they distributed, and now half of their agents aren’t even in Utah. Are you finding your agents have an office, or how far do you go?
J: Currently, mine are all remote. You’re catered to help people want to work now. People don’t want to be forced to be in an office, if you have that availability to be able to offer remote, you know, as long as it’s not noisy, I do have some parameters but I’ve been hiring for remote and find high quality people when I am flexible that way.
P: I know in terms of using CallPotential, all you need is an internet connection and a computer, to have someone up and running. Bob, do you find the same thing? Do you care where they’re at? Or do you have an office?
B: They all work remotely. We do bring any new folks into Birmingham where I live, but I’m not involved. But our call center managers live here, so we do bring them in for a live training, like a two week program. We’ll bring them here. But most of them live all over the country. We manage all the country, from FL - WA, so our call center is open 12 hours a day in every time zone, and we have people all over the place. 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 maybe stay at home moms while they’re child goes to school, for retirees, young people who like to work until midnight, anyone. And what’s nice about it, 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.
P: With remote managers, obviously with an onsite manager, they know the product, facility, everything there. It sounds like you train people, Bob, to get them familiar with some aspects. How have you handled them familiar with the different aspects of the facility they’re renting from, or familiar with the location/area? Are you finding technology filling that gap? Do you pay to visit sites? How does that come together?
J: 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 side 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.
P: So making sure that the software they are using has as much information as possible, for them to know whether they have drive up or indoor, cameras, elevators, it needs to be there at their fingertips.
B: 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’. They 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. You know, signage and all that stuff matters. It also, from a customer standpoint, all that stuff helps too. Because the more signs you have, the more “you are here” signs so people can find their way around. We have multi story buildings. When they get off the elevator, there's a map. Exactly how to get to the units. People ask “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.
A: I would add to that when you’re onboarding new facilities, so if you’re an owner, and you’re getting ready to get a call center and put things in place… 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. ‘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) but you go around and give the video to your team members and when a new team member comes in, they can quickly. 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. Best case is obviously you want to get your agents and your call center reps to get out to these properties and put eyes on them, if it’s possible, but like Bob said, he has locations from Florida to Washington so it’s not always convenient to get a manager on site. They’re watching over the facility. 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.
P: So we’re going to combine a couple questions here since they’re related. Kent Cooper was asking how do you distribute locks, whether it's free move in locks or selling them? And then how do you handle retail sales, boxes and stuff like that? We’ll combine those. Are you still doing retail? Do you sell locks? How do you get those to tenants, how does that come together?
G: We don’t have retail sales. We do give a free lock like Bob was saying. If you give each of your tenants those locks, you instantly double the security at your facility. So we gift every new tenant with a new disc lock. We do NOT sell it, in case the IRS is listening. We charge an administrative fee that covers that but that’s how we put the lock in their hands. I had an experience for a couple of years with retail sales, and 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. The return on that investment from a time and training and inventory standpoint, just did not fit our model. 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.
P: Many of these facilities have offices. Either they do now or some can be quite large. I’ve seen some 200 sq ft offices, an old 10x20 unit, to people that have these 1000+ square foot show rooms… what have you done with the offices? Have they become anything? Has anything changed?
G: I had that discussion with an owner this morning, they’re converting the old office and the apartment into climate controlled, temperature controlled storage. Because he sees no value in ever having that scenario again. 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.
B: Like Gary said, we’ve done a lot of both. As you mentioned, 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 sthe best use, and 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 offices set up. We add them to the rent roll and rent them to someone. That’s what we’ve done with most of ours.
P: Great. I don’t have any offices now either. I rented mine out too, and now they’re basically another unit in my property management software.
A: We still use some of our offices, because we do have some managers that prefer to be on site at some locations. We even given the option of some flex hours, and they like doing that. But we also try and 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 ones that have taken over that 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, renting out the rest for rentable square footage.
P: We’ve talked a lot about completely unmanned, and I know that’s where some of your models are, but we do have some situations, whether previously or now, where we have a store that’s adjusting it’s hours. We see it where people are using CallPotential to see how they can get coverage for some stores open Sunday, some closed. Where some need to close hours earlier, or they’re missing a manager. Has anyone come across that? Where it’s not necessarily a permanent solution, but rather an adjustment in coverage, or a hybrid.
J: Yeah, I’ll jump in real quick! There’s definitely some situations where its not a 1 size fits all. I have some sites where it's 120000 sq ft and they're in rent up. I’m not fully comfortable with doing a fully 100% unmanned property there. Im 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.
P: and then we have one clarification, Megan asks how do you give them the lock logistically? You know, we’re giving it away, but how do you physically get it to them?
B: Well, how we do it is that 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, key chain, and then put it in there, 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, we buy them for 3-4 dollars a piece, brand new disc locks. 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.
P: Well we had another question, a more general question. What has been the biggest challenge(s) you’ve had to overcome. Maybe you did or didn’t foresee, as you were coming into unmanned/remote management?
B: You asked for a new term, we gave you one, and you still don’t use it!
P: You know I’m an old dog, you can’t teach me new tricks.
A: I think the one I would say is bound to happen. I get asked this a lot. You’re taking over some of these facilities that are older, things can still break, things can still happen. So 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.
B: For us, our biggest challenge is if we have bought a property or manage a property that has had an on site manager, is setting new customer expectations about what’s going on now. There’s not going to be somewhere that you can come and hang out, we don’t do that anymore, and setting that new expectation. For example, say someone says, “I need my lock cut”. You’ll have to say, our guys come on Wednesday, and 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 do something 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 managers, it is 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. So that sort of traditional stuff. 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.
P: Great. Jim or Gary, anything to add onto there? Unexpected lessons learned?
J: No! But to reiterate what Bob said, 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, that’s the biggest thing. It takes a few months, frankly, to kind of retrain everyone. Tell people things are autopay, you can’t pay cash and talk to a manager for two hours. You don’t have that anymore. It’s really that, just doing that transition for the few months of the new way of doing things, getting that pushback from current customers. But for the most part, after the few months of learning curve for it, it’s sunshine after that! There’s definitely a learning curve for the first few months for current customers.
G: 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? When you look at the savings that you get from hammering the payroll component from the PNL and ultimately that’s what we’re all here talking about. Because in the Self storage industry, there are only so many expenses that you can control. I haven’t had much luck controlling real estate taxes or anything like that, but payroll is one of those things that we manage around. And ultimately, that’s what drove interest in remote management. Certainly nice now, with the labor market, that we’re not hiring as many as what we would have to. But ultimately, you have to remember it’s about profit and loss and not necessarily the speed of answering some of the questions, so. 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.
P: Well we are getting to the end here, last couple of minutes. I just wanted to say thanks everybody, for coming on the webinar. Hopefully everyone had a lot of great information and knowledge and we are appreciative of everyone here imparting knowledge. Obviously, if you have further questions, there’s probably an additional 30 questions I had and even more in the chat we didn’t get a chance to get to. But feel free to reach us at CallPotential, or any one of the panelists as well. If you’re interested in how they’re doing things, or running things, but also from CallPotential, we are more than happy to walk you through how our technology has helped different operators make their way to unmanned. But we really appreciate everything, and thanks for hopping on! A special thank you to the panelists for being a part of this.