Technology: Friend Or Foe?

Posted by Poppy Behrens on Jun 1, 2018 12:00:00 AM

What It Means To Be “Smart” In Self-Storage

By Pete Frayser

In decades past, the word “smart” was not a term that puzzled many people. “Smart” was a simple, succinct word and certainly was not layered with double entendre or vagueness. At its core it meant nothing more than shrew, quick-witted, and capable of complex thought. That was it. No smartphones, no smart cars, no smart refrigerators, or vacuums, or TVs; there was just good old-fashioned smart people. Humans that were capable of being and understanding. Seems like a radical concept, right?

Today, that has certainly all changed. If you asked the CEOs of the top five global tech companies to define “smart”, do you think you’d receive five easily digestible and practical answers? Sadly, the answer to that is probably a resounding “no”.  What you’d likely get instead would be a barrage of overused and outdated terms thrown your way such as A.I., cloud-based, and API. Even seeing those words written makes me want to tune out entirely and check my smartphone to see if I have any new texts, emails, alerts, snaps, notifications, etc. I’d rather do just about anything than read another quote from another CEO who entirely misses the point of what we all what from technology: saving time, making boring tasks more fun, and helping us make more money (or spend less of it).

Simply put, most of us would rather use technology in simple, convenient ways than try to navigate through all of the buzzwords and features that are “coming soon”. Buzzwords and lofty promises in the world on technology miss the entire point of why we ultimately decide to use technology in our personal lives and to better run our businesses.

The fact is, we can’t ignore the technology either. We very well know by now that by ignoring new technology or shying away from it out of fear, we’re really only hurting ourselves. Looking the other way won’t keep progress and innovation from moving at full light speed ahead, which is great news for us because it means that we don’t need to be Elon Musk to understand that letting a car drive you while you peek at your phone is a much safer alternative to drifting into the car in the next lane or that going from zero to 60 in 2.3 seconds in that same fully battery-powered car is really, really fun. Besides being fun, convenient, and helping us multi-task in our personal lives, “smart” devices are best when they help us save time, operate with increased efficiency, and ultimately gain or keep a competitive edge in an industry that is seeing increasing competition and consolidation.

Technology Simplified
Part of the beauty of our industry is in the simplicity of it all. People need space, and we provide it. Now, we all know it’s much more complex to operate than that. There are lien laws to consider and employee headaches and turnover, online visibility battles to fight, more competition creeping in every day, and a litany of other operational challenges that, for most operators, can really only be solved with technology.

We also want to understand how new technology works and the practical application for our business. If the setup, implementation, and support from the manufacturer aren’t seamless and clear, then we probably don’t want to waste our time trying to figure it out. Each and every day I get dozens of spam-worthy emails and what seems like an endless barrage of cold calls from companies promising to make my life easier with this “cutting edge” team productivity tool or that “revolutionary” video conference software. Here’s the thing, when it comes to new technology, the product will speak for itself. Sometimes, quite literally, in the case of Alexa and other virtual assistants.With that in mind, what technology is out there today that is actually “smart” for self-storage operators who want to address our industry’s specific needs—from improving the online rental process to the in-store customer experience to automating and improving facility entry and unit access? 

The good news is, there are a few new tools available today that are easy to understand and that can have a very tangible impact on our bottom line.

Bluetooth It’s the little blue icon that follows you everywhere, from your phone to your headphones and your car’s audio system to your Nest thermostat, Bluetooth has become an integral part of the way we interact with the world around us. But what do you really know about this everyday technology, and can it help you improve your customer’s experience and automate processes? Yes.

Here are a few things you may not know about the history and functionality of Bluetooth:

  1. Bluetooth could help save your life. As healthcare technology has grown by leaps and bounds, its reliance on Bluetooth technology has become undeniable. The process of recordkeeping and updating patients’ charts is now more accurate than ever with Bluetooth wireless downloads and instant transfers of information. Less human error, less problems! There’s also the ability with wireless technology to track the health and wellness of patients once they leave the hospital. Some pacemakers are now equipped with Bluetooth so doctors can be alerted if anything goes awry with the patient’s ticker.
  2. It’s been around since 1998. While most of us were enjoying the ever-durable and stylish Nokia 5110, a Swedish engineer by the name of Dr. Jaap Haartsen was developing a wireless technology to transmit data within short distances. His goal was to replace the need for cables when connecting headsets to personal computers. It’s probably safe to say that the current span of Bluetooth technology has surpassed even his wildest expectations.
  3. Bluetooth communicates via radio waves. When we think of radio waves, our first instinct is to picture AM/FM frequencies, but that isn’t quite the case here. Bluetooth utilizes very low-frequency radio waves (between 402 GHz and 2.480 GHz), which is in the same communication plane as a lot of other devices you probably use, including garage door openers, baby monitors, and some cordless phones. This new frontier isn’t very dramatic and new after all.
  4. It’s an expert at multitasking. Did you know some Bluetooth devices can be connected with multiple other devices at the same time? When two or more devices are linked up, it’s called a piconet, or Personal Area Network (PAN). With Bluetooth 4.0, you can have a number of devices all connected at once without interfering with one another, which makes it a great communication tool. How? Because this new generation of Bluetooth technology doesn’t rely on long-term device linking. They communicate, then disengage from each other. Think of it as a quick chat between devices rather than an extended conversation with that one relative who likes to talk, talk, talk.

These little radio frequencies have packed a big punch in the technology market. As of 2017, annual Bluetooth product shipments surpass 3.6 billion. Bluetooth is now being leveraged in self-storage to allow tenants to access the property and even enter their units. Combined with cellular technology and Wi-Fi, Bluetooth makes mobile access and monitoring a painless process for tenants. The implications for automating processes like online rentals are there.

Using Technology To Change The Game
This is a case study of National Self-Storage in Marana, Ariz.

When Travis Morrow, president of Strat Property Management’s Self-Storage Division, began designing the company’s latest facility in Marana, Ariz., Morrow was hyper focused on the customer experience. He saw the way retail experiences were in other industries and how seamless that experience couldbe for his self-storage customers as well. He knew he needed to change the paradigm for customer interaction in our industry, and he knew the only real way to do that was by leveraging as well as creating new systems and interfaces for interacting with customers.

“In other retail experiences outside of our industry, I was seeing it more and more frequently,” says Morrow. “The customer service personal was being brought out from behind the desk over to the side of the customer. I saw it in airlines, banks, and even my local grocery store. I wanted that same modern experience for my customers at National Self-Storage. I wanted to remove all barriers for my customers, beginning with SEO/SEM, online rentals, all the way through to accessing the unit.”

He goes on to say, “As a member of the Storelocal Co-Op, I knew that the online tenant experience provided by the Co-Op was exactly what I wanted at my Marana facility as well. Basically, I wanted an in-store rental process and access system that was as simple and easy to use as possible.”

Using the flawless online experience provided by Storelocal’s Web SEO product as a baseline, the Strat team began working to develop an all-new “tenant interface”. This interface turned the traditional rental counter environment into an entirely open environment in which the manager works with the tenant to execute a rental; or, if a tenant requires no assistance, they have the option to do it themselves. This open platform allows for up to three customers to rent a unit, make a payment, review the lease and other documentation, view a map of the units, and more, all at one time. No more waiting behind a long line at the counter and getting called up to the front.

As Strat sees it, the Tenant Interface—exclusive to Storelocal members—is part kiosk and part sales tool as well. By bringing the manager out from behind the desk, tenants feel they have a partner in their rental. For those needing less assistance, or those who prefer speed and efficiency, the clickable, easy-to-use interface captures the tenant’s driver’s license information as well as an image of the license itself. That speeds up the rental process from the start, so more tech savvy or younger renters spend little to no time entering personal information. Here, the technology is catching up to what we’ve seen in places like the Apple Store, airports, grocery stores, and more: removing the counter and allowing for more transactions to take place with a smaller footprint and fewer employees.

Morrow’s recasting of the traditional self-storage experience did not end with the Tenant Interface. “As I looked around the retail landscape, I was beginning to see the use of video walls and video in general to get messaging to customers,” he says. “I wanted that for my new leasing floor as well. Once again, working with Storelocal, we were able to put together the hardware to make the system work as well as a content delivery system that gave me control over what was being displayed on the screen. That same delivery system can now be rolled out at my other facilities to replace the standard 32 camera display that you see in many self-storage facilities. Camera displays are not something you see when you walk into a high-end retail establishment. We all know that those establishments have cameras, but by putting those on display it can sometimes feel like something will go wrong and can have the exact opposite effect than intended. We decided to use that space to suggestively sell things like insurance, highlight our smart entry system, and more.”

Morrow continued saying, “It was important to me to provide the most modern experience available to my customers at our newest facility in Marana. To that end, we also selected a vendor offering a smarter and more advanced access system to our facility and individual units via Bluetooth and smartphone application. Anything that we could think up to improve the customer’s experience we tried to implement at this location, and that’s why we implemented this new Bluetooth smart entry system.”

Why Leverage New Technology?
“For the entire Strat Team, our focus is on the customer experience,” Morrow says. “Our customers are the ones who make any facility successful, and at our Marana facility we decided we really needed to give them the absolute best, most modern interaction with the facility from first touch through move out. If they are happy with the product as I’m presenting it to them, they’ll likely be very long-term tenants and that is very good for the owner/operator. Operational efficiency [is] of course nice if you can create it; I believe our Bluetooth overlock system we’ve selected will save my managers a lot of time by eliminating manual tasks they’ve had to complete in the past like removing/placing locks and walk-throughs. The main reason we went with a smart entry system powered by Bluetooth goes back to customer experience.I have downloaded Bluetooth applications to operate many different devices in my life. One that I use frequently is the application from Chevrolet that allows me to remotely start my car and unlock my doors. In Arizona, in the summer, it’s an invaluable amenity to be able to turn on my A/C 10 minutes before sitting in my car. I approached my facility with this type of experience in mind: How can I leverage technology to create an experience that I myself would like to have.”

As for the operational piece of leveraging a smarter, Bluetooth powered system, Morrow says, “This system answers what to me was the final hurdle in renting a unit 100 percent online: Who removes the yellow lock? Or, how do you get them into the correct unit that they rented online while keeping other vacant units secure? With this system, someone outside our new project at 8 p.m. on a Sunday with a packed moving truck will be able to move in using their smartphone, and use that same smartphone to access the property, and again use their smartphone to access the correct unit that they rented inside the facility.”

Driving Revenue And Saving Money With Technology
Technology for the sake of a cool experience is great, but we all know that money talks.

While the Marana, Ariz., facility is just one example, technology can impact a facility’s bottom line in multiple ways. Whether it be making the reservations and move-in process easier, which creates more rentals, or managing tenant revenues to drive growth, technology in all its forms is good for the industry.

The Strat team is using the same Bluetooth Access Control system in another project and it’s saved them $66,000 because they were able to eliminate the entire fence around the project. As for the Marana project, the starting street rates are higher by 25 percent than the rest of the market, due partly to the technology we’ve implemented.

When it comes down to it, consider technology a friend rather than a foe. Due your diligence and ask lots of questions to make sure you understand what you’re buying, but it’s no longer something to fear.

Pete Frayser is the vice president of International Sales and Business Development for R3 at Janus International, the leading provider of turn-key building solutions and new technology for the self-storage industry. For more information, please visit (678) 647-1511, email, or visit