Balancing high tech and high touch

Let's face it: Automation is increasing. From highly sophisticated robots to self-storage rental kiosks, the stock of non-human capital is rising.

According to the SpareFoot blog, "In 2012, 9 percent of self-storage facilities in the U.S. were using kiosks, according to the 2013 Self-Storage Almanac. That was up from 1.4 percent in 2011. The kiosks serve as a right hand to on-site employees-covering busy times during business hours and automating operations for walk-in customers after hours. Depending on the model, the kiosks can rent units and collect payments in the form of cash or checks; dispense locks; solicit insurance; and confirm identification. Many are bilingual and paperless, and offer two-way video consultations with a call center. What's not to like?"

It's this last point about two-way video communications that addresses the importance of high touch coupled with high tech. The blog says as much: "While it's true that a facility could become fully automated with a kiosk, it's not always the best option when trying to meet customers' varied needs. However, some scale back use of kiosks to three days a week, for example, to continue to offer face-to-face interaction with customers."

Mike Sawyer, marketing director at Open Tech Alliance, a major player in the self-storage kiosk world, notes that views on this issue vary depending on experience: "To many operators, processing a new tenant lease through an onsite kiosk, remote call center or home website software has seemed pointless; based on the thought that self storage rentals happen live, face-to-face at the counter during office hours, when tenants arrive with boxes looking for a place to store them."

He adds, "Many other independent owners and or managers see things differently, and believe that the counter is not the only consumer touch-point. These owners choose to deploy a number of different sales and service channels that work hand-in-hand with interaction; promoting self storage business face-to-face, over the phones and on the internet."

Competitive pressures are driving self-storage operators to carefully consider the mix of automation and human staffing. Sawyer points out, "Covering all of the bases has become the new focal point as facility owners try to stay ahead of their competition and better position themselves for future sales and service opportunities. Still, many tenants and future tenants will choose to interact onsite face-to-face with the passionate people representing our industry. Omitting that consumer option could be devastating, like leaving home plate uncovered."

Self-service kiosks that round out ability to offer 24/7 touchpoints are critical to another cadre of consumers who may prioritize convenience over personal contact. Notes Sawyer, "Through the use of kiosks, call centers and website rental applications, storage owners are increasing the size of their market radius because there is little competition from neighboring properties."

How do you go higher tech and keep high touch in the equation?

1. Give the gift of a smiley face. Touchpoints don't have to be verbal. Even if you make your operation 100% kiosk-driven, think about ways to put smiles on the faces of those using the kiosk and/or nearby residents. Here's a fun and relatively inexpensive one-Go buy a bunch of smiley face helium balloons at a local dollar discount store (Dollar Tree sells them for $1 apiece in Denver) and make them available to those stopping by with a short note saying something to the effect of, "Have a great day. From _______" or, "'re NOT on Candid Camera." In addition, consider tying them to front door handles of nearby residents with a short friendship note. (I do this periodically with my immediate neighbors. Boy, does it put smiles on their faces!)

2. Ensure consumers know they can go face-to-face. Consumers initially accessing the facility via self-service kiosks need to know how and when they can deal with someone face-to-face, if that is their preference. This gives the consumer a full set of customer experience options, and ensures that they will feel in control of the process (versus being pigeonholed into a specific customer service system).

3. Promote the call center in conjunction with kiosks. Even the most tech-savvy consumers generally appreciate the omnipresent option of conversation if they're confused, want to clarify, or need information beyond that provided through the kiosk system itself. This is an ongoing hotbed of discussion across the country. For example, Verizon Wireless emphasizes availability of its website to address consumer questions and concerns. At the same time, it has beefed up its call center with generally fast response times and ubiquitous "how did we do?" follow-up surveys.

Clearly, major companies see the value of a robust presence in both the high tech and high touch arenas. Self-storage is no different.

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