Automated self-storage facilities are becoming increasingly popular. We're seeing more and more self-storage owners and operators take advantage of this technology with advanced Smart Entry systems providing tenants a fully automated rental experience without ever interacting with a manager, if they choose. The big question about having an automated facility - what do tenants prefer and how is it affecting the self-storage industry?
We sat down with Dean Booty, Owner of Stor More Self Storage and Travis Morrow, President of National Self Storage, in this debate on automation vs. customer service.
If you're a self-storage owner or manager, this is a podcast you don't want to miss! Dean and Travis go back and forth with their diverse opinions on what they feel is best for the overall customer experience. Dean explains why he thinks a manager and staff onsite at all times is more effective, while Travis dives into the the importance of providing options and delivering enhanced customer service using automation and why.
Other topics covered in this podcast include:
Or read along with the transcript below...
Travis Morrow, President of National Self Storage
Dean Booty, Owner of Stor More Self Storage
Rachael Dempsey: Today’s episode is really exciting, because we have two guests that are making big waves in the self-storage industry. We have Dean Booty, owner of Store More Self-Storage located in East Yorkshire England. Dean also runs his own terrific podcast called Hacking Self Storage which everyone should definitely check out because it is so good. Also, joining us today is Travis Morrow, which you all might remember from one of our previous episodes where we had a really great conversation. Travis is the president of National Self Storage and the winner of the “2018 Overall Facility of the Year” award. So guys, welcome and thank you for being here.
Dean Booty: Thank you for having me Rachael. It’s an honor – I can’t wait.
Travis Morrow: Yeah, thank you Rachael. Happy to be here.
RD: So today we are switching up the format of this episode. We’re going to be doing more of a debate style conversation. The topic is “Automation vs. Customer Service,” and Dean and Travis will each be presenting their unique viewpoints on these really important self-storage topics. So let’s go ahead and get started. Dean, let’s start with you. Can you tell us how you got into the industry and what you’re passionate about?
DB: Yeah, absolutely. I actually got into the industry when I was actually on a honeymoon in America. We were traveling around America, me and my wife, and saw some of these storage facilities pop up. We thought, “wow, there’s got to be something in this.” I did a quick google search, and I realized there was no self-storage facilities in my town. The end of the honeymoon I was just googling the prices to set up a self-storage, and basically everything I possibly could do. Yeah, a solid seven years. I’m still in the industry, and I absolutely love it. I’m most passionate about customer care. Basically, looking out for your staff as well – a lot of people take them for granted. I’m a big believer in making sure we are looking out for our staff as well as our customers.
RD: Awesome, I love that. So Travis, let’s turn it over to you. How did you get to where you’re at, and what are you passionate about?
TM: So I actually married into the self-storage industry, so pre-honeymoon. My father-in-law is a “hall of famer” in the self-storage industry. He’s been in it for 45 years. His name is Bob Shaw. I started working with his company, National Self Storage, in college and have progressed through the industry working at National Self Storage. I’m involved in the state and national associations, and I’ve been involved in many facets in the industry throughout my career. I would say that my passion right now is customer experience and creating a modern customer experience in an industry that is not traditionally been accused of being modern. That’s really my focus, and I’ll talk about that more today.
RD: Awesome, I’m so excited to hear both of these really intriguing viewpoints. So, let’s go ahead and dive right in, wonderful. Dean, you have the floor. Tell us about your opinions on customer service and self-storage.
DB: For me, I just believe every business, a lot of them, especially self-storage is that we’ve got to set ourselves apart in the competition. The one differential factor that we can use is customer care and show the customer we actually care about them. If it’s a fully automated site or if it’s not an automated site, how do we set ourselves apart if we don’t have the staff onsite? If we are fully automated, then I believe that means the big boys in my country, the Big Yellow and SafeStore can pile much more money into the industry, into the automation. That means that for me I find it very hard to compete with the big boys without my differentiation factor. It has to be with my staff and without them, how can I give fantastic customer care.
The automation definitely has some pros, there’s no doubt about it, but for me I just want to highlight some cons. Whether we agree or not, it’s a huge security risk of the customers. I'll just highlight a quick thing. The security risks whether we like it or not, whether we believe no other facility is secure or not, is what the customer perceives. In my opinion, the customers will perceive an unmanned facility as a security risk. I mean again, we’ve got to think about the undesirables checking in at 3 am. Will the check-in at 3 am with the drugs get bodies or whatever it may be? Probably not, but again it’s about the perception. We all feel safe in a manned facility regardless of what the stats say.
For me, the product knowledge in the industry is very low. How many customers come in and have no idea what size they need? How many customers that need us to actually advice on what unit size they need? How many times has somebody came in and bought a 100 square foot unit? And I say I know what unit size you need, you need a 400 square foot unit. It’s our job to help educate and support our customers. In England for the SSA report, 74% of people said they actually needed help choosing the size of their unit, only 11% of customers in the UK actually got all the information they needed online - only 11%. So that means if we’re not there actively helping our customers, then they’re going to be confused. A confused customer, for one, doesn't buy. It’s never good from the customer’s point of view either.
For me, insurance is another big thing. Eighteen percent of my total revenue comes from insurance. We train our staff to adequately insure our customer’s goods. How many customers would, if given the chance, just offer the cheapest amount of insurance? I’d probably say the majority of customers would do that. What happens if there’s a fire, what happens if there’s a flood? These unfortunate circumstances do happen, and we need to plan for them – we need to protect our customers. It also helps us as well because it increases revenue. At the end of the day, we all want to increase our revenue if we can increase our revenue by looking out for our customers as well. That for me is a big win.
There’s merchandise as well that the locked boxes too, and I can absolutely promise you that if you’re not there to actively ask the customer for the business, which lock would you like for the unit, would you like a key lock, or would you like a combination lock? Our actual conversions for just asking a simple question is sometimes 62% and 84% just by that question that we trained our staff.
For me as well, it’s important for the customer demographic. Again, it’s a necessary part. Seventy-one percent of self-storage customers are aged between 40 and 69 years old. Forty-four percent of customers are aged between 50 and 65 years old. I say we’ve got to market to our audience and ask what they want.
I know that the product knowledge in the UK is very low. Most people have never ever used self-storage before, so they will have no idea what unit size, how the unit operates, how you open the doors, how they get in when it’s late at night and there’s 24 hour access. We need to be there to support our customers and talk through exactly how we access the facility. Eighty-two percent of people, according to the SSA report, say they nor have their family ever used self-storage before. I firmly believe we need to educate our customers as well – help educate our customers and in return they’ll help educate their friends, family, etc.
Walk-in customers as well is a big one for me. Last month at our indoor facility, we had 11 walk-ins. Now I know 11 walk-ins isn’t a massive amount, and 8 of those actually moved in. That’s a conversion rate of 73%. If you ask me if it’s an automated site, then we’re keeping up with our highest converting quote which is face-to-face and why would we ever do that? I believe that people buy from people – they don’t buy from machines. The number of our conversions stands up when we’ve only converted 23% on our website. When you have a look at that when you compare to 73% of walk-ins, it’s a massive difference as well.
For me it’s all about building up a core with our customers and building up a relationship - we need for our customers to know us, like us, and trust us. That for me is a foundation of a great relationship. I hope I haven’t bothered anyone too much. In a nutshell, those are my points.
RD: No, that is fascinating. Thank you so much for that. As you were talking about that, I was so intrigued by what you said “people buy from people.” I was wondering, do you think this might be kind of a cultural element in the difference between the UK and the US?
DB: Yes, I firmly believe that it will be different in the US than it is for the UK. I can honestly only speak for the figures I have researched for the UK. I know that this one website as well actually said that an online facility increases revenue by 10% in the US, which I found really fascinating. I think the big difference between the US and the UK that the self-storage industry across the pond is definitely more mature than it is in the UK. You guys have a much better understanding of self-storage. US customers know what it is, know what to expect, and know what is going to happen. Just seeing the programs, as to where in the UK, when I mention self-storage, people don’t understand it – they don’t know what it is. So I would definitely say yes, there is a big difference in the US and the UK.
RD: This is so fascinating. I love this conversation already. Thank you so much Dean. Travis, now you have the floor. Tell us about your stance on automation and how it serves the industry.
TM: So, I mentioned earlier going back to modern customer experience, it doesn’t have to necessarily only have to be involved with the self-storage industry. In 2017, there was a survey done of hotel users. Hotel and hospitality is a very similar industry to self-storage except they’re probably 10 years or even 20 years ahead of us in their life cycle. In that survey they ask customers what their preference was to be able to book a hotel room online or offline. Eighty-eight percent of those customers said they rather book their room online. That’s very common across the US and the UK I believe as far as how you book a hotel room. That’s a modern experience.
People are on their phones more and more every day in all aspects of their life. On your phone, all those apps that you see, a large percentage of those are represented by businesses that you transact with. More and more businesses are occupying that virtual real-estate on your phone. My thought has always been, “why can’t my self-storage be there and transact with those people in that modern way?” Customers are spending on average over 5 hours a day looking at their smart phone screens. That kind of blew me away – I was a little embarrassed because my number’s higher than that. That’s a “me” problem.
On average, a person unlocks their smart phone 49 times per day. That number varies across the generations, but even the baby boomer generation and kind of the current retirees, they’re unlocking their phones 30 times a day. Dean had mentioned the age of some of the clientele, but even those people have smart phones, and their using those phones a lot to do business with other businesses. I want my storage facilities to be able to perform the same task in a similar way their used to with other businesses. The millennial's open their phones 63 times a day, and the generation z opens their phones 79 times a day. That’s a trend that we’re headed towards where it’s going to become more and more important for customers to be able to transact with businesses that way.
Through automation in self-storage, either online or via your phone, or at the facility itself through other technologies like Nokē Smart Entry, that’s how customers are going to want to interact with businesses. Dean had mentioned differentiation, but in my opinion, that is the differentiation right now that my stores are able to provide. That is the technology and the modern customer experience as opposed to a more traditional self-storage operation that you see here in the states. I want to give customers all the choices that I can to be able to rent a unit with me. I’m not saying that all of my facilities are 100% unmanned. I have some traditionally ran facilities where the manager is in the office, but I also layer that with the technology online and on the phone that allow people to move in with us without having to interact with a manager if that’s how they choose to do it. Some people flat out don’t like standing in lines. There is a survey of 2,000 consumers, and the biggest pain point that they had in a retail shopping experience was the line. The largest recommendation they had for solving that experience would being able to offer a quick check-out or a self-check-out at 81% or 86%.
Depending on the occupancy of my facilities, I’ve created different channels for customers to interact with us in the way that they want to. For example, that facility that you mentioned earlier, our facility of the year, for walk-in customers we created a little interface that is not unlike the experience they would have on their smart phone but a larger in office. We call it a tenant interface, where a customer can move in and they have as little or as much interaction with the manager as they would like to. That’s completely up to them. They can come in and grab a hold of that tenant interface, rent now, select their unit, and move in to begin the whole process paperless without any help from the manger.
I mentioned that occupancy is an important decision factor for me as far as when I have managers there and when I don’t. If a customer did have a question, I have a manager there that’s able to answer those questions and help them through the process of getting moved into the facility. It’s important to me to give the customers all of the options that they want whether it be on their phone, through my website, or in the office. Let them choose the experience that they want that will make them the happiest which is what we’re focused on from a customer experience stand point.
Dean had mentioned the size guide video. While it’s not perfect, we have actually shot time-lapse video of all the different size units we offer where we hired a moving company. We go in and kind of build out these staged units. We were able to photograph them from the top down and the side, where people could actually see what fits in each size unit. So we had all these household goods and had a moving company load up a 5x5, a 5x10, a 10x10, and all the way to 10x30 and show people exactly what fits in the unit. If they get to the facility and there’s a problem, we still have customer service and call centers that are able to address individual problems they might have.
The other part of the automated process for me, there’s a few things. I’ll start with the online perspective, Dean talked about the importance of insurance and the importance of retail sales – I 100% agree with him there. The automated process insures that every single time a customer is presented with the opportunity to purchase insurance, there’s videos explaining why it’s important to purchase insurance, and details that explain the different levels of insurance that we offer.
We also have the capability now to sale those boxes and locks and take all of that stuff through our website during that move-in process also. Every single time that up sale is offered because the automation software doesn’t know any different or to be able to forget that question. We’re able to truly ensure every customer gets the same experience every time in any way they choose to go about it.
The other part of the automation and specifically as it relates to the Nokē Smart Entry and other systems is when it comes to the managers themselves. You’re still going to have a manager on site in many cases. In my case, for example, with that new facility I have 636 units to rent, and I do want a human there that can sell those units, give tours, and that sort of thing and really show the features and benefits of the facility first hand. From a manager’s process, one of the big things a manager has to do every day is deal with the yellow locks and the red locks and removing and placing those locks based on payments that are made, rentals that are made, and all those sorts of things. It’s an ongoing process. If you have a large facility, that can eat up a great deal of their day. With the Nokē Smart Entry system, we’re able to automate that process where if a customer makes a payment online and they were past due, then the system automatically allows access again to that customer. They could be standing right outside of the facility on their phone and see their not allowed into the facility because they are passed due. They’re able to click a button and make a payment, and then they’ll automatically have an access to the facility again. That is important especially if that were to happen after hours when a manager’s not there. A customer still needs to have access to their goods. There might be something in their unit that they must have at 8:00 at night on a Sunday when nobody’s there or on a holiday. Having that automated system allows them to resolve their issue and regain access to their unit without manager intervention.
The same is true for online rentals. We had a customer on New Year’s Day show up at our facility, obviously the office is closed, and we saw them pull out their phone and rent the unit. We saw the unit rental come in through our property management software. They got the text message, they downloaded the app, they moved into the facility, and their unit when we were 100% closed. That was a rental that I wasn’t going to capture. That customer was ready to rent and move in that day, and I got them that day.
While automation does allow for completely unmanned scenarios, and there are many cases where I can justify that you could use a completely unmanned scenario, the automation isn’t just for unmanned scenarios. It’s really to improve the overall process and experience not only for the customer, but also for the self-storage manager and free up time for that self-storage manager to focus on other things like marketing, collections, cleaning the facility, and all those other things they need to do in their day to day. That’s kind of my take on the modern customer experience.
The only one other comment that I had as far as people buying from people, while I’m sure there’s a difference in people buying from the UK and the US, as far as this goes when it comes to people buying from people, I would say that amazon disagrees because they do a pretty good job on the person to online retail shopping experience.
RD: That is a very fair point. Alright, so Travis thank you so much. That was so much good information. Dean I want to check in with you. So, do you have any responses to everything that Travis just talked about? Specifically I wanted to get your opinion on what he said about how customers hate waiting in line and the element of waiting that they’re not a big fan of. To me that’s the fasted way to make a customer unhappy is if they have to wait on something. Do you currently have any issues if a customer comes into your facility and they’re having to wait on a new lock, or if they’re having to wait on any customer service help. How do you guys deal with that?
DB: We don’t normally have a problem, as we do have three members of staff and in our facility we always have two members of staff and sometimes three. I’m not saying that automation is bad or we shouldn’t automate, my point was I’m trying to educate the UK. We aren’t ready just yet in the UK to fully automate, and I would much prefer people to focus on their customers rather than trying to automate at this current time. There’s nothing wrong with doing that at all, I’m all for that.
The only thing that I’m completely against is a fully automated facility just for the UK, I don’t know the industry in the US too much, but I know that in the UK we’re not ready for it. As I was listening to Travis I thought, “wow that’s a great point,” but then I also remembered that Jeff Bezos, one of his most famous quotes is “stat over customer and why backwards” and that’s exactly what he has done. That’s exactly what I like to think we have done. We go the extra mile for our customers. We believe we do more for our customers than any other storage facility. I have my staff email me every Thursday that way I know exactly what my staff has done that week to really stand out. It’s okay to say that we’re customer focused, but what are you actually doing that week to go the extra mile for your customer? For example when James was coming to work he picked a customer up along the way to work because his car had broken down. Just another example on how we go the extra mile. If it was an automated site, than that couldn’t possibly happen.
In terms of hotels as Travis mentions, which again is another great point that I do believe and agree with Travis that if we look at the hotel industry there is probably a 10 year difference between us and that’s exactly true. The one big difference is people know exactly what they’re getting online and that’s why they’re so happy to book online. I can’t remember the last time I didn’t book online for a hotel, but we know if it’s a 1 star, 2 star, 3 star, 4 star, or 5 star so we know how good that hotel is and the price. Obviously a 5 start might be 300 pounds a night per room or $300. A 2 start might be $50 a night and then we can make our decision if it’s worth it or not.
The only difference is with self-storage, we have no idea what’s a good facility and a bad facility. In the UK there are some stand out facilities but we also have some equally bad ones maybe a farm or pig farm. It’s like housing pigs and putting them in a storage facility. We have that in the UK. The customer don’t know the difference between the two. All they know is one self-storage facility is cheaper than the other. Quite often in the UK especially, I doubt that you guys have that as well, but they display it on their website incorrect pictures. Nobody actually knows what they’re paying for until they actually get there. With the hotels, you do know that because of the star next to every hotel. The problem is we don’t know the difference between the good and the bad self-storage's, and that’s our job to educate the customers and say, “look, this is why we’re different.”
Every single room is a lamb when you come into my facility. If you go down the road to our competition it’s not the same. We have free 24 hour access because we got the security in place. Unfortunately down the road, that’s not the case. It’s my job and my staff’s job to actually educate the customer what you’re paying for, what extras you do get, what do you get here? It’s things like that we need to get across and tell our customers why we are different. I’m not saying automation isn’t the way to go, I’m just saying for me, a fully automated site could definitely have some question marks with that person to person communication. For example, even the local supermarket in the UK are Pesco’s and they have self-checkout lines. Yes, they’re very popular, but they haven’t done away with the person standing there scanning the items across. They understand that even though that is a mature industry, they understand you’ve got to give the customers a choice and the best of both worlds, and that’s exactly what they do.
TM: So I will say Dean, we could get into a whole other conversation on a rating system for self-storage's, and I’ve been apart on a lot of conversations on that topic.
I will say my conversations with Dean, he is excellent at the one on one customer service. I saw on social media last week a picture that he posted. He writes individual “thank you” cards to every tenant that moves into his facility, and I think that’s fantastic. I don’t know how scalable that is, because Dean wants to growth his portfolio he could spend all year writing “thank you” cards if he got big enough. It is a nice touch, but still to me my focus is starting with the customer working backwards to meet the needs of what they’re doing today.
RD: Travis, I wanted to get your opinion on, there’s this term of the unmanned facility, unattended self-storage, and now we kind of have virtual management entering the arena. I wanted to see if you could speak to the difference between automation and the idea of an unmanned facility, and kind of what Dean was talking about. How do you kind of fill in the gap there?
TM: I like to say there is no such thing as a human less, unmanned facility. Because we’re dealing with self-storage, there’s always someone who is going to leave a sofa in a unit when they move out. There’s not a machine that goes in and picks that up and disposes of it. There’s not a rumba big enough to go around a facility and clean it. There are facilities that are running on manned and doing so successfully where the actual rental process is handled in a little vestibule scenario or with the virtual attendant scenario. They help customers, but there’s not three people sitting in an office helping those customers.
To me, it’s still about the choice of the customer, and as Dean mentioned a self-checkout line at a grocery store, yeah they get a lot of business and you look to the left and there’s 12 rows of checkout lines. In my experience, about 2 of them are usually open. The grocery stores are able to see when they’re busy, and when they’re not busy and staff accordingly.
The technology automation piece with the data collection actually allows us to do the same thing. We can see when people are on property, when people are opening their doors, when people are coming in and renting units, and make decisions on, “okay this makes sense to have a human being here at this time.” We can also see that towards the end of the day or early in the morning, maybe we don’t need somebody there quite so early because they’re not as busy during those times. There’s an opportunity for savings and payroll is a large line item in our profit and loss statement where we can find some savings without completely deleting the human factor.
Once again, I don’t believe you can be completely unmanned, but there are certainly savings to be had as the result of the automation.
RD: Wonderful, thank you for that. Dean, let’s throw it back over to you. Do you have any closing comments as we wrap up this fantastic conversation?
DB: Yes, I made a note of what Travis said about the “thank you” notes and etc. I appreciate it, and I completely understand what you said about scaling, but that’s why we stand out. The minute we aren’t the size where we can individually write thank you notes to every customer saying “thank you very much for choosing us.” That’s why we stand out sometimes in business anyway. We have to do things that don’t scale. We just can’t be focused on only doing the things that scale because if we do that, then we’re just like everybody else.
What sets us apart is that we are different. It doesn’t mean to say that if we get 10 to 12 facilities, that I have to start there every single day and night writing out these “thank you” cards. It means that then I can hand it off to the managers. I don’t think they’ll ever take the customers for granted. That’s one thing I never want to get away from. It may not be scalable, but I can do that for every single facility we’ve got. It doesn’t mean the manager can’t do that. Another great thing that’s a bit interesting is customer care and finding out what your customers really think is actually getting the move-in report for that month.
Literally sat there just spending half an hour ringing actual customers who moved it. I ring up 10 customers a month. I just pick up the phone and just ask them how they heard about us and if there’s anything we can do to improve. It’s those little nuggets you might overlook, but the customer sees first hand because they’re actually using our facility day in and day out.
Although we try to, we can never actually put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and think the way they are thinking. It’s always nice to get their opinion first hand. I think automation is fantastic, and it does have a place in the industry especially moving forward in the next 10 years there is no doubt about that. What I want to get away from is we have to always have our customers in mind. If we just keep focusing on our customers and how we can do more for our customers then that will stand the test of time through automation or whatever. Just keep asking yourself how can you do more for your customers?
RD: Wonderful, thank you so much. I have really enjoyed this conversation so much. I think it’s so wonderful that Travis and Dean, you both occupy such different spaces in this industry. Literally across the pond from each other with different opinions on the place of automation and how we use it, but you both put importance on the happiness of your customers. I love that we can talk about this, and I just think it’s so fun to hear these different opinions.
I have one final question for each of you before we wrap up. Travis, what do you think is the number one key, if you had to pick one, to successful automation that elevates the customer self-storage experience?
TM: The number one key for me would be offering a complete online move-in. That means whether it be their phone or the website, a customer is able to rent a unit and do business with me when they want to. That starts at the very beginning from them selecting the unit all the way to the end to that unit being open and available to move in at the time they want to move in. That’s what automation allows for now in the self-storage industry.
I think it’s important over the next 5 years, it’s going to be a differentiating factor in the industry. In the next 10 years, I believe it’s going to be the standard in the industry. If you don’t have that capability, your facility is going to be lagging the rest of the industry.
RD: Wonderful. Thank you. Dean, in your opinion, what is the most crucial element of customer service in the self-storage business?
DB: You’ve got to really care about your staff. If you really care about your staff, then your staff will not only care for your customers but care about your business as well. I always believe you should never take your staff for granted. You should not only go the extra mile for your customers, but literally go out of your way to help understand your staff, where they want to go, what they want to do, have a clear understanding of what their goals are, and how you can help them achieve their goals. If you start with them, everything else they do will fall into place with your customers. They will always have your best goals in mind.
RD: I love that. That is so true. Alright, do you guys have anything else you would like to add?
TM: I appreciate the opportunity Rachael, and thank Janus for letting us be on the podcast. I loved chatting with Dean and agree with a lot of the points he makes, especially the last one he made about how you treat your staff. Thank you guys for the opportunity and hope everyone finds this useful.
DB: I have genuinely enjoyed it. I’ve actually been taking notes on what Travis has said. Every time I talk to you Travis I genuinely do find something useful. Again, the feelings are mutual. It has been a great honor to be on the podcast. Thank you once again Travis.
TM: You as well.
RD: Thank you guys. If our listeners would like to get in touch with both of you, Travis how can they reach you?
TM: You can find me at nationalselfstorage.com and my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
RD: And Dean, how about you?
DB: I’ve got a podcast called Hacking Self Storage. Me and Travis also have a good chat on that as well where we interview the leading people in the self-storage industry. If you want to get in touch with me, you can email me at email@example.com. That’s my personal email. It goes straight to me, and I check that on an hourly basis. Or you can connect with me on LinkedIn. Just search Dean Booty.
RD: Alright, thank you again both so much. I really appreciate it and I hope you both have a wonderful rest of your day.
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Janus International Group is the leading global manufacturer and supplier of turn-key self-storage, commercial and industrial building solutions including: roll up and swing doors, hallway systems, re-locatable storage units, and facility and door automation technologies. The Janus team operates out of several U.S. locations and five locations internationally.