Making the Move to Unmanned Self Storage

By Gavin Shields on

The future is unmanned self storage, where frictionless self service is prioritized and you can count your weekly work hours on one hand.

When I set up my own self storage business in 2019, my goal was to create a highly profitable, easy-to-run business that generated a stable, passive income. Almost three years later, I have two sites generating over $280k/year and I’m on track to get to 10 sites and over $3M in annual profit by 2025.

How much time do I spend managing these sites each week? Two hours total. How did I do it? I went all in on the unmanned self storage model, building a nearly hands-free experience for both me and my tenants.

Creating an unmanned facility from the ground up is one thing. But how do you transition an established business with a traditional business model to an unmanned, self service one? I talk about this with storage operators that I meet at events and through my other business, Stora—storage management software. Here’s the advice I give them.

1. Modernize your mindset

The biggest blocker to unmanned success that I see is a verbal commitment to the concept, but not a true mental and emotional commitment to it. They like the sound of more profits with less effort, but struggle to commit to the model fully, and so end up with diluted hybrids or bouncing back and forth between models from month to month. Then, when the numbers don’t deliver on the promise, they blame the model rather than the implementation of the model.

Change can be scary. So I encourage operators to keep their nerve by focusing on the facts over the feelings and continually remind themselves of what I call The 3 Bs:

Buying Behaviours

Remember how you and everyone you know makes purchases these days. When you book a flight, do you call the airline or do you do it online? When booking a hotel do you ring the reservations desk or Tripadvisor and speak to someone? No. Countless industries now let customers transact with maximal ease and minimal friction. The new norm when it comes to buying behaviour is about tapping, not talking, and those folks buying flights, hotels, dinner and household goods online are also the people renting self storage. In our industry, a large majority of our tenants would prefer to reserve and pay online, check-in online and move in without ever needing to speak to staff, if we’d only let them.

Business History

Think back to when you started your business? Are you doing everything exactly the same way now? Probably not. You’ll have made incremental improvements over the years–updating hardware, fittings, unit sizes; hiring staff; introducing software, etc. If you’ve been around for long enough, you may even recall moving from the Yellow Pages to the web! All of these changes were disruptive at the time. Maybe you even doubted the impact they’d have. But once embedded with new processes to support them, your business grew as a result. It’s the same with moving to the unmanned model.

Big Money For Basic Honesty

I’m talking about transparent pricing here. If I enter a store where there are no price tags on the merchandise, I think ‘Where’s the exit? If they’re hiding their prices, I can’t afford it.’ It’s the same with shopping online.

The golden rule of online sales is to give visitors what they want in as few clicks as possible. When your prices are hard to find or are hidden behind a mandatory quote request form, you’re forcing prospects who need your service and are ready to spend to take extra steps (form completion) AND wait for your reply. And the business you’re losing because of this is greater than the business you’re winning from the smaller percentage willing to put up with that friction. Research supports this. Forrester’s Vice President of Research, Lisa Singer, says, “There is a strong argument for publishing prices, as such transparency can often accelerate the sales process and increase sales productivity.”

2. Trial it on a new site

Expansion to a new location is the perfect way to introduce the unmanned self storage model to your business. You can put in place all of the key components from the ground up, like I did, but you have the added bonus of being able to track, measure and compare the new unmanned site’s performance against your existing facilities’ historic data. How do months 1–6 rentals compare? How about occupancy, expenses and revenue? Track your weekly admin effort on the unmanned site vs your existing sites to get a sense of that ROI. It’s a great proof-of-concept approach that can give you the data and confidence you need to roll out the approach across all your sites.

3 Redefine your success metrics

Rather than a focus on converting quotes into paying customers—which accounts for only a subsection of the customer funnel—focus on the entire funnel and start tracking how well you convert website visitors into paying customers. For anyone currently tracking quote conversions, this is quite a big mindshift, but it’s critical if you want to keep your business a step ahead of the competition.

Why is this important? If you only track quote conversions, you're ignoring all the people who visited your site but got frustrated and left because you don't show prices. You're only seeing part of the funnel. Track website visits-to-paying customer, instead.

4. Think productivity, not layoffs

Lots of you already have staff in place—good people who’ve been with you for years—and for many the idea of moving to the unmanned model suggests layoffs. This can certainly be the case if that’s the right fit for you, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be.

For me, unmanned doesn’t mean no staff. I have someone answering tenant calls and visiting sites when necessary, and I employ cleaners who see to the sites every week. Finding, fitting out and opening new sites is also a time consuming task, and a member of the team deals with that. I also think it’s important that tenants are able to reach a member of staff, if necessary, so we make sure we’re always available for them.

The way I see it, the user experience from booking to move-out should be wholly self-serviced to meet the demands of the market, maximize sales and reduce admin. But that experience exists alongside operational staff who can lend support and answer questions.

So, you don’t have to downsize your staff. Just use their time and skills in more valuable ways. Get sales solely focussed on creating customer referral programs with local enterprises in the supply chain and generating high volume B2B rentals. Free your finance team from mundane tasks like invoice processing and chasing delinquencies so they can drive strategic growth initiatives like business expansion, supply chain efficiencies, and improvements to the analytics needed to manage company performance and support decision-making. Nobody will miss doing the manual, repetitive tasks currently in your sales and fulfilment process. Rather, the shift will create bandwidth to upskill, do more-rewarding work, and increase their value to you and future employers.

5. Embrace technology and automation

The industry is full of great examples of tech and automation you can use to run your business more efficiently. When it comes to turning your current sites into unmanned self storage facilities, you need three key pieces of automation in place: online booking and payments software, an ecommerce website, and self-service smart entry points. There’s a lot of choice out there with these, and too many considerations for each to cover here, but if you want my advice on these, take a look at my article Introducing Unmanned Self Storage: Tech + Automation Tips for my specific advice on these technology upgrades.

The future of self storage will be unmanned, and the optimal flow—for customers and operators alike—could soon be that tenants turn up at your facility, see your website address on the side of the building or gate, go to it on their phone to reserve their unit, pay, pass ID checks, sign contracts then move in instantly…all in under five minutes. So embrace digital transformation while there’s still time to get ahead of the competition. Agree? Disagree? Anything to add? Feel free to email me at anytime for a chat!

Gavin Shields gavin.jpeg

Gavin Shields

Gavin Shields is the CEO at Stora, a provider of self storage automation software and services, as well as the MD & Owner of self storage operator, StoreStuff.

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