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15 Jul 2020

Building a Competitive Advantage: Even If You Think You Don’t Have One


Christina Alvino

Founder and CEO of FineView Marketing

Some would say that self storage is just a commodity; a product that’s driven solely by price. After all, we’re just selling empty space. And while you have the choice to compete based on price, I believe when you treat your property as a retail operation - focus on the customer experience and provide better service - you in turn drive more revenue. And at the end of the day, isn’t the goal to make more money?

It’s no secret that activity in the self storage industry is booming. From an onslaught of ground up developments to the rehabbing of first generation properties into Class A facilities, competition is alive and well. So, how do you create the perception of a competitive advantage to gain more market share?

Sun Tzu in The Art of War says it best, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not your enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”

One thing rings true across almost every industry; and, that is, customers want convenience and customer service. Let’s face it, customers are only going to travel so far to store their belongings. Start by understanding your competitors and by understanding yourself. Who are your competitors?

Self storage is very much a micro-market

What does that mean? Your level of competition is all about the individual market and the properties within a certain radius. A property in Pittsburgh isn’t competing against a property in Denver. To know your competition, you need to understand your competitive radius. If you’re located in a urban market like downtown Nashville, you might only have a competitive radius of 1- to 3-miles. If you’re in a suburban market like Round Rock (a suburb of Austin), your customers might come from a 5- to 7-mile radius.

The further you get from a major metropolitan city center, the bigger your competitive radius becomes.

Remember, know your enemies, I mean competitors and know yourself to win the battle, I mean customers. The battle begins when a customer has a need for storage. Let’s look at five ways you can create a competitive advantage.

Creating a local presence online

Did you know Google has started rewarding websites for focusing on “hyperlocal SEO”? Basically, that means your website is optimized for smaller, more focused locations like neighborhoods, towns and streets rather than just “local SEO” which targets cities, districts and regions. This gives even the smallest of operators the chance to rank for search terms. You no longer have to compete for a broad search term like ‘self storage’. You can maximize your online presence by implementing keywords like “self storage units near Dunwoody.”

As local searches continue to grow, there is an increased emphasis on Google Maps, Google My Business listings and overall reputation management.

According to HubSpot, 86% of people look up the location of a business on Google Maps.

It’s no longer just about making sure your business is claimed. It’s also about making sure your listing looks good. Here are some quick tips to improve your Google My Business (GMB) listing.

Yes, SEO is still king, but as a smaller local business, there are great ways to take advantage of GMB listings.

Make a great first impression

You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Potential customers probably drive by your property every day. What do they see? When a customer walks through the front door of your physical store, what is their first impression? You hear the old adage “don’t judge a book by it’s cover.” But let’s be honest, customers are going to judge your property long before they get out of their car. While this could very easily pertain to your online presence, we’re going to consider you physical property.

Take a field trip to some local retail shops like Starbucks or Target. Observe any landscaping and curb appeal. Is it clean and inviting or an overgrown mess? Is the interior space bright and appealing or dark and dingy? Is the signage professional and consistent? Yes, I realize these are big companies, but the concepts are the same and what customers have come to expect.

Head back to your property and with an objective eye and take a good, hard look at your signage, curb appeal and landscaping. Spending money on a new monument sign might not be an option. But, what about spending a little money on paint, landscaping, flutter flags or banners? Adding, subtracting and/or changing the front appearance of your location is a quick, easy and inexpensive way to grab attention.

Don’t neglect your community

With the Internet of Everything (IoE) overpowering everyday life, sometimes we forget that people still buy from people. Customers today want the same things customers wanted a generation ago. They’re looking for products and services to solve their problems with a focus on personalized customer service.

If you want to compete against large operators, get out into the community. Visit local businesses, sponsor events and promote a customer referral program. Make your presence known in the community for something other than being a self storage property.

The problem is, many small business owners aren’t capitalizing on the potential in the local market. Too often they get caught up trying to be successful with the same strategies as large operators and REITs. Following the marketing strategies of the big players is great in theory. But unless you can compete with the same huge marketing budgets, you’re likely not going to see the same level of success.

This isn’t just about dropping off flyers. It’s about building relationships. It’s about increasing referrals and word-of-mouth traffic. It’s about understanding your community and the importance of uncovering the “what’s in it for me?”

The goal of a well-planned community marketing strategy should not only be about attracting new customers, it should also be about building your local brand towards driving repeat business and referrals.

In-store customer service still counts

For the majority of self storage operators, closing the sale still happens in your physical store. Nothing you do online matters if your customer service experience falls short. Customer service is so much more than having a conversation on the phone or responding to an email. And customers have come to expect personalized service. Is your manager a groundskeeper or a customer service machine?

So many operators list customer service as their competitive advantage. How do you define excellent customer service? Is it answering the phone when it rings, responding to an email within 15 minutes, and answering customers questions? Or is it listening to your customers problems, acknowledging their needs and educating them on the right solutions?

Customers have come to expect the latter. They expect to the be the focus and center of all marketing, sales and customer service efforts. Consider adjusting your process to align with customer expectations.

Never lose touch with current and past customers

Don’t set and forget your customers. Generally, current customers only receive negative communications - rental rate increases, changes to policies, office closures, invoices. Don’t you want these customers to recommend you to friends, family and colleagues? Do more to build your customer relationships. Wish them a happy birthday, do an annual drawing, give a gift card to a customer that has been with you for more than a year. Small ideas can generate large emotional returns.

Finally, when someone moves out, do you ever contact them again? I’m guessing the answer is no. Why not? You’re missing out on a great referral source. One person tells two people, who tell four people, who tell eight people and next thing you know you’ve reach 100 people through referrals.

According to Nielsen Global Trust, 83% of people trust recommendations of friends and family. Would you rather compete through referrals or online through generic SEO?

Through trial and error, success and failure, you’ll discover the right marketing mix to create your competitive advantage. At times it might feel overwhelming, but don’t forget If you know your enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles.

Thumbnail: Photo by Steven Lelham on Unsplash

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