Image source: U-Haul

How Does U-Haul Become a Self-Move Empire from Family Investment?

U-Haul was started in 1945 by Leonard Shoen. Today there are over 13,000 U-Haul dealerships in the United States and the name U-Haul has become synonymous with the truck and trailer rental business.
By Brian Tran | 10 min read
on October 18, 2020
Image source: U-Haul

U-Haul is an American moving and storage rental company, operating for 74 years. U-Haul is the only company in the industry that operates in all 50 U.S. states and 10 Canadian provinces. Founded in 1945, U-Haul is now the biggest do-it-yourself rental operation in the world and owns the largest fleet of truck, trailers and towing devices in the industry.

U-Haul is owned by Amercos, a holding company which also operates Amerco Real Estate, Republic Western Insurance, and Oxford Life Insurance. The company was founded by Leonard Shoen, who began it in the garage owned by his wife's family and expanded it through franchising with gas stations. The Shoen family currently owns, both directly and indirectly, about 55% of the publicly traded stock corporation. The company rents trucks, trailers, and other pieces of equipment, but many U-Haul centers and dealerships also provide self-storage units, moving boxes, packing supplies, LPG (propane) refueling, hitch and trailer wiring installation, and carpet cleaners, among other services.

U-Haul truck is filling fuel at gas station
Image credit: Press associate

Because of the company's ubiquity (there are over 16,000 active dealers across the country) the name is sometimes used as a genericized trademark to refer to the services of any rental company. The livery used on rented vehicles is widely recognized, primarily consisting of white and a thick horizontal orange stripe, in addition to a large state- or province-themed picture, known as SuperGraphics.

U-Haul Truck Share 24/ 7: Its Technology Initiative for Disrupting Self-Move Industry

U-Haul has 28,730 employees, with 3,840 in Arizona. The company has at least 16 open positions in its IT department, including senior software developers, programmer analysts and an IT project administrator.

U-Haul’s parent company Amercos is based in Reno, Nevada, but has much of its corporate base in the Phoenix office at Central Avenue near Thomas Road. U-Haul also has a Tempe technical center and a Glendale manufacturing plant.

The company has launched its largest technology initiative in 20 years: A new around-the-clock level of service that allows customers to pick up, pay and return trucks 24/7 through their smartphone and live verify vetting technology.

U-Haul Truck Share 24/7 is the largest technology initiative for the self-move company since it went online in the late ‘90s, said Stuart Shoen, U-Haul’s executive vice president.

“Now we can serve customers in ways we couldn’t before and deliver a higher level of service,” said Shoen. “This allows customers to rent trucks 24/7 whether the store is open or not. During business hours, they can pick up the truck without waiting in line.”

Their employees spent a decade and millions of dollars in development to develop the technology in-house. The company has 205 programmers on staff at its Phoenix midtown campus, with an IT team of 400 people.

“We are trying to disrupt our own industry,” Shoen said. “Moving is stressful. We want to provide a lot of valuable services.”

The new 24/7 service does not restrict customers from being limited from truck rentals by store hours, especially from mom-and-pop stores. It allows the customer to be on their own schedule when needing a truck.

“More people will get equipment when they need it,” Shoen said. “They can now rent where and when they want across all hours.”

The live verify tech vetting also is designed to steer the “bad guys” away from renting trucks, especially with large trucks recently being used in terrorist attacks to run down people in crowded locations around the world.

“We are here for everyone, but we want safe drivers,” he said. “We want to control rentals. The community expects us to be world class. We have a big emphasis on quality dispatches.”

With the new Truck Share 24/7 service, U-Haul said it has the largest vehicle sharing membership base in North America with 3.15 million account members, Shoen said.

All the new features will be available soon through an updated U-Haul app for Apple iOS and Google Android, planned to come out by the end of the year, Shoen said.

Using Social Media to Upgrade Customer Experience Journey

In U-Haul's case, the very brand ubiquity they have built through their 70 years of service was somewhat working against them in social. U-Haul has become a generic reference people use for moving, which means it's quite common for people to use a sentence like "back it on up like a U-Haul truck", and not actually be referencing the actual brand at all. These references made it quite difficult for the team to find the signals amidst the noise, particularly given the large volume of mentions U-Haul gets online.

"Back it up like a U Haul truck' appears at least 20 times a day," Jones explains. "There is such a huge feed of messages coming in about U Haul - 'I just picked up my U Haul truck,' customer service requests. We needed a way to quickly respond to appropriate feeds, and this is where tags came in."

Using Sprinklr, U-Haul implemented a system of subject code tags to identify and compartmentalize mentions based on context. "Every mention gets coded, whether it's products or services," Jones says. "Is it a message about a truck? About moving services. Is it a question? Is it a complaint?" All of these queries are filtered into the relevant segments, enabling the team to prioritize their response.

On the other hand, Twitter is U-Haul's primary customer service channel, with most brand mentions coming on the micro-blogging giant. "On Facebook, most mentions occur on a person's moving day and when they're talking about moving. Instagram is similar, with almost all mentions coming on moving day," says Jones. U-Haul has implemented a service level agreement to have all queries requiring a response tracked within 30 minutes of posting - a large-scale task.

U-Haul truck park in front of U-Haul building
Image credit: Press associate

U-Haul uses data analysis to determine the busiest times of year (the volume of inbound messages doubles during the summer months), enabling them to schedule accordingly. U-Haul also uses automation to help detect irrelevant mentions and filter them from the queue.

And the results of their efforts? 70% of U-Haul's issues are resolved in a half hour or less, with 49% addressed in less than 15 minutes. "Our response time has decreased significantly," says Jones. "Overall, brand sentiment and positive messages have increased. Instead of tweeting out of frustration, people are tweeting their gratitude and appreciation."

Furthermore, one of U-Haul's biggest social media wins was the 'U-Haul Famous' campaign, which gave people the chance to upload their photos (direct or via Instagram) to the U-Haul website for a chance to have their image featured on the side of a U-Haul truck in the US or Canada. "Over 17,000 photos have been submitted to the campaign, with images now featured on 5,550 trucks," she explains. Users can also track the locations of the truck on which their image is featured.

U-Haul staff work on design
Image source: U-Haul

The key goal of U-Haul's social media presence is serving customer needs. Their main Twitter handles @uhaul and @uhaul_cares both deal with direct customer queries daily, with @uhaul_cares maintaining a reply rate of 97%. "Our number one goal is enhancing customer service online," Jones says. This mission is clear through their ongoing efforts to connect and enhance relationships with their customers through social platforms. A great reinforcement of this principle is the fact that U-Haul displays headshots of each of their five customer service representatives who handle the @uhaul_cares Twitter handle, along with their initial abbreviations, so users can see exactly who they're communicating with.

While much of this is still in development, U-Haul has made big strides in social customers service, and the results speak for themselves. U-Haul's social journey is a great endorsement of the power of social, and the benefits of meeting your audience where the conversations are already happening.

Well-Navigating from a Low-Tech Company to a Digital Enabled Storage Empire

The company focuses on providing the most convenient solution for “do-it-yourself” movers across the United States. U-Haul rents vans, trailers, and trucks to customers for either in-town or one-way moves. In addition, U-Haul offers additional moving services such as moving materials (e.g., furniture boxes, moving dollies, packaging materials), moving insurance, and self-storage options.

U-Haul has successfully navigated from a low-tech moving company to a digitally enabled company. To start, U-Haul has created a proprietary reservations management system that excels at managing inventory real-time. U-Haul is able to maximize vehicle utilization across its 1,500 company-owned stores and 17,000 independent dealers via their reservation system. I would argue that this is simply status quo in the truck rental industry.

U-Haul apps and booking system on mobile app
Courtesy: U-Haul

More interestingly, U-Haul has also made significant moves to create a complete customer-facing digital ecosystem for “do-it-yourself mover. To start, U-Haul assembled eMove.com, an electronic marketplace of self-moving and self-storage related consumers, business owners, storage affiliates, and moving helpers. In particular, U-Haul partnered with MovingHelp.com in 2008 to get access to local moving support services reservations. With this extensive marketplace information, U-Haul has created a user-friendly online reservation system for a “do-it-yourself” mover to:

  • rent a moving vehicle (multiple sizes; in-town or one-direction)
  • rent any additional moving supplies needed (pick up in store or free shipping over $50) pay for appropriate insurance hire local moving support (lists 3rd party moving vendor availability, services offered, pricing quote, and customer reviews provided via MovingHelp.com)
  • rent self-storage as needed U-Haul has created an end-to-end solution that rivals the convenience of hiring a full-service company but for a fraction of the cost. 

U-Haul’s main competitors are Avis Budget Group ($373M in truck rental sales) and Penske Truck Leasing (financials private) for the “do it yourself” residential mover segment.  Neither company offers this comprehensive end-to-end service yet for their customers. In particular, U-Haul is the only “do it yourself” moving company to integrate information regarding local moving support opportunities in their reservation system. As MovingHelp.com is a patent-protected service, U-Haul has erected barriers to entry for the other “do it yourself” moving companies. With Penske and Avis Budget invested in other markets (e.g., commercial trucking, car rental), U-Haul has the opportunity to continue to expand its dominance in the personal moving category.

In order to judge success of U-Haul’s end-to-end reservation system, one should evaluate not only the increase in moving rentals but also the order size increase as well. In addition, UHAL’s stock increase since its investment in the integrated reservation system points to the company’s overall success.

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