June 12, 2013
Written by Charlie Fritts. This was the feature article in the August 2012 edition of Mini Storage Messenger.
Our industry continues to mature and evolve. In its early stages the storage business was about as low tech as possible, not many moving parts back then. At least partially because there simply was not a lot of technology available in those days and the business was so simple not much was needed. Those basics essentially were to find a suitable space that could be subdivided into units or build an inexpensive steel building, hang up your sign and could either operate the business yourself or hire a low cost and probably retired person to manage it. If you built an apartment you had a 24 hour attendant and could pay them even less. Transactions were primarily cash and recorded in an accounting journal. The rents were low and most people paid on time. Because there were so few properties a new one would quickly fill up.
Operators developed and refined the basics suitable to their own operation. Eventually the Mini Storage Association, now the Self Storage Association (SSA) was born. Operators came together to discuss their needs as the business grew and evolved. New and better systems were needed for accounting; legal issues with how to deal with the contents of unpaid storage units needed answers, etc. The association provided a forum to share best practices and to seek legislation tailored to the needs of the industry.
At one point the industry adopted the latest and greatest accounting feature called the “one write system” which was a big time saver as everything was manually completed. In this system the cash journal, customer payment record and customer receipt all fit together so the operator could record rent charges and payments at the same time. Today only the very smallest facilities operate without specialized self storage management software, automated security gates and video security. Using a old advertising slogan, “You’ve come a long way baby”
Now more the point of this article; as technology and our industry combine and evolve it can be easy to under appreciate the basic fundamentals of our industry which remain the same – serve the customer and fulfill their needs to the best of your ability. Technology in the form of email, text messages and voice mail can make communication easy and fast. However they can also depersonalize the human interaction and if an ongoing communication, can actually be less efficient requiring more time than a good old fashioned phone call. I have yet to read an electronic communication that provides as much insight as an actual conversation, which by the way provides for instant response as opposed to the few seconds transmission time of the electronic communication.
To my point; I recently had a conversation with someone who proudly stated they have 700 friends on Facebook. That lead to my question, do you actually know and speak with all of those people? The answer was “no, because some are friends of friends, but they are still my friends on Facebook and receive notifications when I do updates”. While this may speak well for the value of business Facebook accounts, in my humble opinion it’s sufficiently personal to build relationships.
I believe if we personalize communication we build relationships. Most of us prefer to deal with people we know and trust. Electronic communications while very necessary do not nurture those relationships very well. Be sure that you reach out to both your prospective and actual customers with personal, verbal communication. It will pay dividends in many ways including securing new rentals, potentially more referrals and repeat rentals to previous customers.
Our management software is very efficient at providing letters advising customers their rent is late and controlling access through gates and secured building entrances. While necessary, they are however very impersonal in terms of customer care. I’ve been in this business long enough to understand there are “frequent flyers” when it comes to repeat delinquent customers – who have perfected their ability to avoid communicating on that subject with you. My concern here is the potential assumption that nonpayment was intentional rather than an oversight. If I were that customer I would appreciate a personal call advising me that my payment had not been received. Perhaps my credit card expired or the envelope with the payment which I intended to mail last week is still behind the sun visor in my car. Making a polite initial request for payment certainly goes a long way toward customer relationships. This is a basic that is sometimes undervalued by store staff.
My management company takes pride in providing customized solutions to self storage management. We deplore the cookie cutter approach taken by many larger organizations. We believe this is a very basic value builder. Different markets bring variable demographics which respond best to the “right approach”. Knowing the customer base provides us with the necessary background knowledge to tailor our services to the expectations of our rental customers. History makes it very clear that when a business provides what the customer wants the business will thrive. If you disagree, consider that General Motors almost ceased to exist because they didn’t connect with the buying public enough to understand what they wanted, instead taking the position “we will provide what you need”. Another non personal industry is the gas stations. When they disassociated auto repairs from the business of selling gasoline, candy and soft drinks they depersonalized the business. The cost was loyalty, an essential business basic, which is the product of relationships. Now the motoring public buys their gas where it’s simply the lowest cost even if just a penny different in price. Please don’t allow that to happen in the storage industry.
A real estate broker once observed the rapid growth of the storage business and asked me to explain how storage can compete with each other when our product is virtually identical. My response to him was yes we all offer virtually the same 100 square feet in our 10 x 10 units as everyone else. So our success comes from remembering the basics of customer service which includes providing good value for the money. In example both McDonalds Hamburgers and Outback Steakhouse offer burgers on their menu. In my opinion that is pretty much the only equal comparison one can make about their products. Both offer value at their price points and both do well. People who want the better dining experience will select Outback. That experience is the basic in this example – good value for the money, table service and more personal surroundings. In storage, the personal service and relationship building make a difference. Perhaps they attract the better quality customers.
Appearance is another essential basic. When I think of appearance I consider what the customer sees on their first visit to the property. This is their first impression and we know that first impressions stay with us. If you wish to evaluate the likely first impression of potential new customers – view the property as they do. Drive down the street toward the property and pay close attention to what you see.
- Might there be a better route to the property that passes by nice properties and maybe avoid a competitor? Good idea to give directions only for that route if possible.
- How about landmarks and signage? Is the old bike shop on the corner where they need to turn, now a bank branch? Sure you know it is because you drive by daily but do you recall which brand of bank? This might be helpful to the first time visitor.
- How clear and easy to see is your signage? Have the shrubs grown up and partially block it? Does it appear weathered? Be sure to view the sign both in daylight and at night. Unless you conduct regular inspections, another basic, you may be surprised that some or all of the sign lighting is no longer working.
- How does the landscaping or perhaps lack of landscaping appear? Its short money to replace over grown shrubs, add fresh mulch every spring, plant flowers to provide color and fertilize the lawn. Many older properties were built with more of an industrial approach – asphalt and steel, maybe some grass that may be primarily weeds now.
- Now where is that rental office? Is it behind the fence and gate? Not very inviting. It should be easy to find by proper signage and completely accessible to visitors. It should provide a well maintained image; if not will people think the storage unit where they will stash their stuff will be any better? Is there a lighted OPEN sign to signal someone is there?
- Next closely observe the interior of the office. Does it too appear clean, bright and well maintained? Any unpleasant odors? Anything worn out or simply dated that should be replaced? When the glass was last cleaned? Remember to look for negative signage such as “you’re late after 5 days and will pay a late charge” or handwritten signage. You want to provide a professional appearance. I’ve never seen signs in a new car dealer indicating if I fail to make my payment they will repossess my car. They understand – be sure you and your staff do too.
- Although perhaps a bit sensitive you need to consider the personal appearance of staff. They should appear professional, well groomed and wear either a company shirt or at minimum a name tag which includes the property name. No three day beards, uncombed hair, body odor (or heavy cologne) and their clothes must be in good condition. Company shirts should be replaced seasonally. A golf shirt costs more than a t-shirt but has a collar and looks more professional.
- Be sure to include all customer areas of the property as well. Clean rest rooms are very much appreciated as are clean grounds, storage doors and hallways. Are the buildings in good repair? Its best to repair those dings and dents routinely as deferred maintenance is the most expensive. Be sure there is not trash outside of your dumpster. In fact if possible get a smaller dumpster on wheels and hide it inside a unit. The debris will go away and you can probably reduce your costs.
Again, these are all basics and sure you may have done this in the past. Unfortunately time marches on and the most recent past review may have been eighteen months ago. Make it a higher priority and do it quarterly at minimum. Most important, be sure to follow up on the corrections that are needed. What gets checked on gets done.
Is the staff well trained and do they actually follow the protocols you’ve established to provide excellent customer care? Have you established protocols as to how you expect your business to operate? I could write a whole article just on customer care but here are the minimum basics; Smile when answering the phone – it comes across to the caller. Stand, smile and greet everyone who enters the office – it starts the conversation on a very positive note. Be prepared to help and avoid negative responses. Not much makes a customer angrier that saying “We can’t do that, our policy is…” instead try to find a way to offer as solution indicating what you can do. Retail stores know this. Want to return something but have no receipt, no problem they will return the item and give you store credit. It may not be the refund you wanted but it’s pretty fair. How can I know what happens during my absence? Consider wondering around, saying hello to customers on site and ask them – How are we treating you? Are you satisfied with your storage experience so far? Another method if business is performing poorly, make a surprise visit and tell the manager they have the day off with pay today. What you learn can reinforce if the problem is an external market issue or an internal staff issue. Paying the manager is short money if you are able to better assess operations and identify the issue. It should also be non-offensive if the reason you are 72% occupied is because of the great manager you have, otherwise without them you may be worse off.
While all of the above are essential basics, in my opinion the single most important basic are the manager and staff. They absolutely must be truly outgoing, personable and caring. People with these natural skills typically are also loyal and dependable. These characteristics produce the best possible customer service. If you are anything like me, you’ve made decisions to no longer patronize some businesses in your community because of poor treatment by a staff member who simply didn’t care.