Self Storage Sloppiness and the Customer Service Casualty

April 6, 2010

Self Storage Sloppiness and the Customer Service Casualty

I was training some new Customer Service Representatives the other day, a task I take very seriously, and came across some customer service atrocities I thought you all should know about.  If you recognize some of the bad behavior I list below, then you should consider making some changes.  When I was training sales organizations across the United States, from time to time I would run into an abominable customer service situation.  When I came across an obvious profit-killer, I would seek out the Manager/Owner and simply say, “If you can’t change your people…change your people!”

Yes, I am suggesting that you fire those responsible for costing you money.  I know, I know; this person is your sister-in-law and you owe her because she saved your life at Sea World, or your great-grandfather, who just got out of prison needed a job and just needs a little time adjusting to the outside world; you can’t fire them…they are family.  Well fine then, I guess if you have to do something, lets try training them before firing them.

Amazingly, so few self storage facilities run their businesses like business.  They allow the “President of First Impressions” to make terrible first impressions time and time again, and wonder why they are not making money.

In sales, the receptionist is often referred to as the “GATEKEEPER”.  The rejectionist…uh, receptionist is referred to in this manner because one of his/her job descriptions is to keep sales people from the owner/manager.  I agree that concept is valuable in some instances, but a self storage facility is not one of them!  I have heard that you never get a second chance to make a first impression, so why risk it?  There are a few simple premises on which customer service is based.  If you adhere to these principles, you will be more successful more often.  If your occupancy is below 90% and your facility is not located in Woonsocket, SD (my apologies to the good people of Woonsocket, but you are in an extremely rural location), then you need to address your customer service practices.

From self storage San Diego to self storage New York, the lowest common denominator among under-producers in our industry is bad customer service.  I don’t want to lay the blame solely on managers or receptionists, because we all know there are many owners without a clue running their own show out there.  So EVERYONE listen up, customer service is everyone’s job; let’s get it right.

What is a customer anyway?  Why do they need service?  Originally, the word derives from “custom,” meaning “habit”.  A “customer” became another word for someone who frequented a particular shop, and made it a habit to purchase goods sold, and with whom the shopkeeper had to maintain a relationship to keep his or her “custom,” meaning expected purchases in the future (Thanks to Wikipedia).

Nowadays, “customer” also has a broader definition.  Customer service has become a term for any interaction with commercial and non-commercial entities.  This may be part of the reason that our idea of customer service has become somewhat distorted.

In non-profit situations or government services, the “customer service representative” does not consider themselves as a customer service representative, and certainly does not regard the folks they speak to as “customers” (anyone ever been to the DMV?).  People in this capacity don’t have an obligation to maintain a “custom” because they are at next to zero risk of losing their jobs, or losing a customer.   Most government employees don’t care if you ever come back!  Their lives and jobs would be less complicated if that were the case anyway.  Thank goodness in recent years employees in this capacity have objected to the confining restraints that is appropriate customer service, and have substituted the term “customer” with words such as “constituent” or “stakeholder”.  Wow! What would it be like to not have to be accountable to those pesky profits and bottom lines?

It is “custom”-ary to say hello when someone walks through the front door.  It is customary to stand up when someone enters your facility.  It is customary to be friendly on the phone.  These are all common sense, but you would be surprised at the amount of people who do not put these concepts into common practice.  Below, I will describe some situations I came across recently.  Please don’t hold it against me that this article is highlighting bad behavior in customer service.  I usually like to write positively, but I realize in this article, you have to take your socks off before you clip your toenails.

Let me preface this because I think that it is important to understand the situation first.  I was calling for customers to try and find a self storage unit that would work for them.  99% of the time I would call as if I was the customer (at least in the beginning of the call).  My point in telling you this is merely to demonstrate that the customer server that answered the phone had no idea that I was not the customer.

Here is how many of the calls went:

Ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….ring….

OK, rule #1: If you have a business, make sure you answer the phone.

Ring….ring….ring.  ”You have reached the Johnson residence, please leave a message after the beep.”

Rule #2: If you have a business, make sure that you have a dedicated line for that business, even if you run it out of your home. If you absolutely must have voicemail for your business (I have no idea why you would given today’s modern technology), make sure that it is personally professional.

The ingredients of a good voicemail message are simple.  When recording a voicemail message smile and start your message with an excited greeting.  Then apologize for missing the call and say something like, “I am currently assisting other valued customers such as yourself in their search to find the perfect storage facility and unit for their needs.”  Explain on your voicemail that their call is very important to you, and that you will be returning their call as soon as possible.  Lastly, wish them a good day until you speak.  Leave them thinking that you run a professional organization.

Ring…ring…ring…

“Hello?”

Rule #3: Try a different approach. In business it is rather important that the customer know they are calling a business, otherwise you have increased your chances by 60% that you will be hung up on.  An appropriate inbound phone call answer sounds something like this, “Thanks for calling XYZ storage, where safety of your belongings is our number one concern.  How can I be of assistance today?”  This greeting starts off with a thank you, then leads into a company credo that establishes credibility for your self storage facility immediately, and then ends with a pledge that you are there to earn their business.  You would like something a little simpler?  OK, try this, “Reservations, how may I help you?”  BAM, right out of the gate you let them know that you are serious about getting them the self storage unit they are looking for.

Another common occurrence in self storage is the surprise phone call…

Ring…ring…ring…

“Hello, this is XYZ Storage, can I help you with something?” (That is a real response from a real self storage manager/owner/worker!)

“Yes, this is Brandon.  I am looking for a 10×10 unit, can you tell me how much those are and if you have any available?”

“Uh, yes…um…hold on, let me find that inventory sheet…uh, where did I put it?  Let me put you on hold for a second while I find out if we have any of those available?”

WOW!  Rule #4: Be prepared. Self storage is a fairly simple concept.  If you don’t have a computer system that manages your inventory and pricing, then make sure that you have your inventory readily available; put it right by the phone.  Please note, it is important to have a notepad next to you EVERY TIME you answer the phone.  You are going to need to jot down notes about this customer and their needs.  You should also get their name and number to call them back.

Alright I realize that (for some of you) these first four rules have been an insult to your intelligence.  These were actual responses from facility owner/manager/receptionists.  This was not always the case though; I have to commend United Stor-All Management for training their managers properly.  I spoke to a manager in Reston, VA that did everything right.  She talked up her facility and its amenities, got my name and number without me thinking she was being intrusive, and she even tried to set an appointment…well done.  For the appropriate way to handle an incoming ad call, please take a look at my article on that subject entitled “How to Handle an Ad Call”.

For the rest of my article here I am going to touch on a few more simple rules of customer service in Self Storage.  So many businesses have been built on customer service alone.  Many more businesses have self destructed because of poor customer service.  As I said before, if you have an occupancy level under 90% then you should look to customer service first.  Implement the following, and you will realize much greater successes.

#5.  Somebody told me once that there is NO WAY that the quality of customer service can exceed the quality of the people who provide that service. NOTHING COULD BE FURTHER FROM THE TRUTH!  The reasoning behind this is that if you are paying a low wage to your help with no benefits, you should not expect a whole lot from your help.  You have to have expectations of your employees no matter what you pay them.  I don’t care if you pay $10,000 a year or $100,000 a year, you should expect a certain amount of production from your employees, and if they can’t provide customer service to your standards, get rid of them.  There is 10% unemployment right now.  Do you think you can’t find someone who will eagerly commit to your expectations of them?  The only thing you must remember is this, “YOU CAN’T EXPECT IF YOU DON’T INSPECT”.  Constantly be checking to see if your customer service representative is living up to your expectations.

#6. Do you respect each potential customer sincerely? Human beings habitually make 20+ value judgments about a customer in the first 30 seconds after meeting them.  It is easy to prejudge a renter when they walk through the door by  the clothes they are wearing or the car they drive.  Make it a point to greet each customer the same way.  Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart used to drive around in an old beat up Chevy truck and dressed in overalls.  You never know with whom you are speaking, so treat everyone with respect.  Also, when someone walks through your front door into your office, stand up to speak to them; it is the polite thing to do.

#7. Do you know who your customers are? After third grade it is unlikely that we will receive the coveted, “most punctual student award” or the “most likely to excel at finger-painting award”.  We all love to be recognized, but as adults it happens less often than we would like.  When your customer walks through your door, recognize them by name!  They are renters, and they pay the bills; treat them like friends at the very least.  This is the simplest way to let them know that you value their business.

#8. Listen attentively! In addition to knowing your customers name, a great way to maintain customer loyalty is to listen to their questions and concerns.  Practice waiting two seconds after each statement or question from your customer.  This demonstrates you are  listening and giving sincere thought to their question or concern.

#9. Great customer servers go the extra mile. If you have not yet implemented a thank you card program, start one now.  Send a thank-you note when a customer rents from you; send a birthday or anniversary card; send one anytime you see their name mentioned in the paper; send one anytime you see fit.  The key is to recognize people and their value.  This is a very important step.

#10. Do your customers know who you are? You are not in business to take orders, you are in business to make sales, find renters and make money.  In Hollywood, they call increasing their public profile “PR”.  Public relations is very important in self storage also.  If your own customers don’t know your name, why would anyone else?  You need to create a 3rd party endorsement culture.  Make yourself so available to your customers that they can’t do anything else but sing your praises to others when asked about self storage.

This brings me back to making yourself available on the phones.  Some business owners make it a point to hide behind their “gatekeeper”, thinking that saves them time spent dealing with salespeople.  Please understand that this mindset is only driving a wedge between you and the public (and potential customers).  The general consensus is that self storage is in the Real Estate realm.  If that is indeed true, then tear a page out of the Real Estate Broker’s handbook and make yourself available to everybody.   You can call any Real Estate office and ask for the Broker, if they are not in the receptionist will offer up that Broker’s cell phone number.  Yes, this broker is going to have to field some calls from some sales people, but they will never miss a sale or an opportunity to expand their business by making themselves available to everyone who needs them.  This practice is imperative.  Stop hiding.

#11. If a customer makes a special request, say yes (within reason). Remember that these are the folks that pay the bills.  We have all heard the old saying, “the customer is always right”.  This is true in most instances.  I think it is important to mention that it is imperative to ensure that your customer service representatives be well informed and trained on how you want them to handle a customer complaint.  You must explain your policy to your employees or you are destined to be disappointed by your employees.  The most important thing to remember about handling customer concerns is if a customer asks you to make an exception, make the exception.  It is one customer; one newly loyal customer.

#12. If you want to know what your customers think of your facility, ask them. Put together a quick 5 question survey and include it in their next statement.  Or put it right next to the register and ask them to fill it out anonymously and drop it into the suggestion box before they leave.  Ask things like what it is they like about your facility; what they don’t like; what you could do to better meet their needs; what they would change.   This is a great opportunity to market to your customer base by mail.  You can mention changes, updates, specials, and then ask them to fill out your short and sweet survey.  If you do mail the survey, include a self addressed stamped envelope or make it a postcard to ensure the customer sends it in.

There is my diatribe on customer service.  I could have gone on for another 2,500 words, but I think this is enough for now.  Remember that making money isn’t as much in finding new customers as in keeping old customers. A customer’s perception of your self storage facility will determine how successful you are, and that perception will depend on the level of customer service you or your customer service representatives provide.

Brandon Braud

President of Sales and Marketing

www.upickstorage.com

brandon@upickstorage.com



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