From the Customer's Perspective

For years I've been reading what self-storage employees should do for potential and existing customers--from the way they communicate over the phone to handling delinquent rents. Working for the publisher of this magazine, I may know more about self-storage than the general public. But I never actually needed storage--until recently.

A situation arose where I needed to store items for a few months--as long as it took me to go through them and throw them out, sell them or give them away. Storage wasn't going to be a long-term solution, but it was clear I needed it. I decided to conduct a little test.

I took stock of what I needed to store. The items took up about half of a one-car garage. Of note, I had two eight-foot tables with collapsible legs and another odd item that was exactly 10 feet long. Other storables included desk parts, swivel chairs and file cabinets. I would also need a truck. If a facility couldn't provide one, I needed to rent one somewhere else.

I opened the local Yellow Pages to begin what I thought was the typical search for self-storage. It helped that I knew of several facilities in a couple-mile radius of my home. I made sure to consider them, too. I called the first eight facilities that fit my criteria for location--no more than five miles distant--and asked the same series of questions. And listened. I toured several facilities and paid close attention to my impressions and feelings. The "best" facility was rewarded with my business.

Yellow Pages Ads

Trying to choose self-storage via the Yellow Pages is overwhelming. After poring over more than 30 pages of storage section--mostly full-page ads--my eyes began to glaze over. The large ads with numbered maps made it easy for me to find a location close to home. In the absence of maps, I simply glanced at ads for cross streets. If there was no indication of location, I didn't even bother to call.

Facility A: While this two-page spread wasn't the first in the section, it might as well have been--it was the first thing I noticed. Each of 10 facilities was numbered on the left page along with cross streets, addresses and phone numbers, and the numbers corresponded to a map on the right page. A list of options, amenities and available supplies were listed. I also noticed an offer of a free gift with a visit, as well as a guarantee of satisfaction. At the top of each page was the facility name, and underneath it on the left page was the slogan. A national toll-free number and website appeared at the bottom. It was a comprehensive ad.

Facility B: A map was included with numbers for facility locations, as well as phone numbers, which I liked. Amenities available at all locations were listed below the name and catchy slogan, which were side by side at the top of the full-page ad. Location-specific amenities appeared as graphics next to each facility's information--there was free truck rental at the one closest to my home. I also noticed the company's website and corporate phone number.

Facility C: This full-page ad sat opposite that of Facility B, but used a different spot color. Like A and B, it had a map with numbers that corresponded to facility addresses and phone numbers. Features at all locations were listed, and there were amenities listed after each facility so I could tell which ones each location had. The slogan over the top border caught my eye. Just underneath was a list of cities served, and beside that was the company logo. A website was listed over the bottom border.

Facility D: Two-thirds of the full-page ad was in reversed type, and in the middle was one sentence, which I guessed described its unique selling position. It made me want to call to find out. At the bottom was a list of each facility by city, address and phone number. I also noticed "free truck rental" and a website.

Facility E: This full-page ad seemed busier than the others. It had a numbered map. Three facilities specific to my area were listed with addresses and phone numbers in large fonts at the bottom, and information for the others were included as well. I noticed an invitation at the top, then the logo next to an offer of free boxes and supplies with a rental. Underneath was a list of amenities. A website appeared at the bottom.

Facility F: While this ad was the smallest I'd seen, at two-thirds of a page, it was the most impressive. There was a numbered map, with facility addresses and phone numbers listed beside it. Next to the company logo at the top was a notice of free truck use. Also listed were amenities--door alarms and video surveillance caught my eye. At the bottom was a website, and a guarantee of 100 percent satisfaction. It was a clean ad.

Facility G: The top of this half-page ad was used to ask me if I had too much "stuff." Underneath the question was a list of amenities, followed by the company name. There was a drawing of stuff flying out--or in?--of a unit. At the bottom were thumbnail maps of each of its two locations, with phone numbers, addresses and cross streets.

Facility H: On the same page as Facility G, this half-page ad listed the facility name at the top, next to its features. The range of unit sizes was displayed above what I assumed to be gate hours. Each of four locations had a thumbnail map, with addresses and phone numbers.

I hadn't formed too many opinions at this point, because I knew much would change once I called to find out price, availability of units and amenities at particular locations. I was most impressed with the ads for facilities A, D and F.

The Phone Calls

For consistency's sake, I called the facilities in the order in which their ads appeared in the Yellow Pages. The reporter in me took notes. The names of the people with whom I spoke have been changed "to protect the innocent."

Facility A: The on-site manager answered the phone: "Thank you for choosing Facility A. This is Mary. How may I help you?" Mary was enthusiastic and courteous. Before I had a chance to say anything, she asked what I was going to store. I listed my needs. A 10-by-10 fills a one-car garage, she said, and the 8.5-foot ceilings would allow me to stack boxes. Because I have that 10-foot item, she suggested I consider a 10-by-15. She described more of her facility, then listed the price of the two units. There was a special on each--half off the first month's rent.

She told me about the rent schedule, fees and gate hours. I asked about 24-hour access, because it was listed in the ad. Mary said there was a charge. "Especially for this facility--and most of the others do the same--we do want to know why you would need 24-hour access," she said. "Is there an extremely good reason? We would work with you from there."

She was honest when I asked about rent increases, saying they generally go up once a year, around April. Mary also suggested I visit the facility and take a tour. "Let me show you a couple of units first, and then you can get a better idea of how they're situated and what they look like, and just exactly what you could get into them," she said. "You know what you have, and I don't." We set a day and time. Mary told me I needed my own lock and said she had boxes and packing supplies for purchase. She asked for my name, and we ended the call.

Facility B: There was something blasé about how Tricia answered the phone. (I should have known after my chat with Mary that I couldn't expect everyone to be so helpful.) I told her what I needed to store, and she told me which sizes she had available. I told her I thought I needed a 10-by-15, largely based on my conversation with Mary at Facility A. Tricia listed the price. I asked a question that was on my test list: Any specials? "Not really," she said, but paying so much in advance would get me a half-month or full month free. I asked her about rent increases, and she didn't really know. "Those all come from our corporate office," she said.

Since this facility had truck rental, she told me about the conditions of use--so many miles for so many hours, all based on the size unit I rented, and so many cents per mile after that. Tricia explained the gate hours, and when I asked about 24-hour access, she told me I'd need a "really good reason." The facility would work with me if I needed an extra hour or so, provided I ran it by them first. I asked about climate-controlled space--the facility had none. Then, I asked about the price of a 10-by-10, just in case, and Tricia told me. We said our goodbyes.

Facility C: After Laurie answered the phone and introduced herself, I explained what I needed to store. She suggested a 10-by-10, but I told her about that pesky 10-foot item. She suggested a 10-by-15 and mentioned the price. Then, a surprise: Since the ceilings are 10 feet, she said I could lean my long item against the wall and still fit into a 10-by-10. She listed the price of those units as well, then asked if I knew where the facility was located. "Just come in and take a look," she said. "I can show you the units--the two different sizes--and sometimes a visual is a little bit better gauge of what you need."

In response to my other questions, she said tenants are given 30 days notice for rent increases and told me there is new on-site management and security-gate access. Unfortunately for me, there was no truck rental available--"I wish it were, because I get a lot of calls for that," Laurie said. She closed by listing the gate hours and saying there were boxes for sale if I needed them. She asked for my name, and that was it.

Facility F: An automated answering service asked me to hold for the next representative. "Hi, this is Lonnie. Thank you for calling. Can I help you with storage?" is how the conversation began. Lonnie asked when I needed storage. "Do you know what size, or is that something I can help you figure out?" she asked. I had a firm grasp on what I needed, but for the sake of research, I said I needed help. She suggested a 5-by-10. "Do you think that'd be pushing it?" she asked. Yes, I said. "The next best thing is a 5-by-15, and you know you're safe with that." The 5-by-15 was different than those at the other facilities and less expensive. Lonnie told me where the facility was and mentioned other details: on-site management, monthly pest control and an access-controlled gate. A free truck was available.

Lonnie took down my key information--name, phone number and credit card--to reserve the 5-by-15. I was given a confirmation number, and it was set. We settled on a day and time I would stop by for a tour. There was an administration fee, and I'd need a lock, which the facility sold. I inquired about 10-by-10s and 10-by-15s so I could compare price with the other facilities. The numbers were fairly consistent. I would probably not have considered this facility, as it was nearly five miles out of my way, but I was convinced to pay the manager a visit after the phone conversation.

The others: I was able to eliminate half of the field--Facilities D, E, G and H--based solely on the phone call. For some, I didn't have a good conversation with the person who answered. For others, price was significantly higher. The representative from Facility D was pleasant and accommodating, but didn't have any units in the size I needed. She suggested I visit another of their facilities across town. I received a follow-up call from a manager at that second facility, but it was too far away for me to consider.

Even though I had seen Facility E from the street for years, I was unimpressed after the phone call. The price was nearly $10 above the other facilities across the board. They also required a disc lock, even though I had my own standard lock. Also, the facility limited my visits to 15 minutes--Amanda said it was a security feature. I can't think of why I'd be there for longer, but it seemed like I would be worried about time on each visit, and I didn't want to feel that way.

I had to take the lead with the woman from Facility G--she didn't help me estimate the size unit I might need. This turned me off to her facility. The Facility H rep simply gave me the price of the units I might need. To these, I thought of what Anne Robinson, host of NBC's "Weakest Link," would say: "G'bye."

Facility Visits

After my calls, I narrowed the list down to four--facilities A, B, C and F--which I visited over the course of two days.

Facility A: I had high expectations based on the phone call, and the visit didn't disappoint. Mary was behind the counter when I entered the office. This was the only office I saw that I would consider a "store." It had separate displays for locks, packing materials, gloves, etc. There was a display of assembled boxes with a price for a package deal, including boxes and other moving supplies. We visited an empty unit by cart. Back in the office, I inquired about a truck, because I had forgotten to ask when I called. She said they didn't have one, but gave me a phone number and cross streets for another of their facilities that did. It was too far away, but I appreciated the effort. Behind the counter was a big monitor labeled "security." As I left, Mary gave me a flashlight--the only gift I received--as her way of thanking me for stopping by.

Facility B: When I walked into the office, shortly after it opened one morning, the first thing I noticed was Tricia half-asleep at the desk. This was consistent with the blasé attitude I received from her when I called, I thought. I next noticed a security monitor showing the view of nine different cameras, with a VCR displayed for all to see. There was plenty of customer parking outside this older facility, with average-width aisles inside. We walked to a unit, Tricia showed it to me, and that was that.

Facility C: This facility had the best curb appeal of the bunch, plus it was just two miles from home. As it turns out, Laurie's management team was ousted in the time between my call and visit. A stand-in manager from the corporate office showed me the facility. It seemed to be the newest of the four I checked out--the aisles were considerably wider, giving it an open feel. The unit I was shown hadn't been swept out, and the manager apologized, saying it would be cleaned out for my move-in. I remember what he said as I left: "We'd like to do business with you."

Facility F: My positive impressions of F disappeared during my drive. It was nearly five miles from my home, along a stretch bogged with heavy rush-hour traffic. I didn't want to deal with this on every trip to the facility. It was an older facility, tucked behind a strip mall. I couldn't find any parking. In fact, there was none. I was told I could park along the curb, but noticed I could possibly have blocked cars from accessing the gate. The person working the counter was pleasant and accommodating enough. I found out I had been routed through a call center before, so this was the first time I'd met Shirley. We whisked to a couple units in the golf cart. I was shown a 10-by-10 converted from two 5-by-5s, as well as an original 10-by-10. Shirley gave me the manager's card.

Facility I: While visiting my finalists, I noticed a facility I had not seen in my Yellow Pages search. I looked up its phone number in the directory, then called. It was the only message I left, and I never received a return call. That's where this story begins and ends.

And the Winner Is...

Facility A. My satisfaction with this facility began in the Yellow Pages and continued through the move-in. It wasn't the most state-of-the-art facility I visited, but its prices were competitive and--most important to me--had unmatched customer service.

From my understanding, Facility A is part of a national chain, but I was never treated like a number or just another prospective tenant. Mary's demeanor didn't seem forced. She was informative and easy to deal with through the whole process. She didn't seem put out by my questions or requests. She seemed to really enjoy what she was doing, which is more than I can say for most of the others with whom I dealt.

To show how important customer service is to me, when I finally moved in my things, I noticed the unit hadn't been swept out. I was so impressed with the rest of the operation that it went undetected until then. I had already made my decision to store with Facility A, and I felt comfortable chatting with Mary even as I filled out the rental agreement. I can't say I would have felt that way at any other facility.

Pricing was in line with many of the other facilities, but A offered half-off the first month's rent, which was the icing on the cake. The money I saved was used to rent a truck to haul my things to the facility. I didn't volunteer this to the managers, but I likely would have rented with them without the discount.

Interestingly enough, I would have come to the same conclusion had I picked the first ad in the Yellow Pages, called only that number, visited the facility and signed an agreement. Facility A had great ad placement in the directory, but backed it up with competitive pricing and friendly, courteous service. To me, that combination is unbeatable.

Facility Overview and Rating
Scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being best

Facility A B C D E F G H
Miles from home 3.0 2.0 2.0 3.0 1.7 4.8 3.8 1.9
Phone-sales technique 9 5 8 7 7 9 4 6
Knowledge/ability to help 9 6 8 9 6 8 5 6
Friendliness/courtesy 9 7 8 8 8 9 4 7
Cleanliness of facility 8 8 8 -- -- 9 -- --
Convenience of location 7 9 9 -- 9 6 7 8
Security 8 8 8 -- 6 7 8 --
Price 7 6 7 5 6 9 8 7
Effectiveness of Yellow Pages ad 8 8 7 9 7 8 6 7
Special need (truck rental) no yes no -- no yes no no
Overall experience 9 6 8 7 6 7 5 5
Total 74 63 71 45 55 72 47 46
Average 8.2 7.0 7.9 7.5 6.9 8.0 5.9 6.6

Thoughts on the Experience

By Jim Chiswell

Matt's objective view through the "Eyes of our Customers" should be required reading for every self-storage manager and owner. Matt's journey starts where most potential customers begin--with the Yellow Pages. Convenience was his focus as he dug through the ads looking for stores near his residence.

Several times, Matt referred to his examination of the maps in the ads. Many customers are not familiar with all of the street names in their community. They are looking for points of reference, such as the local high school, post office or area Wal-Mart. Does your ad have a good map that will help a potential customer to know where you are located? Are you including local points of reference? I have seen countless ads without maps, which I just don't understand.

The map is more critical than some picture of your dog, your kids or some other cutesy graphic reminding people they have too much stuff in their closet. I also see another group of ads where the maps are so bad it makes you wonder if the manager had any input at all in how it looks. Remember, you don't rent the unit over the phone--you rent it when the person is across the counter or desk from you. If they can't locate you easily, the phone will not ring and you will continue to hear about how many units your competition rented last month.

There is something specific that I want to point out about Mary's telephone technique from Facility A. Mary answered, "Thank you for choosing Facility A." She is already thanking the person for a decision he has yet to make. There is a great book titled Permission Marketing by Seth Godin and Don Peters, which analyzes the issue of how to get someone's permission to sell him a product. When a prospect calls your store, he is already giving you permission to sell him on choosing you above the competition. Are you taking maximum advantage of this consent? The vast majority of people who take the time to call you plan to rent somewhere. Give yourself the best chance at success by examining your telephone technique.

Are you asking for the appointment? This is one of the basic sales techniques every manager should use. It is not enough to give people information about your store and prices. The goal is not to make the telephone call as short as possible. You have to ask people to come in and make a commitment to visit the store. In most cases, potential customers have to drive by other self-storage stores to get to you. If you do not get a commitment to a general appointment time (Thursday afternoon or before 11 a.m. on Friday) they may simply drive into the first facility they see because, to many people, storage is storage.

Matt's overall experience is being mirrored thousands of times every day as potential customers are turned into long-term renters by simple repeatable techniques. One of the most important realizations in his article is he did not discover some secret formula or magic. The process, which was ultimately rewarded with his storage business, was simply hard work by the manager and owner with a clear focus on customer service.

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