By Jim Chiswell
This column is providing the opportunity for me to voice my opinion about things that I am observing in our industry across the country. My goal with each column is a simple one: Whether you are a self-storage facility owner, manager, assistant manager or part-timer, I am trying to get you to think about the operation of your own facility. You may disagree with my assumptions and conclusions, but my hope is that you will read these words with an open mind and use some of these thoughts as a measuring stick for yourself.
What Is My Unit Number Again?
I continue to be frustrated by seeing the number of projects, both old and new, that have four or five units with the identical numbers. Yes, it is possible--when you use a letter prefix (A, B, C) to designate the building. Why would you not include the building letter with the numbers that are placed on the unit? I was in a facility a month ago that had identical units numbered one to 35 across from each other on the same aisle. One aisle was building "A" and the other "B." But why take the risk that one of your customers or members of their family will get confused and put their belongings in the wrong unit?
The real answer, from my prospective, is to sequentially number each unit when you build the facility. By doing this, there is only going to ever be one unit 106, not four or five of them. It also helps with the bookkeeping. When the check comes in the mail for unit #45 without the building letter, you are forced to look up every customer's name in each of your units #45 to see which unit really gets the credit. I realize that you can't change the numbering system in an existing project. You can, however, spend a few dollars to add the building letters to each of those existing unit numbers.
Does It Deserve to be Framed?
In eight out of 10 offices that I walk into, there are letters, posters and other announcements just taped up on the walls and counter. There is no way to display something on a wall using tape that will make it look official or important to a customer or prospective customer. I think you need to evaluate every item on your office walls with a simple question: Does it deserve to be framed? If you cannot justify the cost of a frame for that document, then it does not belong on the office wall. The same is true of pictures. Ask the same critical question about anything that you plan to display in your office.
The office needs to look like a retail environment. It needs to send a neat and clean message to everyone. Disney keeps people from throwing things on the ground at Disney World because the grounds are always clean. It is just something that people accept. If your facility rules and regulations poster is hanging dog-eared from that piece of gray duct tape, will people really take it seriously? And please doesn't substitute those yellow, 3M sticky notes claiming that they are just temporary reminders. Saying to yourself, "I'll take them down at the end of the day" just doesn't work. I've been in offices where it looks like the big Post-It sheets are breeding, with more smaller notes hanging all over the place. Make sure your office is helping your sales efforts, not hurting it.
Silent Salesman Always On Duty
When your office is closed, wouldn't you like to have a salesman on duty to be welcoming customers and providing them with information about renting a unit? I witnessed such a salesman during an early evening visit to a facility. I found a weatherproof brochure rack on the office door of the facility filled with literature. It was the same type of rack that some realtors are using on the "for sale" signs of residential properties.
The facility's flier simply started out by saying "Sorry we missed you." It went on to explain the office and gate hours, provided a sample of rates (not all of them) and explained the leasing procedures. Remember that a large percentage of your customers have never used self-storage before. The facility's flier urged me to stop back when the office was open or to call on the phone to set up an appointment.
How many people have come to your office only to find it closed? For many owners with smaller facilities and no full-time office staff, using a simple system like this should be a must. It is not enough to just post a sign on the door that says to call 765-4444 to rent a unit. Your silent salesman is there, ready to provide a flier or brochure to any interested party. Also consider putting a full-time salesman on your payroll. If you can't find a local source for those weatherproof boxes, drop us an e-mail at Jchiswell@adelphia.net or call us at (716) 634-2428. Maybe we can help.
Just Who Are You Selling To?
Every successful retail business is always examining its customer base. The business owners are trying to track changes in trends and possible shifting market needs. As a self-storage owner, you have a unique opportunity to do that, in most cases, by just printing out the correct report from your operating software, assuming you are using a computer. You should be monitoring the zip-code location of addresses, whether they are residential or commercial users, and the average length of stay for each type of customer. Are they coming from Yellow Pages ads? Which phone book? Do they pay by check, credit card or cash? What are their usage patterns? Do they access their units before or after normal office hours? These customer profile factors will provide you valuable insights over time. You need to know just who you are selling to at your facility.
Because of publication production schedules, my next column will not appear until the September issue. I hope that you all have a profitable summer.
Jim Chiswell is the president of Chiswell & Associates of Williamsville, N.Y. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. In addition to contributing regularly to Inside Self-Storage, Mr. Chiswell is a frequent speaker at Inside Self-Storage Expos. He can be reached via e-mail at Jchiswell@adelphia.net or by calling his office at (716) 634-2428.