By Jim Chiswell
The new year, decade, millennium have begun. To honor publishing deadlines, I am writing this as 1999 comes to an end, so when you read this in February, the old Y2K issue is rapidly becoming a memory. I'm sure there were a few problems here in the United States and probably many more across the globe, but the sun still came up on Jan. 1st. I can't help but feel that we all will experience a renewed sense of challenge and opportunity as we face the future.
I was excited when this magazine's editor asked me to continue my bi-monthly column. I promise I will keep trying to bring you my candid opinions, ideas and occasional off-topic comments. I sincerely appreciate the feedback I get from people across the country. Please keep it coming!
As I travel across the country, I do a great deal of driving in cities big and small. The other day as I was sitting at an intersection, I watched someone empty his ashtray out his window. As the ash, butts and papers blew down the road, I could feel my blood pressure rising. It makes me crazy to see that, and it seems to be happening more often from town to town.
I can still remember my teachers in school (and that goes back a number of years) talking to us about protecting the environment by not littering. I can also remember the public-service messages with a tear on the face of the Indian chief for the litter that was at his feet. OK, so it turns out he wasn't actually Native American, but that's another story.
This sense of frustration got me thinking about our self-storage operations. I keep seeing larger and larger trash dumpsters at some facilities. I don't know where we went wrong as an industry. I honestly don't believe we should be everyone's garbage can. I know most communities require some on-site trash containers, but we need to place a strict limit on what we are willing to accept.
An old friend, Ken Nash from Springfield, Mass., has always fought putting a dumpster at his projects. He has fought many battles over it, but always won. He has a simple philosophy: What you bring in with you, you take back out. I urge you to look at the trash situation at your own facility. Are you providing a trash service for your commercial customers? If so, are they paying in addition to their rent? Do you have residential customers using your dumpster so that they don't have to pay local garbage costs? That happened to me at a facility in Florida.
Have you examined your trash expenses closely? If you have commercial customers who generate a great deal of cardboard, for example, could you put in a recycling dumpster just for them at no cost to you? I know one owner who actually generates a small cash flow from providing recycling containers for his customers. Take the initiative to reduce your existing dumpster size in the year ahead.
Telephone, Telephone, Telephone
Everyone has heard the old adage "location, location, location" in relation to selecting real estate. The same holds true for our industry until the project is built. Then our mantra should become "telephone, telephone, telephone." Unless each phone call is handled properly and that prospective customer at the other end of the phone line can be converted into a prospect standing in the office, the location of your facility just doesn't matter.
I am still amazed at the lack of telephone skills that exists in our industry. Many managers do not even have an outline of a script of things to cover during their call. The blame for managers' shortcomings on the phone comes back to us as owners. Some managers have never been told what is expected from them when they talk with prospects on the phone. If you have never "worked the phone" before, let me tell you it can be very intimidating.
There are so many simple things that can improve phone technique. Making a change from "Thank you for calling Jim's Bins" to "Thank you for choosing Jim's Bins" starts in motion a prospect's decision-making process about where to store his belongings. I have always believed you don't sell self-storage over the phone. Your goal must be to get the individual to come into the office. If you're bringing prospects into the office, you should be converting well over 90 percent of them to customers.
A mistake some owners make is not measuring results. One of the ways to measure results is to have a third-party company "mystery shop" your people on the telephone. I have had excellent results from a company called Double Check (phone (303) 888-0602; www.double-check.com).My clients have received some great insights into a manager's telephone strengths and weaknesses by listening to the recorded mystery phone call. I urge you to contact them.
What goals have you set for the "telephone, telephone, telephone" for the new year? If you haven't set any goals yet, there is still time to get them on paper. It is hard to be disappointed with the results if you have nothing to measure them against.
Drive-By Viewings, Day and Night
With spring just around the corner, it's time to start reviewing your landscaping plans. Next to the Yellow Pages, the second most important reason listed by prospects who become customers for choosing a facility is what they see when they drive by. What are the real net costs of those colorful annuals you plant near your entrance just as spring starts? If your residential customers are typical, with an eight- to nine-month average stay, just one new customer will cover your costs. And now is the time to think about it, not May or June.
P.S. When was the last time you drove by your facility at night? Are your lights on? Does your sign work? Are there letters missing because it has not been anyone's job to check? Does the lighting cause someone driving by to say, "This is a place I would like to use if I ever needed storage?"
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 at (716) 634-2428. You can also visit his Web site at www.Jimdot.com.