By Tom Berlin
Americans are becoming more sophisticated. Starbucks and other coffee shops have educated us on the sundry ways to enjoy coffee. The Internet has connected us to an entire universe of information. Cable and satellite television has allowed us to peek into the lives of different cultures. And the American economy continues to provide most people with an unprecedented standard of living.
As a result, our expectations of what is acceptable to us, as consumers, have risen. This is a trend impacting all retailers. For example, one long-time discount department store chain is in the midst of renovating hundreds of its stores in order to staunch the flow of its customers into more contemporary discounters that feature newer stores with wider aisles, brighter lighting, nicer displays and an overall cleaner environment.
Self-storage is no exception to this scrutiny. As the population becomes more educated about our product, their expectations and requirements of a facility are reaching higher levels. In the past, a metal building sitting in the middle of an unpaved field was completely acceptable. For some prospective tenants, it still is. But the vast majority of our customers has become accustomed to, and even demands, a higher standard.
As is regularly pointed out in industry trade journals such as this one, many new self-storage facilities are virtually indistinguishable from the most upscale office buildings or residential developments. They feature every new technological bell and whistle available, and provide customer service rivaling that of the fabled Nordstrom's chain of department stores.
Many of us with older facilities try to do whatever we can to compete by upgrading our properties with new storage doors, computer-controlled gates, surveillance cameras, door alarms, etc. But these are high-cost, capital- intensive improvements. Don't get me wrong--these are very worthwhile expenditures. We all need to consider installing what is increasingly becoming the norm at self-storage operations. But there is one area that is often overlooked by managers and operators that can keep a facility competitive even as new facilities nip at your marketshare: daily maintenance.
The Importance of Maintenance
Managers and operators are always extremely busy with the day-to-day activities of running their facilities. It's easy to forget the important role a facility's appearance and cleanliness plays in the decision-making process of the prospective tenant. Often, the customer doesn't even realize the influence of these factors. He just knows he "didn't feel comfortable" at a particular store and moves on to a competitor. Small d ifferences between competitors can decisively impact a potential customer's storage decision.
Certainly, every owner needs to ensure that his roofs don't leak, lighting on the property is adequate and working properly, paving is in good condition and doors operate smoothly. However, the daily "housekeeping" at a self-storage facility can be a critical factor in the facility's success. A new store that looks dirty will give customers a worse impression than an older location that is immaculate.
Our managers complete a daily checklist of housekeeping items. This helps ensure that easily overlooked items are still completed. Since each facility is different, every manager should develop his own list of duties that need to be handled every day. Here is a sample of the items on our list:
- Straighten all work surfaces, the customer counter and the area behind it to eliminate clutter and keep areas neat and organized.
- Dust all counters, window sills, sundries displays and window blinds, and any other horizontal surfaces.
- Sweep and/or mop all hard flooring.
- Vacuum all carpeting and walk-off mats.
- Wash windows in the office entry door and elsewhere if they are fingerprinted or otherwise dirty.
- Empty wastebaskets.
- Straighten and fill all sundries item displays (not part of housekeeping perse, but something that should be done daily anyway).
- Clean the customer restrooms including the sink, commode, floor and mirror. Fill the soap, toilet tissue and handtowel dispensers.
- Empty the wastebasket.
- Replace all burnt-out lightbulbs.
- Remove all litter from the grounds, including both natural refuse (leaves, stones, twigs, dirt runoff, etc.) and man-made rubbish such as paper, bottles, cans and, especially, cigarette butts. (Cigarette butts scattered about a property always make it look dirty, no matter how clean it is otherwise.) It is important that any trash found against your fence is also removed whether it is on your side or not. Remember that the sight lines of potential customers don't end at your property line.
- Move any "presents" from tenants, such as mattresses, sofas, boxes, etc., to the dumpster area. Don't forget to look up at the building roofs to see if anything is visible that has been thrown up onto them.
- Pull or spray with weed-killer any weeds that have sprung up from cracks in the paving, planting beds or other areas--around the dumpster, for example.
- Check the site for any damage to the gate, buildings, signage, doors, fencing, lights, bollards, etc., that may have occurred overnight.
- Make sure all exterior lights are working properly. (Obviously, none of them should be on during daylight hours, for example.)
Our managers do both the interior and exterior housekeeping at the beginning of the day. The manager, in some cases, is scheduled to start work before the office opens in order to get everything accomplished before our first customers arrive. When a manager is doing the morning site inspection, he can also overlock past-due spaces and remove overlocks from paid spaces.
Some of the activities listed above may need to be done several times a day if an office or property is especially busy or the weather is bad. It is important to keep in mind tht the acceptable standard for cleanliness should be immaculate.
Maintenance of Vacated Units
Whenever a tenant vacates, the site manager should perform a thorough inspection of the space before it is rented again. Our managers use the checklist on the following page for this purpose.
The completed checklist is placed in the vacant-space file. When a store is audited, the checklists for all vacant spaces are reviewed and the spaces inspected to ensure they are ready for the new tenant.
Keeping a property clean at all times is one of the most important aspects of a manager or operator's job. It is neverending, but it can mean the difference between a potential customer choosing to store at your facility or moving on to your competitor.
Tom Berlin is vice president of operations for Farmington Hills, Mich.-based Pogoda Management Co., one of the largest owners and operators of self-storage facilities in the Midwest. For more information, call (800) 326-3199.