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Inside Self-Storage Magazine 05/2001: My Comeuppance

Harley Rolfe Comments
Posted in Articles, Archive

My Comeuppance

By Harley Rolfe

I recently had an encounter with a multisite operator who indicated he found these columns and my book refreshing and asked for my help. Of course, I was flattered and looked forward to the chance to do some live marketing work with a sizable multisite operation. I was pumped! This person had a technical background, which gave me reason to assume he would acknowledge the need for the solid, quantitative base so necessary to good marketing work.

We got to the specifics regarding where to begin. I told him the way to start is to situate the marketing foundation: First, identify and measure the segments presently making use of his facility. Next, determine how these tenant categories use storage by sending questionnaires or doing telephone surveys. That marker would set the start-point for our marketing efforts. I thought he understood what was involved and we would be off and running. Was I ever wrong.

No Way, Jose

He was in a hurry, didn't want to spend the time, didn't want to spend the money, didn't think the tenant survey was necessary, didn't want to disturb his tenants, etc. "Just use the segments you listed in your book," he said. I said those were just my casual observations of the comings and goings in the facility with which I am familiar. They're not sufficient to found an actual marketing program. He may have thought I should already know what all the segments are. And frankly, he may have thought I didn't know what I was talking about. And then there was the matter of my fee: $5,000 for a complete market plan. That's about a quarter of what a consulting firm would charge, yet fair to me because I already know the business.

What I also know is how vital this basic market information is. Marketers must get it right. Everything else flows from that. Yet, so far as I know, this work has not been done by anyone. So, my never-to-be client has a lot of company.

Did I Muck Up the Deal?

Sure. But even now I don't know how I could have avoided it. The self-storage operator needs to know exactly which tenant problems storage is solving--and how. These "problems" will fall into segments. Until you know what those are, you're flying blind. Further, operators need to keep those segments current to track changes and progress toward goals over time. No military commander would commit troops to an encounter without good intelligence, yet so many new to the marketing game proceed without any knowledge from which to compose their battle plan. They just wing it. I can't do that.

A Lesson from Brainstorming

It's time for a diversion, one that will be conducive to our self-storage marketing evaluations: brainstorming. Some say brainstorming is a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. But we've all at some point had the flash of a solid bright idea that just popped out of some recess in our mind. Some call it weird. Some call it intuition. More recently, thoughtful people have begun to wonder if that resource can be used in a deliberate way to produce valuable, on-demand insights and solve intractable problems.

On a professional level, there are several strict rules designed to spur that free-association or brainstorming process.

  • A group is assembled. The leader is selected from outside the group and sets forth the problem at hand.
  • The group numbers no more than 10 people.
  • All members are peers, with no bosses or subordinates.
  • There is a time limit for the group session--i.e., 90 minutes--that is strictly enforced.
  • The goal is set in terms of the number of ideas that must be produced. The object is quantity, not quality. Tangent ideas are followed wherever they lead.
  • Authorship of any given idea is kept confidential.
  • There are absolutely no critical comments allowed. On this the leader has a zero-tolerance policy. If a group member offers a derisive remark, look, movement, etc., that person is immediately dismissed.
  • The leader writes each idea on large writing tablet, dry-erase board, black board--some medium in plain view of the whole group. He hopes to cover the room with a slew of ideas. Usually, each idea is numbered and the leader uses the number as a measure of progress.

Bureaucratic Nonsense?

Brainstorming, as used by professionals, can generate brilliant, unconventional ideas. This is not happenstance. Something happens when intellectual people compete for originality in a nonthreatening forum. Brainstorming is a reliable process used to mine creative mental activity that doesn't occur by "just thinking about it." These brainstorming sessions are designed to strip people of their inhibitions and put moderate pressure on everybody to do their part by producing ideas. It's OK to make stupid suggestions. It's OK to ramble off on tangents. No boss is around to threaten with chiding comments or to fix that "glare" on someone.

After the session is complete, managers will apply the critical thinking needed to turn all that "creativity" into useful approaches to problems. Out of 200 thoughts, maybe five to 10 will survive to become useful parts of an action plan. But those few are often great approaches the normal process of logical problem-solving analysis would never have uncovered.

What Did I Learn?

The point is: Brainstorming has a serious side. But the laid-back use of the term generally keeps it from being acknowledged as a sound way to deal with problems. Marketing often suffers a similar fate. There isn't much respect among the general population--or the self-storage industry, for that matter--for the process of marketing. There is little acceptance of the need to break down the tenant base into segments and understand how each uses storage. And spending time and effort to do so doesn't seem important when an operator is feeling the hot breath of competition. Invoking an unfamiliar course of action may be the last thing a beleaguered operator wants to do. Also, when someone is accustomed to spending virtually no effort or money on marketing, any amount seems like a lot. Under high-pressure circumstances, the basic instinct is to retrench and conserve resources. So, there are a number of reasons why an operator would be hesitant to launch a marketing program.

Still, trying circumstances demand sharp preparation. Generals, coaches, politicians, diplomats and businesses all do it. Whether you call it intelligence, scouting, focus groups, spying or research--people who launch serious programs all do the groundwork. When the stakes are high, mistakes are costly. It's what you don't know that can blindside any plan.

Harley Rolfe is a semi-retired marketing specialist whose career includes executive-level marketing positions with General Electric and AT&T. He also owned lodging and office facilities for more than 20 years. Mr. Rolfe holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Wabash College and a master's degree in business administration from the University of Indiana. He can be reached at his home in Nampa, Idaho, at 208.463.9039. Further information can also be found in Mr. Rolfe's book, Hard-Nosed Marketing for Self-Storage.

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