Thoughts From the Road

Jim Chiswell Comments
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The Federal Trade Commission recently reported that identity theft is one of the largest areas of concern it hears expressed by Americans. The issue of identity theft is a double-edged sword for the self-storage industry. On one side, we can become victims if a customer uses the identity of another person to rent a unit. It is very difficult to ward off this prospect. Good business procedures and aggressive management are our best defenses. The other edge of the sword is that we are a repository for our customer's personal information. Data such as home addresses, business addresses, telephone numbers, Social Security numbers, copies of driver's licenses as well as credit-card data are all within our custody.

Have you established a comprehensive privacy policy that includes responsible information-handling practices? Do you adhere to responsible practices, such as proper document disposal (shredding)? Do you conduct regular staff training, new-employee orientations and spot checks on proper information care and security?

If you have not made your information-handling practices a priority for your store, now is the time to start. A written and enforced policy is critical to illustrate you are being prudent as a business owner in the care and custody of customers' personal information. Several sources for assistance include the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego (www.idtheftcenter.org) or the federal government's central website for information about identity theft (www.consumer.gov/idtheft) .

I would also like to recommend a new book that will provide insights from the perspective of a criminal. In The Art of the Steal (ISBN 0-7679-0683-7, Broadway Books), Frank W. Abagnale, a self-described former con artist and recognized expert in fraud prevention, estimates that "businesses lose an unprecedented $400 billion a year from fraud of one sort or another." This book will help you realize how vigilant we need to be as business people to not become victims or unintentional contributors to this problem.

The Right Slogan

I was in Illinois several weeks ago and had the opportunity to meet a local banker whose bank has come up with a marketing campaign I truly admire. As we are all aware, many banks in this country have been and will continue to be acquired. These transactions can be difficult and, many times, customers suffer as they are confronted with more than a simple name change. W. Gerard Huiskamp, president of Blackhawk State Bank in Milan, Ill., has recognized this in his own community and is using it to the bank's advantage. The message to its customers is a simple one: The bank is "Not For Sale." Employees of the bank know their market area and their customers, and they have a laser focus on being the place "Where banking is still plain and simple!"

Have you committed to such a focus in your own advertising? Are all of your marketing and customer-service efforts directed to fulfilling that goal? I urge you to reflect on what you are or are not doing to make your marketing message focused and consistent. Blackhawk State Bank can be a model to all of us. Congratulations, Mr. Huiskamp and your team, for your example.

Would You Like a Coke, Sir?

As a new Charlottesville, Va.-area resident, I have had the opportunity to visit many of the local merchants. One of those is a branch of Grand Home Furnishings, which started in business as a piano company in 1910 in Roanoke, Va. Owned by the same local family since 1945, the company has expanded to 16 locations in Virginia and Tennessee. When they opened their Lynchburg, Va., store in 1953, they established the tradition of offering a frosty Coca-Cola to every customer entering the store. That tradition continues to this day using the classic Coke mini bottles. Everyone, young and old, can be seen walking through the store carrying a Coke.

During my first visit, I must say I was surprised to see a furniture store encouraging people to drink a bottle of pop that obviously poses a hazard to its thousands of dollars of inventory on display around the store. It was during my second visit I realized the brilliant marketing strategy this simple tradition represented. As long as they have a drink in hand, customers tend to stay longer--until their beverage has been consumed. It also contributes to the friendly, homey atmosphere the management works to create, and places the store and its salespeople in the positive psychological position of having given you something for nothing.

When I explained to Bruce Lowery, one of the store's sales managers, about my observation, he smiled and asked if I wanted another Coke. The grand greeter at the entrance who welcomes every customer with the offer of a free soda is also quick to point out bottles should be returned to the rack near the front of the store.

This experience made me wonder if we are doing enough to keep our prospects in the office and on the property as we demonstrate a rental unit. Maybe a small refrigerator with a supply of bottled water or the offer of a cup of coffee would help each of us create a more positive environment for our sales presentation and the actual rental process. Think about it.

Jim Chiswell is the president of Chiswell & Associates. 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 and various national and state association meetings. He can be reached via his company's website at www.selfstorageconsulting.com or at the Virginia corporate office at 434.589.4446; write 6 Slice Road, Lake Monticello, VA 22963.

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