Customer Service as a Marketing Weapon

Fred Gleeck Comments
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I just completed a cross-country trip in my RV, from Nevada to New Jersey, along routes 70 and 78. Along the way, I dropped in on more than 20 storage facilities. The difference in the quality of facilities was amazing. There were some with terrific employees; though I’m sad to report that was very infrequent. Most of the time, I found managers who were just getting by, serving as mere caretakers for facilities sorely in need of leadership.

Customer service really is a marketing tool—one of many you have to increase occupancy rates and revenue. Here are some ideas to make the most of it.

Hire Right

Too often, in an attempt to save money, storage owners hire lessthan- quality managers to work their facilities. This is the wrong tactic. A good manager is worth his weight in gold. Not only will he generate more rentals, he will be more creative. Here’s an example of how a poor manager can be a detriment to your business:

I went searching for a place to park my RV in the northern New Jersey area. I got on the phone with a number of places. One person I spoke to told me a space would be $140, but the price was negotiable. I said, “OK, let’s negotiate.” He said he was not the person who could negotiate the price. I asked if he was the manager and he said he was, but pricing was handled by someone else—some elusive figure I couldn’t seem to get to on the phone.

The manager said he would call me back on my cell phone. He didn’t. When I called him back, he said “Mr. Big” had determined the price should be $125. It’s not how I usually negotiate, but I was getting desperate, as I was only an hour away. I then asked for directions to the facility, but the manager didn’t have a clue—he didn’t live in the area and couldn’t direct me. Who could I ask? “Mr. Big,” but he wasn’t around—of course.

I hung up and found the city where the facility was located on a map. At about 10 miles out, I called again. I told the manager I was getting close and wanted to make sure he would be there when I arrived. He then informed me he wasn’t sure if he had a space available. I asked how he could quote me a price on the phone, knowing I’m on the road headed his direction, and then not have a space? I was told “Mr. Big” makes those decisions. Where was Mr. Big? No where to be found.

Imagine my frustration at having my time and energy wasted. Do you want your prospects to have similar disappointments? This is where an experienced manager is key. Will it cost you more to hire a good manager? Absolutely. But, whoever hired the person I dealt with was losing revenue at an alarming rate. Was it worth it for him? I think not.

Grant Authority

Whoever handles the phone at a facility needs to be able to make decisions. In my travels, I found at least 50 percent of the facilities I visited had employees with virtually no decision-making authority. This is poor business practice.

I suspect owners don’t want their employees making mistakes. But if you hire correctly, you’ll have people capable of making sound decisions —so you need to let them. Will they occasionally make poor choices? Yes. If they are competent, however, they will learn from these mistakes. Many owners want to micro-manage their facilities. All this does is frustrate a good manager and completely frustrate customers who have to wait for someone to be called or contacted before they can get an answer.

How much authority should you grant? I know numerous facility owners who can go on vacation for three weeks and not call once to check up on their “baby.” Isn’t this the way you want to run a business? I would certainly hope so!

Hire good people and give them the authority to run the business like it’s their own. If you set up your compensation systems properly, you’ll attract employees who can make good decisions. As you get to know them, grant them more power—and spend more time on the golf course like you should.

Be Flexible

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a rule book including every possible scenario one could encounter as a business operator, complete with proper responses? But this is impossible. In the storage business particularly, too many situations arise to which you have to respond with something outside the realm of “plain vanilla.” Sure, you can have guidelines to follow, but be willing to bend them to accommodate individual situations.

Here’s an example from my recent RV trip. At one point, unable to find a location to park my vehicle, I pulled into one of a well-known chain of facilities. It did not have designated RV parking, but I asked to park the RV in the customer-parking area overnight. I explained my situation to the manager and he listened intently, understanding my dilemma.

He then said, “OK, I’ll let you park here. What do you think is a fair price?” He did two things right at once. First, he was finding a way to generate revenue where there was none. Second, he asked me what the price should be. Naturally, I was indebted to him for his help and probably willing to pay more than he would ask. We agreed on $20 for the night. I ended up staying two nights, and the facility made $40 with no effort at all.

Not every situation falls neatly into categories you want or expect. Be ready to find a way to generate revenue in anyway possible—as long as it’s legal and ethical. For example, let’s say someone wants a large unit and you don’t have one available. Why not look for two smaller units next to each other and give him a package price? It’s this kind of creative thinking that will allow you to squeeze every possible dollar out of your facility.

Go the Extra Mile

On my trip, I stopped at a facility in Missouri. My dogs needed some water, and I walked in and spoke to the manager. She was amazing. Not only did she have water, she even kept some dog treats around just for this kind of occasion. She didn’t even own dogs herself.

If a situation arises, there is at least a possibility it could be repeated in the future, so learn from these occurences. Always have an answer for customers or prospects when a need arises. One manager I know keeps a set of jumper cables on hand because once, a few years ago, a customer needed them. He wants to be prepared for any eventuality.

Is it tough to get managers to do these kinds of things? Not if you hire right. Serving customers and prospects in this manner will generate a loyal following and longer lengths of stay.

Storage owners frequently view customer service as a necessary evil; but it’s much more than that. If used correctly, it can help you generate a lot more revenue. You’ll get more customers, keep them longer, and generate a lot more referrals in the process.

Fred Gleeck is a self-storage profit-maximization consultant who helps owners/operators during all phases of the business, from feasibility studies to creating an ongoing marketing plan. Mr. Gleeck is the author of Secrets of Self Storage Marketing Success—Revealed! as well as the producer of professional training videos on self-storage marketing. To receive a copy of his Seven-Day Self-Storage Marketing Course and storage marketing tips, send an e-mail to tips@selfstoragesuccess.com. For more information, call 800.FGLEECK; e-mail fgleeck@aol.com.

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