Empty Is Not Ready

Jim Chiswell Comments
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As I travel across the country, I see hundreds of selfstorage stores and thousands of units. I have lost count of the number of times a manager has opened a unit door to show me a vacant space, only to find the floor dirty or populated with miscellaneous junk. In almost every case, the manager says, “Oh, I didn’t know that stuff was still in here,” or “Don’t worry—we’ll have that cleaned up before anyone moves in.” I see this problem from one side of the country to the other. Managers should know, if a unit is not clean, it is not ready to rent or be shown.

Back in the “If you build it, they will come” days, a store could get away with this type of customer-sales presentation and the negative image it creates. Those days are long over. After watching the changes in our industry over the past 19 years, I have made one simple conclusion: Either your management is committed to every aspect of producing a positive customer-service experience, from the initial lease to the move out, or you should be planning your exit strategy from the business.

We all must adopt the philosophy that vacant units must be rental-ready to be shown to potential customers. I know there are times when our store staff is very busy, but it is a matter of making it a top priority. Not having vacant units ready to rent is a little like the old poem that goes, “For the lack of a nail, the shoe fell off; for the lack of the shoe, the horse fell down; for the lack of the horse...” You get the idea.

Making this a top goal for everyone on the management team keeps the focus on customer service and the importance of a customer’s impression of the business. You can even make it a mystery-shopping incentive or bonus item. If the owner can walk in unannounced and open five or six vacant units and they are ready to rent, he buys lunch, or there is a cash bonus to everyone on the team. I know several owners who have their managers place a colorful card on vacant units that say “Ready for You.” These can be simply made out of outdoor tag stock or laminated paper.

Don’t take this issue for granted. It can and will make a difference in your rental closing ratios. I guarantee that when you know the vacant unit behind the door will always be totally clean, your confidence will increase. And by the way, making sure the unit is clean also means the door operates properly. The worst of all sales demonstrations is the one that starts with the manager not being able to easily open the door. Clean units will help everyone achieve increased rental activity and improved bottom-line results.

Your Meal and Service Guaranteed

During a recent road trip, my wife and I decided to try the Steak and Ale restaurant for dinner. This chain, started in 1966, has more than 60 locations nationwide. As it was not crowded on a Wednesday night, we were quickly taken to our table.

The very first thing our waiter, Brian, did was introduce himself. As he was presenting our menus, he started to explain the Steak and Ale meal guarantee as well as his service promise. The message was simple: Steak and Ale guaranteed our entire dining experience would be enjoyed completely or the meal would be free.

But Brian not only gave us a verbal commitment, he placed a business card on the table with his name clearly printed on it. It was the Steak and Ale’s written guarantee. I have seen restaurants make all types of claims on their menus, but this was the first time I was given a personal promise. It really got me thinking about what types of promises we make to our self-storage customers. Are any of us willing to make a commitment that the customer’s storage experience will meet or exceed their expectations and put it in writing?

Customers’ Deliveries

During two recent management-consulting engagements, I evaluated five established stores. Both owners had authorized their managers to accept shipments for their customers. In one case, packages were being delivered by FedEx, UPS and Airborne Express directly to the office. Routinely, the managers would sign to accept the shipments and simply place them on the floor. In the other situation, the managers turned over the key to the customer’s unit, and the driver would put the delivery directly into the space.

What surprised me the most is neither company had taken any steps to limit their liability for these actions. There is a great deal of debate about whether accepting shipments is worth the business risks assumed. Yet many of us know that unless we are willing to accept deliveries, we have no chance of renting to many commercial customers.

One of the best articles on this subject was written by Jeffrey Greenberger in the November 2002 issue of Inside Self-Storage. (To access it, simply visit the ISS online article archive at www.insideselfstorage.com. Enter the author’s name into the search field or open the November 2002 issue.) Jeff clearly lays out the liability issues involved with accepting deliveries on behalf of customers and supplies a sample addendum for your consideration.

Both owners mentioned above thought accepting deliveries was something everyone did. They had never considered the potential liability involved. If you have not attempted to protect yourself, act today. You may want to set up an appointment with your attorney to discuss the issue and fully consider your options.

Servicemembers Civil Relief Act

In case you missed it, on Dec.19, President Bush signed into law the first complete revision of the 1940 Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Civil Relief Act. The new law, called the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act, will have a direct impact on all self-storage owners across the country, as Section 307(a)(1) specifically references “Enforcement of Storage Liens.” It states:

LIMITATION ON FORECLOSURE OR ENFORCEMENT—A person holding a lien on the property or effects of a servicemember may not, during any period of military service of the servicemember and for 90 days thereafter, foreclose or enforce any lien on such property or effects without a court order granted before foreclosure or enforcement.

In the January/February issue of the Texas Mini News, Larry Niemann, legal counsel for the Texas Mini Storage Association (TMSA), informed all readers that as a result of the new law, some changes would need to be made to the TMSA rental agreement. A special addendum to the current agreement was prepared for members to use until the next official printing. I anticipate similar changes to be made to the various model agreements by other state associations.

In light of this law, I urge every owner and manager who has not reviewed the language of his current rental agreement to do so immediately. While I have always encouraged restraint in conducting auctions of known servicemembers’ rental units, this new law makes it clear that Congress and the President are willing to protect our men and women in uniform from enforcement of our storage liens.

Jim Chiswell is the owner of Chiswell & Associates LLC. Since 1990, his firm has provided feasibility studies, acquisition due diligence and customized manager training for the self-storage industry. In addition to being a member of the Inside Self-Storage Editorial Advisory Board, he contributes regularly to the magazine and is a frequent speaker at ISS Expos and various national and state association meetings. He recently introduced the new LockCheck™ inventory data-collection system to the self-storage industry (www.lockcheck.com). He can be reached at 434.589.4446; visit www.selfstorageconsulting.com.

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