As I write my last column for 2004, I cannot believe another year is almost over. Our industry confronted some major issues in the past 12 months. For one, FBI agents visited facilities and talked with owners and managers about the need for extra diligence in the operation of their businesses. A year-old law, the Service-members Civil Relief Act, continued to trip up owners who are uneducated about the need to protect active-duty military and National Guard customers from unjust auctions of their belongings. Fortunately, illegal lien auctions performed on some delinquent units have gotten only local media attention. But this is a poignant reminder of the world in which we live.
Next, the national Self Storage Association (SSA) acquired a new executive director, Michael T. Scanlon. He is already making his presence felt at the SSA. There are only a few states without organized associations to carry our flag in front of state legislatures and executive department agencies. In the years ahead, we’ll see state associations play a more important role, sharing ideas and strategies for dealing with the many issues we will continue to face.
One of the biggest accomplishments of 2004 will be the SSA’s National Consumer Demand study being conducted by Dr. George Leon of National Analysts. Results are expected early next year. While we can speak from our personal experience with customers about why they chose to store with us, there has never been an accurate predictive model the entire industry could use. Are you targeting all the market segments that might use storage? Are your marketing dollars aimed at the right audiences? Is there really demand for another store in the market area? Is there an end in sight for storage demand? These are just a few of the questions I hope the research will answer.
Finally, I have witnessed a change in how we conduct business across the country. Customer-service-oriented companies continue to grow with strong occupancies and rental-rate increases. At the same time, “old line” operators let deferred-maintenance issues mount at their stores, and the “What do you want?” attitude of underpaid, unmotivated employees results in declining business. Competition persists for all of us. The answer is not to cut prices. Self-storage is still one of the best entrepreneurial business opportunities when taken with the right approach.
Where to Look for Workers
I am constantly asked by owners about the best way to find new employees. In many markets, traditional classified newspaper ads are not generating quality prospective candidates, and online searches can draw “wannabes” looking for unrealistic income.
During a recent visit to an Albany, N.Y., convenience store, I was reminded that many of us have great employee prospects and don’t even realize it. A large sign on the Stewarts Shop front door read, “Our best employees come from our loyal customers. Interested? Call or go to our website, www.stewardshops.com.” This company has more than 300 locations across New York and Vermont. It has made the conversion of customers to employees part of its human-resource operations.
If you are seeking full- or part-time staff, are you talking to your customers? Do you have a sign posted in your office to let them know you are looking for employees? I urge you to give it a try. You may be surprised by the results.
Even the Big Guys Use Business Cards
I recently purchased my second set of Bose Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones, which I use faithfully as I fly around the country. I had a bit of a surprise when I opened the package. Amazingly, even a company the size of Bose, with its multimillion-dollar marketing budget, still understands the power of a business card.
Inside the travel case was a stack of “courtesy cards,” which read, “Our customers tell us they are often asked about their Bose Quiet-Comfort 2 headphones. For your convenience, we are providing this handy courtesy card for you to pass along.” The card did not say the company would do anything special for me for being a spokesperson for the product. In fact, it implied it was doing me a favor. While I am sure many customers simply throw the cards away, a few like me dutifully pass them out whenever somebody asks about the headset.
Bose understands people will recommend its products simply if it asks them to. So why do self-storage operators seem to have such a problem promoting their referral programs, especially when they actually provide cash or discount incentives for customers’ help? If you are not using a referral program, start one. The best source of marketing you can ever hope for is the recommendation of a satisfied customer.
Lianne Marshall, president of the Storage Center in Rhode Island, sent me an excellent book that describes how to create customer “evangelists.” Authors Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba make a compelling case when they state, “Customer evangelism cuts through the muck of advertising clutter. Friends, family and colleagues influence our behavior more than any repetitive ad or aggressive salesperson can.” If you want to stay competitive, pick up a copy of Creating Customer Evangelists and learn some strategies for turning customers into part of your sales force.
Finally, don’t forget to print business cards for all of the members of your team, regardless of their position on your staff. It must be difficult for employees to take pride in their job or work for a company that won’t even spend $50 or $60 to provide them with business cards. Even still, I encounter cardless managers in offices across the country as I travel.
In less than a month, the winter holidays will be upon us. For some, that means rent-collection problems, but for others, it’s an opportunity to say to their local communities, “Hey, look at us!” If you have been involved in the construction of a self-storage store, you know that getting a facility’s sign approved by the zoning committee can be a huge problem. I am always amazed that communities that are more than willing to take our tax payments don’t want us to advertise our businesses.
The holidays are one time a year when you can add lights and other attention-getters to the outside of your store without a whimper from municipal officials. Adding decorations is an annual opportunity to change the appearance of your buildings and office. Many managers take a great deal of pride in their holiday decor. The environment it creates can be infectious. It reminds people who drive by your store daily that you are there and an active part of the community. This season, dump the “Bah! Humbug!” routine and lighten up your storage world. And don’t forget that candy canes aren’t just for kids!
I want to thank Inside Self-Storage Publisher Troy Bix and Editorial Director Teri Lanza for allowing me the opportunity to write this column and share my thoughts on the industry with others. Thanks also to you readers—I hope you have benefited from my ramblings. May the blessings of the holiday season enrich your life and that of your family and co-workers, as well as this planet we call home. See you at the ISS Las Vegas Expo in February.
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 selfstorage industry. In addition to being a member of theInside 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 introduced LockCheck, an inventory data-collection system, to the self-storage industry. He can be reached at 434.589.4446; visit www.selfstorageconsulting.com or www.lockcheck.com