Employee Training

James A. DiNardo Comments
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Why is it so many companies spend little time training their new employees? Too often, new hires are thrown into their positions with almost no education about what it is they’re supposed to be doing. I’m not just talking about self-storage, but business in general. If I didn’t know better, I might think “training” is a four-letter word.

I realize many self-storage companies thoroughly train their employees. But there are others that live by the “sink or swim” theory. They would rather allow new hires to possibly fail and jeopardize their businesses than spend the time, money and resources to effectively train them. Why would you spend millions of dollars to develop a facility, and then put an untrained person behind the counter to operate it?

Training can definitely be tedious, time-consuming and downright draining, but the alternative is a lot worse. I would rather do the training myself, even if it keeps me from doing other things, than allow a new employee to be trained inadequately or thrown into the fire. It is far too difficult to find good people these days, not to mention expensive. There is no bigger priority than ensuring your staff is fully educated to perform their jobs.

Find the Right Trainer

The first thing to consider when developing a training program is what resources are available. It would be nice to have a dedicated training facility on the West Coast, but I’m quite certain that isn’t the case for most companies and never will be in the self-storage industry. So at a minimum, you need to find someone with the proper experience, ability, patience and time to spend with employees, and you need some basic training materials.

When considering whether you have someone who can handle the training duties, keep in mind direct supervision and instruction is an important element in the process and shouldn’t be underestimated. There is no substitute for one-on-one training. A person can’t simply read a manual and know everything. Furthermore, you absolutely want the right person doing the training—someone who will set a good example, which is critical.

You want someone who will not only teach how to do things, but why they need to be done, and why it is important to follow company procedures. You want someone who will take the time to teach employees about company philosophies, the importance of image, and the little things that are significant to your organization.

All too often, we simply explain how to do things and think the hire is on the same page with the rest of the company, only to find he doesn’t understand how the business works. He can answer the phone and quote prices, but doesn’t know how to control the call and market the facility. He can rent and vacate units, but doesn’t know what it takes to maximize revenues. He can handle the basics, but not the things that really make owners and operators happy.

If you choose the right person to train employees, someone who can devote the time necessary to convey the company’s entire message (not just the how’s, but the why’s), your result will be employees who can truly run the business. Isn’t that what you want?

Training Materials

When you consider the issue of training materials, once again, don’t skimp. You wouldn’t send your child to school without books. People learn more easily and effectively with visual aids. Furthermore, they need them to fall back on when trying to recall what they have already heard and observed. Therefore, you must have some sort of training manual.

I know what you are saying at this point: “I don’t have the time to do the training—how am I going to find the time to create a manual?’’ I agree. It can be a lot of work. But again, you can’t afford not to create one. What you need to keep in mind is you already have many things in writing. You simply need to organize them into some sort of logical training format.

For example, sample copies of a completed lease, late notices, legal documents, and other applicable forms make great learning tools and reference materials. Make copies, slip them into sheet protectors, insert them into a three-ring binder in an organized manner, and slap a label on the binder that says “Training Manual.”

While you’re at it, include copies of your written policies and procedures. It would be nice to have an official manual like some of the bigger companies, but if you don’t have full-time human-resources staff, that probably isn’t realistic. However, compiling basic materials into an effective format is practical and shouldn’t take more than a day or so to complete.

Of course, you need to revisit any training manual periodically to keep it up to date. Two good practices are to 1) update it whenever you create a new document or revise an existing one; and 2) always review it prior to training a new employee. Take the time to look through the binder before working with the employee for the first time. You very well may find outdated material that has slipped through the cracks. You certainly don’t want the hire to discover it, as that can be embarrassing (I speak from experience!).

Other training materials can include video and audiotapes, which can be produced in house or purchased from the Self Storage Association and other industry providers. There is a lot of material out there. There are also numerous training programs available if you have the resources to enroll employees in them. You may even want to compile some reading materials (e.g., articles, books, etc.) that convey information about self-storage as well as general business practices. For example, materials that address customer service carry over nicely into self-storage. And tapes and reading material come in very handy when you get busy and simply need something to keep a new employee occupied.

First Impressions

When thinking about your training regimen, consider the first impression you make on new employees. When they see you have set aside your own time or that of a staff member to personally train them and have basic materials to help them learn their new position, they will be impressed by your operation and commitment. On the other hand, throwing them to the wolves without the necessary tools will leave them the impression you don’t care about your people or the business. Just as it is with your customers, the first impression is critical. So don’t blow it!

How Long Does It Take?

If I haven’t scared you off by now, you probably want to know how much time is required to get through this training process. Will it take a week, a month, a year? That will depend on the sophistication of your operation. When I was operating facilities, I devoted between one to three months to bring a new employee up to speed. Keep in mind my business included the sale of moving supplies, truck rentals and many other services. If your operation is less involved, it may not take as long.

It takes time for things to sink in, and the amount of time can vary from person to person. I always felt that if an employee was making progress every day, remembered what was learned the day or week before and, in general, fit in with the company, I had a winner. If you truly believe you have a good person, don’t panic if he takes a little longer to catch on. You can teach procedures and techniques, but you can’t teach attitude and character. If, on the other hand, you find someone is truly not a good fit, even though he has all the ability in the world, cut the cord early. Why waste time and money training someone you know will never do things the company way?

Other Training Tips

Try not to move ahead too quickly. For example, if a new employee walks through the door on his first day and the place is a madhouse, don’t feel compelled to explain everything. It’s hard to back off sometimes (for the trainer and the trainee), but have that person sit back and start reading, etc. What you don’t want to do is confuse the employee right out of the gate or burden yourself unnecessarily.

Always proceed in logical order. Don’t try to teach a new employee how to vacate a unit before teaching him how to answer the phone and rent a unit. Keep it simple and use commonsense. You may have to wait for the opportunity to teach certain things, but they will make more sense to the employee if he has the proper foundation in place to understand what is going on.

Although training really goes on forever, a great litmus test for when you can begin to leave new employee alone to run the store is his ability to answer the phone and handle prospective customers. I am absolutely convinced the hardest thing to teach self-storage managers—and the most important thing they need to learn—is the ability to turn inquiries into rentals. One of the reasons it is so difficult is you typically have to teach them about self-storage in general, and that takes time. Obviously, an employee with industry experience will have an advantage and catch on to your systems more quickly.

At any rate, when an employee is ready to answer the phone and handle calls the way your company has prescribed, he can probably be left alone. Sure, he may make some procedural mistakes or need to call you to get through something, but mistakes can be fixed, and help can be administered.

If a hire isn’t sure what to say when the phone rings or how to ensure a rental when a customer visits, forget it. You don’t get a second chance in those situations. Furthermore, you have spent too much money to make your phones ring and get customers in the door to have even one inquiry mishandled. Ultimately, you will have to determine when an employee is ready to work solo, and your comfort level is certainly a factor. But don’t leave that person alone if he can’t handle the sale.

It is going to take at least a few weeks for an employee to listen in on enough calls, accompany you on enough facility tours, and get the necessary exposure to prospective customers. During that time, you will certainly be training him on other aspects of your operation. And most of the time, he will have experienced enough of the basics to get along with his prospecting skills and feel comfortable behind the counter.

Just reading this article and thinking about training may have exhausted you by now. Believe me, I was always the most tired when I came home from a day of training a new employee. You end up standing on your feet most of the time, you have to watch everything the employee does, and you have to be careful about everything you do and say to set the right example. Furthermore, you end up talking the entire day, as you try to explain every little thing you do as a manager. Then your spouse can’t understand why you have nothing to say in the evening! Sure, it gets better as the days go by and the employee picks up on things, but it is never easy.

Training is one of those necessary evils. But like so many things in life and business, the more thought and effort you put into it, the more benefit you and your employees get out of it. Whatever you do, don’t treat training like a four-letter word!

Jim DiNardo has more 16 years of experience in the self-storage industry, having served as a partner and operations manager for The Storage Depot until the company was sold to Extra Space Storage in February 2004. He recently formed J. DiNardo Consulting, which performs self-storage feasibility and market studies, analyzes a wide range of facility operations, and performs general business advisement. For more information, call 781.944.9848; e-mail jimdinardo@comcast.net.

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