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The Mystery-Shop Advantage

Sarah Little Comments

Mystery shopping has been used as an integral part of quality assurance in the restaurant, hotel and retail industries. Self-storage operators have also begun using this practice, elevating it to a customer-service and sales-training tool.

Self-storage has developed into a sink-or-swim market with intense competition. In response, some operators spend impressive amounts on research and development. They create dynamic ads that capture the attention of their target audience and, in most cases, their advertising ventures are a success.

What happens once your hard work pays off and prospects start visiting your website, calling your facility and walking in your door? These customers are now in the capable hands of your site managers. When it comes down to it, your ads don’t persuade tenants to sign on the dotted line; it’s your manager who puts the pen in their hands.

Your business relies on the sales and customer-service skills of each employee. Mystery shopping also known as secret shopping, telephone auditing, employee evaluation or telephone check is a valuable tool that allows facility owners and managers to gain an inside perspective of the customer experience.

How It Works

In a typical mystery shop, a secret shopper presents himself to an employee as a prospective customer. In the storage industry, the shopping is most often done over the phone because sales rely so strongly on phone traffic. The facility owner or manager who requested the shop usually receives a recording of the conversation, accompanied by a written evaluation of the phone presentation.

The value of a mystery shop extends well beyond determining if an employee is handling the phone correctly. While storage operators use a secret-shopping program as a monitoring tool, most elect to its use full potential by gaining insight for customer service and sales training.

Over the decades, consumers have been trained to expect a certain level of courtesy and quality. When it comes to storage, most seekers call a facility before they drop in, making phone etiquette and customer service vital to gaining new tenants.

Defining Service

So what is good customer service? It’s more than the obvious “please” and “thank you.” A business and its employees should know how to handle a variety of situations with professionalism while satisfying and meeting the needs of customers. Employees should be familiar with company policies so they provide a consistent level of service. At the same time, each customer is unique; and so the service, while consistent, should be personal.

Good customer service relies on an effective sales presentation. A poor presentation or lack of confidence stirs doubt in the customer’s mind. Let’s say a prospect calls your store and asks, “How much is a medium-size storage unit?” The manager quickly rattles off several sizes and prices, after which there is an uncomfortable silence. The call ends with an awkward exchange of thanks. In this case, the poor sales presentation overshadows any hope of a positive customer experience and overlooks the quality of the facility.

Conversely, a knowledgeable employee with confidence in his service will breed confidence in the customer’s mind as well. Let’s look at the same scenario but change the manager’s response: “I have a few medium sizes that might work for you. Let me help you find the best one. What items do you plan on storing?” The manager offers a few choices, determines the caller’s needs, talks about site security, and closes the call by reserving a unit. Here, a good sales presentation illuminates great customer-service techniques, and the manager gains a new tenant.

Also keep in mind that indifference can be a bigger enemy than bad service. If a customer calls five or six storage facilities and gets a hum-drum response from each, he won’t be able to remember which had the free truck or offered the one month of free rent. You don’t want to blend in with your competitors; strive to be memorable and sincere.

Shopping Success

Mystery shopping provides a first-hand account of how a facility’s managers conduct business. The key to tracking the consistency of your customer service is to implement a regular program. Most operators who use the service conduct their shops monthly. Frequent shopping allows you to spot dangerous habits or rule out what may be flukes in performance.

Chances are you’ve given your managers a guide, script or some other idea of what they should say on the phone. Maybe you’ve never given them any guidance at all, assuming they know what they’re doing. This isn’t a chance a storage operation can afford to take. Although we storage folk like to gather in Las Vegas, most owners aren’t ready to make such a gamble.

Mystery shopping allows you to stack the deck in your favor. By using monthly secret shops, you’ll not only monitor customer service, you’ll improve your team’s sales skills. In a competitive market, having an edge over the other guy is great.

But that doesn’t mean you have to one-up each other with fancy gates or new moving trucks. Having an advantage is often as simple as knowing how to positively present your business. Mystery shopping guides managers by suggesting ways they can improve their phone presentation. They’ll learn ways to determine a caller’s basic needs, showcase the store’s features or retail products, use a price stall, quote a unit price and, finally, close the sale.

The enhancement of your sales team is another benefit to consistent secret shopping. Frequent shops keep managers accountable for their phone sales and help them develop their skills.

Choosing a Shopping Service

Storage owners will find many mystery-shopping providers with a specialty in self-storage. But even in a niche market, sales styles can vary. For this reason, there are a few things to consider when choosing a mystery-shopping provider.

Does the company have a diverse range of shoppers? It’s important for your provider to use shoppers with various accents, personalities and backgrounds. Also consider whether you’d like shops done in more than one language.

In addition, the call and especially the evaluation form should be customized to meet your company’s specific goals. For example, maybe you want to focus on whether employees ask customers how they heard about your facility. Or perhaps you want to focus more on the presentation of benefits and pricing.

The key to customizing your mystery shopping is to build a good relationship with your provider. Communicate your objectives, and ask if the company has suggestions to make your operation more effective. Investing in the growth of your employees with a secret-shopping program will allow you to create a living sales culture with improved results. 

Sarah Little is a total quality assurance account executive at PhoneSmart, an offsite sales force that helps storage owners rent to more people through its call center, secret-shopping service, sales-training and Internet-lead-generation services. For more information, e-mail

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