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Amy Campbell

Amy Campbell
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acampbell@vpico.com

Connect with Customers to Make Self-Storage Experience Meaningful, Organized

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A guest installment by Brandi Ulrey, president of Safe Stor Inc.

The second most-asked question I probably get is, "What's the weirdest thing you ever found in a storage unit?" The answer to that is X-rated (and completely unoriginal), so I usually skip the X-rated answer and jump to the other oddities. In all fairness, we rarely find "stuff" left behind in storage units; it's mostly trash, and it costs money to dispose of it. If there is anything valuable, it's auctioned, so the “weird” question is probably better directed toward my unit buyers.

What we do find, however, is stuff left in or near our dumpster. The same dumpster that is locked and for office use only. Not to be deterred by some stupid lock and chain, my persistent customers will often just leave their detritus next to it, as though it will magically be absorbed into the dumpster and then get disposed.

For instance, not long ago I noticed a large (it had to be more than 6 feet high) plastic palm tree and a camping Porta-Potty, sitting next to the dumpster. Classy. Another good one was a mannequin left in the trash, only it didn't fit all the way so her naked legs were sticking out. Talk about a heart attack!

Every day we watch people come in with trucks and cars and trailers and vans chock full of their worldly possessions. And every day, we watch those same people move out weeks, months or even years later hauling one-third of the stuff they previously couldn't live without to the dump (or they just stack it by my dumpster).

Why am I admitting this? Aren't I supposed to support and encourage people to keep as much stuff as possible? Well, not really. As surprising as it may be to some, a large part of what we do as self-storage operators is help people during times of intense stress.

Check out the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale. I can count at least 30 of these 41 items that are regular occurrences with my customers. No wonder they're so harried! My heart goes out to every single customer. They let me into their lives, they share their stories, and they regularly inspire me. I think I would have the perfect setup, if I just had a bar at the front desk!

I want to help solve my customers' stress, not add to it. This year, our motto is “Make the Connection.” I preach it to my employees and live it as best I can. I also try to encourage my customers to do the same—to keep the connections within our communities and reach out to one another. My storage facility should be the port in the storm that offers security and safety, where they feel confident that someone cares for them and their possessions. They should know me, my staff, and that we're going to do right by them.

So if I encourage them to keep things they don't need, they'll be forced to take longer to move, pay for space they don't require, and risk packing improperly and not be able to access what they really do need. And, most importantly, they will no longer trust me.

So I advise my customers that if they keep everything, then nothing can be important. And when nothing is important, they will have an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality. Fast forward six months and they probably will have re-purchased half the items they stored because they can't bear the thought of digging through the unit to find their ski jacket, stand mixer, pool floaties or Thanksgiving tablecloth.

Frustrated and irritated, they will finally erupt on some sunny Saturday when they are tired of paying for too much storage space. They will grab their neighbor's truck and finally sort through their stuff. They will keep mementos, photos, furniture and necessities and haul endless loads to the dump. Or, worse, they’ll leave their plastic palm tree and Porta-Potty next to my dumpster and make me wonder why they paid to store it for so long in the first place.

In the end, they will be less than satisfied with their self-storage experience and probably blame me.

But if we can connect with them and prevent them from making storage mistakes upfront, then the opposite will be true. We can teach them how to pack, what to keep, what to donate/trash/sell, and how to take the extra time now so they can easily access the items that are truly important to them. This also means they will rent the unit sizes they truly need.

My managers are caring people who have all been trained by me personally. They always go the extra mile to help customers move. This is just one of the benefits we have as a small company compared to some larger operations where a customer is simply a "tenant" or a "unit number." Not here. My kids go to school with their kids. I shop at the same grocery stores. I will see them on the baseball field, and I will ask (months or years later) how their mom is feeling after her open-heart surgery, or if their daughter graduated college, or how they’re holding up after their divorce.

My goal is long-term, repeat customers who will think of us whenever the need for some extra storage space arises. I don't want stressed-out customers who regret the way their move went and who finally end up throwing most of their stuff in the garbage. I want happy, organized customers who feel good about the choice they make to store with us, and who will return when the need arises again.

I want to "Make the Connection" with them today and every day. Do I think they’ll need me again? Heck yeah. Did you see that list?

Brandi Ulrey is a member of Self-Storage Talk and president of Safe Stor Inc., a self-storage operator with six facilities in two states under the brand names A Storage Space and Safe Stor. Brandi grew up in the industry after her father founded the company in 1979. For more information visit www.astoragecentertacoma.com .

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