By Rick Beal
Technology in the self-storage industry should be viewed as a strategy, and part of this strategy is shifting the way we think about its use. I’m a huge proponent of the practical application, which often falls on the facility manager’s shoulders. Let’s talk about four ways frontline staff can use tech tools to benefit their facility and aid in the company’s success.
In the iconic song “Ice Ice Baby,” Vanilla Ice sings, “All right, stop! Collaborate and listen.” Not only is this an unforgettable lyric, it’s some pretty sound managerial advice. When the lines of communication are open and flowing in both directions, a real sense of teamwork and trust is built. I’ll be the first to admit that, at times, I’m not on my A-game when it comes to communication. I get busy or caught up in projects. Before I know it, it’s been two or three weeks, and I haven’t completed an employee evaluation that was scheduled for the month, or I’ve put another task on the back burner. Sound familiar?
There are now many technology tools to help us better communicate. One of my favorites is a program called Slack, which has free and paid versions. The program can be installed on each employee’s computer or smartphone. During the work day, you can send messages to specific people or across “channels.” It’s the channels I find extremely helpful. They’re like mini chat rooms that can be categorized by subject. This way you can collaborate on projects easily and efficiently at different times and locations. Anything typed within the channel is saved and can be referenced later. If you have a large company, more people are able to share their ideas and data, collaborate on processes, and build a true team to complete a project.
For a self-storage manager, this would be a great tool to try on a store level. It’s free and helps the flow of workplace communication. As the industry workforce becomes younger, programs like Slack will be more popular. From my experience working with various companies, it’s been a useful staff-communication tool, helping employees with projects, meetings, training, brainstorming and more. By the way, it’s really fun to use!
Five years ago, my company had a policy to call each of its past-due customers on the second and ninth days of delinquency. Completing the daily task list was a journey of monumental proportions, but we did this mainly because the software we were using didn’t allow us to e-mail tenants directly from the program. Fortunately, I figured out a copy-and-paste method that took our task time down tremendously. We’ve since switched to a new management software, so now we simply press a button to send e-mails.
The moral of the story: As a manager, look at the systems you’re using and see how you can make tasks easier by automating them. Don’t let your preconceived notions cloud your judgment about what will or won’t work. Ask other managers what they do. Post a question on the Self-Storage Talk online community. Or you can even e-mail me! I would love to answer your questions about trying new things.
All of your delinquency processes, with some exceptions per customer requests and law, should be automated. If you’re still sending out anything in the mail, other than auction notices, consider automation for that as well.
One thing I like to send to customers is an automated “welcome” e-mail about four days after they rent. Thank them for their business, the trust they’ve placed in you, and let them know you’re passionate about providing an excellent customer experience. Invite them to call or stop into the office if they have any questions or concerns during their stay. This is also a great time to ask them to write an online review, so include the link in your e-mail. After a customer moves out, send a similar message, thanking him for being your tenant. Your operating software should let you do all of this automatically.
When was Jamey’s last employee review? What was discussed in the last coordination meeting with Linda? What can you do to help Steve improve his phone skills? If you oversee other staff members, keeping track of your involvement can be a logistical nightmare. However, it’s critical that you manage this information in the best way possible. You’ll become a more effective leader if you lean on technology to help you stay organized.
Create a staff file on your computer. Inside, create a subfolder for each employee in which you store their annual evaluations. This is also where you can keep track of any projects or tasks they’re assigned.
In Steve’s case, I would write a quick improvement plan for him, including how we’re going to tackle it, who has responsibility for what, dates, etc. I would then save that in Steve’s file. As I work with him on this issue, I’ll be able to keep track and note his progress. Another nice thing about this is when I write Steve’s evaluation, I’ll be able to cite specific examples because I’ve taken the time to save them throughout the year.
The second part of using technology to organize your life is to put everything where it should go. I’m a neat freak when it comes to desktop icons. I have four icons in the bottom right-hand corner of my desktop. When you open my documents folder, you find an organized, simple system; if anyone needs something work-related off my computer, they can easily find it. Make it a goal to purge and organize your computer files regularly. Self-storage is infamous for having down time, so make that one of your quarterly goals.
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard a self-storage operator say, “This is how we’ve always done it,” or “I’ve been doing it this way for 10 years.” It’s like fingernails down a chalkboard! Remember how I said technology is a strategy? Being stagnant and resistant to change isn’t a strategy. Disclaimer: I do agree there are some things that should stay the way they are; however, it’s OK to look at options to confirm things should remain the same.
As a self-storage manager, there may be times when you’re the person who needs to be the innovator of change. It’s alright to look at different vendors and possibilities. There’s no single right way of doing something and, who knows? Maybe you’ll discover a better way. Take the time to see what’s out there in technology and develop a strategy for your company.
Most self-storage businesses operate fairly well. But if you’re like me, “fairly well” isn’t good enough. I’m one of those bizarre people who thinks about storage late into the night. Most of the skills I’ve developed I’ve had to learn from great mentors and books. I encourage managers who have that drive to find good teachers and learn from them. Also, take the time to work on improving your skills and making yourself a better employee and person.
Rick Beal is the district manager and part owner of Cubes Self Storage in Salt Lake City. He discovered his passion for the self-storage industry a number of years ago. Since then, his goal has been to help operators embrace new and innovative ideas. His approach to constant industry changes are based on a practical “rubber hits the road” application. His professional motto is “Storage is a business of inches not miles.” He can be reached at [email protected].