I came to the self-storage industry from a military background, followed by some time in the exercise-physiology field. My time as an infantry-squad leader in the U.S. Marine Corps taught me a great deal about leadership, team development and decision-making, whereas my education in the sciences showed me the importance of recognizing and understanding systems and interactions.
Your self-storage operation is a series of systems and interactions that shapes your customers’ experience. Phone calls, site tours, the rental process and general customer service are just a few examples. To take advantage of each short window of opportunity requires a lot of work. It takes efficiency.
The standards you set for your business and your ability to train for and uphold them is what will dictate your facility’s level of proficiency. Self-storage operations vary a great deal, but there are some simple actions that can have a big impact in every case. Let’s discuss how you can evaluate, set and improve your standards to maximize performance.
Apply a Critical Eye
You need to evaluate and possibly change your standards. Why take the time to put your self-storage site or portfolio under the microscope? You’ve heard the phrase “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” but I prefer this quote from Albert Einstein: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” Our business has evolved, so it’s foolish to keep doing the same things and expect the same level of return.
Jim Hines and Usain Bolt, two of the best sprinters in history, broke their own world records. They were constantly analyzing the competition and themselves—what they did well and where they could improve, even if it was just one-hundredth of a second. They used all the information and technology available to self-assess and achieve new levels of efficiency.
If you aren’t actively pursuing the improvement of your site-level operation, you’re at the mercy of your competition, for better or worse. Once you’ve taken the initiative to turn a critical eye on yourself, the next big hurdle is effectively communicating necessary changes to your team.
Ensure Clear Communication
When communicating with your staff, keep it simple, as confusion causes wasted time and effort. Before every combat patrol, I would do a presentation to my squad and any attached personnel called an operations (op) order. It outlined every possible detail of an upcoming assignment:
- Situation: An outline of our area, our “friendlies” and any known enemy forces
- Mission: The objective, or what were we hoping to accomplish
- Execution: Details, timelines and everyone’s individual role in the mission
- Administration and logistics: An outline of any administrative measures and essential gear needed before take-off
- Command and signal: An outline of the patrol leadership and communication method
It isn’t difficult to see where this simple team-communication method eliminated a great deal of misunderstanding. Don’t underestimate the role that clear communication plays as you strive to improve your self-storage team and your organization.
Apply Time-Management Skills
Another tool required in enforcing operational standards is time management. The most common misstep made by many good leaders is leaning on task management. Don’t get me wrong, task management has its place. It’s useful during training or for daily essentials. The problem is it doesn’t give your team the tools to adapt to a changing workflow.
What if a task from your to-do list takes too long and staff is unable to complete everything in the time allotted? Will they come into work the next day in dread? Could they feel like they failed? At any given moment, a storage manager can be pulled in 10 directions. Do you really want to put your team in a position in which they have to choose between sacrificing customer service or sales just to scratch an item off a list?
If you have set clear expectations, you should also be establishing clear priorities. For example, let’s say one of your extra-large, premium storage units becomes vacant and you have a wait list of 10 people ready to move in tomorrow. Your task list clearly states that the office needs to be swept and mopped, followed by doing A, B and C. However, clearly identified priorities would tell staff to clean this high-value unit first so you have it ready to rent. Focusing on time management based on top priorities allows your team to make smart decisions. It fosters an environment of learning and growth vs. a daily pass/fail experience.
Invest in Efficiency, Focus on Proficiency
Every investment in operational efficiency shows respect for your customers’ time. It doesn’t matter if the investment is your money, time or energy; each little improvement is perceived and appreciated by tenants and prospects.
Let’s use a simple merchandise purchase as an example. A customer comes in to buy 10 boxes. He expects instant gratification (common with consumers today); he wants to pay for his items and move on. But let’s say your box inventory isn’t stored in the office but in a storage unit, and it takes you a few moments to fetch his items. If it takes you three minutes to grab those boxes, the customer has already used his smartphone to order his dinner and arrange for it to be delivered to his home. Longer than that? He’s scrolling your online reviews contemplating whether to inform you about how he feels about his wasted time.
The longer it takes for that customer to be gratified, the less likely your business is going to be considered for a follow-up purchase or future rental. This is where you start to recognize the difference between professionalism and proficiency. You intended to keep your office clutter-free, but instead you missed the mark by not considering every second of your customer’s time as valuable.
Here’s another example: a sales call. Have you set an expectation that there should be a vacant-unit roster and other sales materials near every phone used to take customer calls? Have you ever heard or seen an employee struggle to pull up info on the computer while speaking to a prospect? Maybe he even put the customer on hold while he looked for information. It’s uncomfortable and should be embarrassing. Yet, you can set a standard of preparation—an expectation that team members be ready for every customer interaction.
Consistent efficiency will help you grow your business. Think of it as a bank account with rewards for reaching certain deposit thresholds. It takes one level of efficiency to secure a rental but a higher level to elicit a coveted review from that rental and still higher to get a precious referral.
If you continue to show an investment in streamlining your operation, you stand a better chance of getting more from each tenant than the initial rental. If you’ve really dialed in the customer’s experience from day one, people will recommend you to friends and family because they know they’ll be taken care of and the endorsement will be appreciated.
Boot camp was a transformative experience for me, but that approach translates poorly into the self-storage world. Yet, if you take out the high-decibel screaming and physical punishment, there are some great team-building principles to extract. Before we become a well-oiled machine, we must make a concerted effort to properly train every team member. There’s no point in setting expectations if you don’t teach staff to understand them. Below are several principles I use to maximize training time and improve retention:
- Allow an academic period. Give new staff a few days to absorb any new information without any performance pressure.
- Use training materials: Prepare these for your trainees and trainer. This avoids “freestyling,” which has inconsistent effectiveness.
- Adhere to a progressive training schedule: Increase the complexity of the information and tasks and decrease the direct supervision. Focus time on expectations and fundamental skills every day. This creates something referred to as “motor programming” or “muscle memory.”
- Solicit feedback: Always take time after training is complete to get feedback and identify any deficiencies.
Consistent training and efficiency don’t just promote customer retention, they help businesses retain team members. Employees want to feel like they’re part of a professional, proficient organization. The hiring and training processes are your first opportunities to recruit a candidate for the long haul. You want him to feel that joining your team was a good decision. Handing him a high-school-janitor-sized ring of keys and saying “good luck” isn’t the preeminent way to keep good people.
Know Your Weakest Link
Establishing a standard of excellence means setting elevated but uniform policies and procedures across essential functions that define your minimum expectation. Too often we leave terms like “good,” “better” and “best” undefined. Your manager is told to be better, or you classify someone as your “best” employee. However, the administrative nature of site-level self-storage operation makes it easy to implement quality-control standards that improve accuracy and efficiency and decrease liability.
The Marines believe a team is only as strong as its weakest link. We place high standards on ourselves so our weakest link is stronger than the enemy’s strongest. When you don’t set, evaluate and improve your standards, you increasingly rely on individual performance. For example, let’s say you have two employees. One is a superstar and the other a low-performer. When your star is working, the paperwork is flawless; he’s always prepared for phone sales and efficient at site tours. But he can’t be there all the time. That means your low-performer sets the bar of expectation.
You can ask each employee to be perfect, but he’ll always define “acceptable” based on the weakest performance you allow. The bell curve of low, average and high never alters. What you can change is where your average performance falls on that curve. You’re trying to set a standard of excellence. You want to make your average performer stronger than your competition’s superstar.
Douglas Stirling is an area manager for San Diego Self Storage, which operates 18 facilities in California. He came to self-storage after four years and three combat deployments in the United States Marine Corps. He uses his military leadership skills and education to manage more than $100 million in self-storage assets. To contact him, call 800.615.5016; visit www.sandiegoselfstorage.com.