Every good self-storage operator aims to make a personal connection with their tenants on some level. In fact, this practice is a cornerstone to great service. The key is to build empathy and trust; however, catering to renters from a range of generations takes skill. Here’s how to establish rapport with your customers, regardless of your age and theirs.

Stuart Wade

March 2, 2024

6 Min Read

Self-storage has been the darling of commercial real estate for several years, and facility operators have done well during good economic times and bad. But with this industry excellence comes more consolidation, competitors, investors and pressure to perform. To succeed in this new environment, you must be able to demonstrate the value of your product—and yourself as its representative.

If that isn’t difficult enough, the clientele has evolved. Our customers are becoming much younger and more diverse, and yet there’s still a large demographic of older renters. For this reason, it’s essential to be competent at interacting with people of all ages.

Our intensely competitive landscape creates a tight window for success. To take advantage of every sales opportunity, self-storage operators must bring their most emotionally flexible selves to work daily. Every customer is critical to success, so you must find a way to build a bridge of empathy to each of them. That means thinking through their unique experiences to find personal connections, no matter their age. Following is framework for generating dialogue and building rapport.

How to Do It

In reality, high demand has largely protected the self-storage industry from the consequences of poor customer service. It has afforded operators the flexibility to focus on property maintenance and collections efforts, for example. Yet offering the ultimate user experience should remain a priority. What does it take?

First, you need to find the right mindset to be empathetic with your customers, which can be challenging. It takes a lot of practice and good emotional regulation. You may need to try tools such as meditation, breathing exercises and journaling to help prepare yourself for service.

You also need a gift for conversation. Some customers want quick, to-the-point transactions; but others crave a more meaningful interaction. If you can connect with them, they’ll be more likely to ask essential questions or offer critical information that can be key to whether they have a positive or negative experience with your brand. They’ll also be more receptive to receiving advice on how to protect their goods in storage with merchandise or insurance, which can amplify the sale.

How much time should you spend making these vital connections? It can vary, but minimum effort should include one to two direct questions and 30 seconds of dialogue. Sometimes, that’s all it takes to build rapport and trust. Many customers will easily explain why they’re using storage and where we fit into their bigger plan. This is great! We want to tailor our sales presentation based on the information they volunteer. If they don’t offer any details of their situation, however, you need to make conversation.

Let’s look more closely at how to do that, based on a person’s general age. (Note: Sources differ on the years included within each generation. I’ve identified my definitions below.)

Baby Boomers (1946-1964)

Baby Boomers tend to be old-fashioned. The most practical detail to remember with this generation is they’re less accustomed to technology than others. Look for opportunities to commiserate with them about the ways technology can be hazardous, counterintuitive or wasteful. Aim to use this connection point but refrain from discrediting any tools or products your company uses to rent units or secure the property.

Similarly, you may be able to connect with these customers using topics such as the latest significant data breach in the news, why there are seemingly endless app downloads, the value of personal contact or the abundance of unwanted sales communication these days. If this doesn’t work, ask where they’re from or where they’re headed. People of this generation have often traveled to many cities, countries and climates and have a lot to say on the subject of geography. They’ll also appreciate you looking to learn from their perspective, especially if you’re younger than they are.

Generation X (1965-1979)

Similar to the Baby Boomers, Gen Xers have had long careers or worked for several companies. Their children are grown adults or are about to be. Ask about their kids, and you may open fresh topics. They may discuss their daughter who was just accepted to a premier college or a son who’s started his own business. They may have a recent story about their grandchildren they’d love to share.

Another option is to ask if their need for storage is the result of a career move. If a customer travels a lot for work, talk to them about regularly checking their storage space and the hazards of dust accumulation or box deterioration. Connecting on a personal level will open opportunities to provide sound advice and build rapport.

Millennials (1980-1994)

Millennials have a unique set of characteristics. To start, this generation is pretty tech-savvy, having grown up during the rise of the internet and digital technologies. When engaging with them, leverage their familiarity with technology and highlight how your self-storage company uses it to improve the customer experience. This group values experiences, so you can also connect with them over their latest adventure or favorite escape room in town.

Generation Z (1995-2012)

Gen Z is digital native, having grown up in a world dominated by smartphones and social media. You may find success in discussing your self-storage facility’s smart security features or contactless rental processes. Sustainability and environmental consciousness are other hot topics, making eco-friendly storage solutions and practices potential connecting points.

Be more sensitive to the body language and tone of Millennials and Gen Z. Understanding how they feel is the best way to connect with them. If a customer appears distressed, let them know their emotions are recognized and understood. If you want to connect, be supportive.

The Path to Success

The self-storage industry's enduring success has ushered in heightened competition and a diverse clientele, requiring facility operators to demonstrate adaptability and nuanced customer engagement. As the landscape evolves, you must embrace emotional flexibility and build empathy bridges with prospects and tenants to provide personalized interactions.

Recognizing the needs of various generations of renters is essential to creating meaningful customer connections in self-storage. By navigating these dynamics and fostering relationships, you’ll position yourself at the forefront of a dynamic industry.

Stuart Wade is the western regional manager for Spartan Investment Group LLC, a privately held real estate investment firm that specializes in self-storage and operates the FreeUp Storage brand. He oversees facilities in Arkansa, Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Washington, focusing on operational excellence that provides value for the company’s customers and investors. He joined the self-storage industry in 2015 after serving five years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army. Before joining Spartan, he managed facilities for Public Storage and The William Warren Group for more than eight years. To reach him, call 866.375.4438 or email [email protected].

About the Author(s)

Stuart Wade

Stuart Wade is the western regional manager for Spartan Investment Group LLC, a privately held real estate investment firm that specializes in self-storage and operates the FreeUp Storage brand. He oversees facilities in Arkansa, Colorado, Oregon, Texas and Washington, focusing on operational excellence that provides value for the company’s customers and investors. He joined the self-storage industry in 2015 after serving five years as an artillery officer in the U.S. Army. Before joining Spartan, he managed facilities for Public Storage and The William Warren Group for more than eight years. To reach him, call 866.375.4438 or email [email protected].

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