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Playing Nice: How to Handle and Even Prevent Conflict With Your Self-Storage Customers

Occasional conflict with customers is an inevitable part of being a self-storage manager. It’s the nature of a business based on lives in transition. A fellow manager shares how to confront common issues, curtail bad behavior and even prevent awkward incidents from occurring.

Anna Ross

March 27, 2021

6 Min Read

Sooner or later, every self-storage manager will face conflict with a customer. Whether it’s a basic complaint or a serious incident, the situation can be unpleasant and challenging to handle. Here are a few comments you may recognize:

  • “Why is my bill so high?”

  • “You’re going to sell my stuff?!”

  • “Hey, honey, can I get a hug?”

  • “I pay rent. I should be able to do what I want in my unit.”

Managing these types of scenarios is a central part of our job. Unfortunately, any of them can quickly escalate and negatively impact the business, which is why it’s important to confront the issue head on and defuse the situation. Failure to do so risks not only our facility reputation, but our safety and sanity!

When we’re holding down the fort, we’re often the only employee on site. If there’s an upset customer, who can we call? A supervisor won’t magically appear when things get heated. Instead, we need to know how to handle situations when they arise. We’re the company representative in good times and bad. Service businesses can be crippled by bad publicity, so we must handle any incidents in a professional manner.

Still, it can be disturbing and stressful to deal with a disagreement, so it’s important to boost our confidence and acumen. Here are some tips that may help.

General Conflict Management

Let’s look at ways to handle any conflict you might face with a self-storage customer. When a tenant calls you or enters your office upset, whatever the reason, the following steps will help you navigate the situation.

Set the stage. Smile, stand up and greet the tenant, just as you would for any new customer. It lets him know he has your undivided attention. It also puts you eye to eye, which is a sign of respect and ensures you aren’t in an inferior position, with the person looking down at you. Subconsciously, remaining seated can create a feeling of weakness. Also, your smile will help soothe any agitation. It’s difficult to be angry with someone who’s smiling at you.

Make eye contact and listen. Be perceptive. Listen to what the customer is saying and not saying. Often, he just wants to be heard—not interrupted, not ignored. Remember, you can’t fix the problem if you don’t know what it is. Miscommunication is the No. 1 reason people wind up angry or upset; so, stop what you’re doing and listen.

Stay calm. Don’t match the customer’s emotions. To resolve the issue, at least one of you needs a clear head. It’s also important to not take things personally. In most cases, the person is angry at the situation, not you directly. Maybe his unit is going to auction because he couldn’t pay his bill, or you raised his rent and he’s already on a tight budget. Perhaps he’s getting divorced and is just upset at everything. If you get distressed, it’ll only escalate the problem.

Consider your options. Try to make the situation better. Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying, “I’m sorry for the misunderstanding.” When it’s a matter of procedure, you might say something like, “I wish I could help, but it’s our policy to X,” or “I apologize, but we’re regulated by our state lien laws to X.”

Often, your ability to defuse the situation relies on the tone you use. If you come across as aggressive or defensive, the customer will react accordingly. If you’re receptive and sincere, he’ll likely respond in kind.

Important note: Occasionally, it can be a good move to acknowledge that mistakes are human. If the problem is your fault, then own it and correct it.

Keep the end game in mind. Make it your personal goal to ensure the customer leaves happy or at least satisfied. There’s no better feeling than turning someone’s bad experience into a good one. I’m not talking about breaking the bank by offering a bunch of freebies. That’s easy. Instead, make the customer feel valued, or at least help him see things from your point of view.

How would you feel if you were in the tenant’s position? If it takes waiving a late fee to resolve the problem, emphasize that it’s a courtesy and not normal procedure. This allows the customer to feel special.

Deflecting Unwanted Attention

On occasion, providing great service can have the unintended effect of encouraging a customer to make unwanted advances—friendly or unfriendly. Generally, a gentle rebuff is enough for the person to take the hint. If the situation makes you uncomfortable, listen to your gut. Since you’re more than likely working alone, it’s very important to learn how to disengage from customers who give you a bad feeling.

If this happens to you, stay calm. Assess your surroundings, including security cameras and other employees or tenants who are on the property. Mention a spouse or partner. If you need to create separation, excuse yourself by going back to work, visiting the restroom, etc. Your personal safety is paramount. Finally, never give out your personal information or phone number!

Enforcing the Rules

Tenants will sometimes break the rules, forcing us to be the one who initiates a confrontation. The important thing is to gather all relevant information first. Never start that conversation without being prepared. For example, if you suspect a customer is sleeping in his unit, do what you can to confirm your qualms by checking camera footage, gate-access records, etc. Be confident in your assessment before approaching the tenant.

Once you’re ready to engage, do it in a non-threatening manner. Address the person courteously, recounting the facts as you know them. In a soothing tone, remind the tenant of the policy he’s violating. Explain why the rule is in place and the consequences of noncompliance. Remember, it isn’t personal. Here’s a sample approach:

“Hello, Mr. Smith. I wanted to talk to you about how you’re using your unit. The purpose of the space is to store belongings only. I do have to inform you that sleeping in the unit is prohibited by state regulations and is a safety hazard. We want to keep you as a customer, but we’ll have to end your lease if our policies aren’t followed.”

Preventing Future Problems

The good news is you can take steps to prevent most cases of conflict from arising. Set ground rules with each tenant during move-in by reviewing important points of the self-storage rental agreement such as the rent due date, late fees and facility-access hours. A shortened reference list can be a helpful tool since the lease is often several pages long and most customers don’t read it. Reinforce that initial conversation with helpful signs posted in your office and around the property.

Though developing rapport with tenants can be an effective way to build a relationship and ensure everyone “plays nice,” don’t overstep important boundaries. You never want a friendly conversation to give the wrong impression.

Though we’ve addressed how to tackle common conflicts, every self-storage customer is unique, and so each encounter may differ. The above are simply basic guidelines to help you be prepared. Remain flexible and present in the moment, and use your best judgment. Be courteous, but stand firm on your facility policies. Learning these foundational steps will help you handle any difficult customer-service issue. Happy renting!

Anna Ross is facility manager for Tower Self Storage in Monroe, La. She began her self-storage management career about 10 years ago in Jacksonville, Fla. She’s managed facilities as small as 258 units and large, multi-story locations with 1,260 units. She recently experienced her first property expansion and is always looking to learn new things. For more information, call 318.388.1111, email [email protected].

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