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The Beauty of Rule-Bending: Why Customer Service Must Occasionally Surpass Self-Storage Policy

It’s important for self-storage operations to have rules, but sometimes they must be bent (or even broken) to properly serve customers. Facility staff must be empowered to solve problems! Let’s look at why it’s sometimes wise to make exceptions and how it can yield a better result.

Do the employees at your self-storage facility follow rules? I hope not always. At my properties, I try to hire problem-solvers instead of rule-followers. I get that rules are important, but let’s face it: They don’t always work for our customers.

Self-storage businesses have policies and procedures for almost everything—how to answer the phone, greet a client, process a payment, etc. Company manuals can be hundreds of pages long and still only cover 80 percent of what employees encounter. Wouldn’t it be more productive to educate staff on the company philosophy and train them to make smart decisions that align with it?

Change Your Mindset

Pretend you run a large business with thousands of dollars invested in technology. You have a server room that contains its “brains,” so to speak. Your head of IT (information technology) comes running out to grab a maintenance tech. He explains the air-conditioner isn’t functioning, and the room is well over 120 degrees, which means the equipment is endangered. How should the tech respond? Consider these two options:

  • Rule-follower: “I’m occupied right now, but send an IT-23/J89 repair ticket to my supervisor, Bob. When he gets it, he’ll assign it to next available tech to come fix the AC. He should be able to get someone to look at it later today or tomorrow.”
  • Problem-solver: “Ok. I’ll head down, prop the door open and put a fan in the doorway. Then I’ll go get some tools so I can figure out what’s wrong. Can you send a ticket to Bob, so he’ll know what I am working on?”

Emotionally, everyone wants the second response; but not every company culture encourages it. Most of us can envision a time when the problem-solver gets written up for not promptly submitting the IT-23/J89 form in triplicate to his shift supervisor.

My service philosophy is rather simple: The customer isn’t always right, but he’s the most important asset we have. My self-storage employees are coached that it’s their job to determine what will make our clients happy, and then they must decide if it’s feasible. I don’t have rules for things like who can waive late fees or offer rent discounts. With modern software, it’s easy to see who’s doing what. If someone is waiving too many fees, I can work with him to see what else he can do. That’s much better than to have him come to me with every management decision.

Never Offer Bottom-Level Service

Last year, I bought a new self-storage property and the closing came together faster than planned. I called my management-software provider to start the process of adding the new location. I had only 10 days. The rep said she needed my bank info for payment before she could add my request to the work pile. I explained I didn’t have bank accounts opened for this property yet, but I would have them soon. I asked her to put me in the queue, and I would call her in two days with the missing information. Sounds reasonable, right?

The rep said, “No can do. Despite the fact you’ve been our customer for 19 years and have multiple locations with us, we can’t put you in the queue without the autopay info.” I mentioned I could give her account information now only to have to call in two days and change it. I said it was silly to waste both our time that way. She responded with, “What would you do if someone wanted to rent a storage unit and didn’t have the payment?” I said, “If it was a 19-year client with multiple units, I’d rent it to him without hesitation and ask if he needed my help moving in!”

Her strict adherence to the company rules ruined my client experience. I’ve spent the last two months researching management software, and now I’m moving all my business from that company to one that’s more in tune with my needs. Big companies make decisions with the bottom line in mind. All too often, they forget there’s a human element involved. Well, this human doesn’t like paying top price for bottom-level service.

Cater to the Customer

I don’t want my company to be like a big-box store. I want to offer clients the customer service they desire. Some want to make a payment on the website at 1 a.m. Others prefer personal interaction, even if it’s only by phone. I need my staff to be able to respond to whatever the customer wants. Notice I didn’t say they should give customers whatever they want. But our team must be able to gather information, think for themselves and make the best decision for my company.

Here’s an example: I recently got a past-due notice for $20 from a company I use. With some research, I determined I had used my bank’s billpay service to pay it last month. I emailed that info to the company. The rep said she would investigate.

She got back to me a little while later and said she couldn’t find any record of the payment. I copied my bank statement and sent it to her. Still no luck. She said I needed to go to my bank and ask them to track down the payment. I said, “No. I’ve already spent 15 minutes on your $20 problem. I’m not spending any more time on it. If you want, I’ll send you another check for $20, but it’ll be the last money your company will ever get from me.”

She then decided to credit my account. It was a great decision for her company, as I spent about $2,700 with it this month. Instead of strictly following the rules, she solved the problem. Her supervisor may never know how much money she saved the business.

I tell my employees that they’ll sometimes make decisions with which I don’t agree, and that’s OK. Most of the time, it won’t be very important. We need to learn from our choices and work to avoid making the same mistakes. It’s critical that my team make choices that are appropriate to the individual situation instead of just blindly following the rules.

Gary Edmonds has been the owner, manager, janitor and lawnmower at Pike County Storage in Pittsfield, Ill., since 1999. He and his wife, Diane, also own All-Star Mini Storage and Puro Mini Storage in Peoria, Ill., and U-Store-It in Macomb, Ill. With a background in banking, financial services and construction, Gary strives to be surrounded by people who are smarter than he is. He can be reached at gary@getstoragehere.com.

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