The self-storage tenant is always right—except when he’s wrong, and then he can be loud. Sometimes the more wrong he is, the louder he gets.
With most tenants, a conflict can be quickly and easily resolved. Occasionally, however, a conversation can turn into a customer-service nightmare. One minute, you’re calmly going about your day, then suddenly you’re face to face with an irate customer who’s seemingly ready to jump the counter and do battle. It could be over a late fee, an issue with his unit, a rent increase, another tenant or any number of things. It might even be an operator error that caused the calamity.
Regardless of who’s at fault, how you handle these situations is critical to achieving a quick and easy resolution and maintaining a good reputation for you and your storage business. Here are some do’s and don’ts to follow when you find yourself in a heated or difficult scenario.
First, keep your cool. Take a deep breath. When people’s stuff is involved, it understandably gets personal for them, but there’s no reason for it to be personal for you. Don’t get defensive. It’s a business transaction, so keep it at that. Handle it with the same demeanor as you would any other tenant conversation. Your goal is to resolve this issue to everyone’s satisfaction as quickly and easily as possible. The first step for this is to stay calm.
At your first inkling of a customer-service fire, manage the temperature by controlling your own emotions. When people are mad, they’ll say and do things that are intended to make you feel the same way. Don't fall for it. If they can make you lose your cool, then they’ve won control and you’ve lost it. Remember, you’re a representative of the business and this is a valued client. Everything you say and do must reflect that position. Remaining calm and professional will keep the situation headed toward a successful resolution.
You also need to be aware of your surroundings. Immediately assess your environment and take control. Stand up to speak with the tenant eye to eye. Remove the physical barrier of a counter by walking around it. This shows a willingness on your part to cooperate, which furthers the resolution process. Pay attention to staff or other customers who are nearby and may overhear. Tenant and business information is private, and it’s your job to keep it that way. Determine if you need to redirect the conversation to a more private area.
Once you have privacy, listen to your tenant respectfully. Regardless of any history there may be with this customer or situation, give him your full attention and really listen politely to his side of the story, without judgement, waiting to talk and without acting like you have a million better things to do. Never roll your eyes!
Listening respectfully in no way implies you’re in agreement with the tenant. But listening to the issue from his point of view lets him vent his frustration. Often, just listening without interrupting will present a solution.
When it’s your turn to speak, choose your words carefully. In a dispute, less is always better. The less you say in person and in writing, the less you can be called on to explain later. Avoid inflammatory statements like “Please, calm down,” “Let’s be reasonable” or “It's our policy.” Instead, use phrases such as, “I’m sure we can figure this out” or “I understand why this is upsetting.” Focus on forward-looking words that lead to resolution.
Also watch your tone. It has been well-documented that what you say is way less important than how you say it. We’ve all encountered a sales clerk who’s saying all the right words, but the tone is conveying something different. It’s usually condescending, indifferent and patronizing, all rolled into one, and it can make your blood boil. Don’t be that person.
Watch your body language, too. If it’s projecting a defensive attitude, it doesn't matter what you say, you won't be doing any good. If you recognize your arms are crossed, drop them to your sides. When you take on a more relaxed body posture, it projects a friendlier attitude. If your voice and body language project a genuine “we can fix this” attitude, you’ll get results much quicker.
Do call for backup if needed. Depending on the situation, you may need to escalate this to your supervisor or even call 911. If the tenant makes threatening comments or actions and you feel harm may come to people or property, call the police. They’re trained to handle situations like this. If you just can't get to common ground, it's OK to say, "I'm going to get my supervisor involved. He may be more able to help with this."
Do fix it. Own up to it if it’s your fault. We all make mistakes, and a little humility goes a long way. Regardless of who’s right or wrong, try to resolve the problem as soon as possible. Don't let your ego get in the way. If it's the tenants fault, fix it and move on. Even if you haven’t come to a resolution, always try to end on a positive note whenever possible.
Finally, document the incident. When detailing a tenant account or incident report, take a minute to gather your thoughts before you start to write. If it will help, write a draft and proof it before you commit. Re-read your words from your supervisor’s perspective. Remember that anything you put in writing becomes a permanent part of the tenant’s file. Write your notes clearly and succinctly, and never add personal opinion or derogatory statements.
Now, for the harder part: the don’ts. Sometimes these aren’t as easy to follow. One important don’t is to never get caught up in the back story. Avoid engaging in the drama of the “he said/she said” of the situation. There’s no need to battle point by point. Avoid the temptation to correct the tenant, and ignore what’s not really part of the issue or comments made in the heat of the moment.
Instead, listen with the goal of understanding so you can resolve the problem. Wait until the customer is done speaking, then ask clarifying questions that confirm you were listening and understand the circumstances. Focus only on the things that will help work toward a solution. When the tenant sees you’re genuinely interested in working this out, he’ll have less reason to be combative and more willing to work with you for his own benefit.
Don’t procrastinate. The longer an issue remains unresolved the worse it will get. Try to resolve any problem within 24 hours. Let the tenant know the steps you’ll take and a firm time line of expected resolution. Shake hands on it. If you say you’ll get back to him by tomorrow, do so, even if only to report you haven’t forgotten, are still working on it and calling to provide an update. Don’t make commitments you can’t honor, such as “My supervisor will call you today” if you haven’t spoken with him yet.
Also, don't make the tenant feel like he’s wrong. Sure, he might be wrong, but there’s no need to rub it in. Let him save face. This too shall pass, and you may still have a good long-term customer. This will also make returning to normalcy easier and quicker. We don't know the back story, and there may be other things such as an illness, family or work issues that have piled up on your tenant and contributed to why this issue became so heated. Once your customer calms down, he may share some of this.
There are always going to be times when conflict arises. Following these simple do's and don'ts will help you resolve conflicts quicker so you can get back to calmly going about your day.
Linnea Appleby is the owner of Lime Tree Management, a self-storage management and consulting firm based in Sarasota, Fla. To contact her, call 941.350.7859; e-mail [email protected]; visit www.limetreemanagement.com.