Sooner or later in your career as a self-storage operator, you’re bound to cross paths with a tenant who feels your site rules don’t apply to him. It’s frustrating, I know. But is he a habitual rule-breaker, or are there extenuating circumstances guiding his behavior?
When faced with a situation in which a customer violates a facility policy, consider the facts before you act. These will inform your next steps and prevent you from damaging a beneficial relationship. It might even strengthen your bond with the tenant and earn loyalty.
Why Rules Get Broken
Why do people break rules? There are many reasons. Here are a few of the most common.
- The rule is unclear. Sometimes rules are confusing or too vague. If customers and employees need clarification to understand a policy, it probably needs to be rewritten.
- The rule hasn’t been properly announced. If people don’t know about a rule, they certainly can’t be expected to follow it! For example, if you don’t accept returns on retail merchandise like locks and boxes, make sure that policy is clearly printed on receipts and showroom signage, and tell the customer during checkout. Don’t wait until he tries to return something and say, “Oh, sorry. I can’t do that.”
- The rule is outdated. If the only leg you have to stand on is “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” the rule probably needs review. Every policy is put into place for a reason, but things change. Sometimes the justification for a rule ceases to exist.
- The rule jeopardizes customer relationships. If you hear frequent complaints about a certain policy, you can bet it’s hurting your business. If it feels unfair, tenants may decide to go elsewhere. Put problematic policies on the chopping block. If you can’t get rid of them entirely, make them more flexible and customer-friendly.
- The customer isn’t thinking clearly. Most customers arrive at our properties because they’re experiencing a big life change such as a move, a death in the family, a divorce, unemployment, etc. They’re often under stress, which can affect their perception and judgement.
- The customer is just a bully. Some people have learned they can get their way by being rude and demanding. They were rewarded for bad behavior elsewhere, so they think it’ll work again. In self-storage, a good example of this is a tenant who never leaves the property on time because he was allowed to stay late once.
- The customer is a rebel. Some people just don’t like to follow rules, no matter what. They enjoy flouting policies. Perhaps it gives them a thrill. Who knows?
There are many ways to handle rule-breakers. Consider the following steps when getting to the bottom of an incident and applying corrective measures.
Don’t ignore violations. You don’t have to issue a formal reprimand every time a rule is broken, however, you must do something. Overlooking an offense is equivalent to condoning it. In time, this could render the rule unenforceable. By saying nothing, we accept the behavior and shouldn’t be surprised when the tenant doesn’t understand our sudden need for him to comply.
Get all the facts. As soon as you believe there’s been a violation, try to establish exactly what occurred. Talk to anyone involved, interview employee witnesses, refer to records, and examine any physical evidence.
Your first step should be to give the tenant an opportunity to clarify his actions. Don’t assume he’ll volunteer an explanation; take the initiative. Otherwise he may later say, “Nobody asked me.”
Just as important as getting the facts is recording them. This way, if there are repeat offenses, you’ll have the behavior well-documented. This can help you later determine if tenancy should be terminated.
Choose the most appropriate response. Your actions should depend on the nature and circumstances of the violation as well as the tenant’s history. Somehow, you must draw a fine line between punishment that’s too severe and action that’s too mild to be corrective. Always keep in mind what you hope to achieve—a change in the tenant’s behavior, not revenge or punishment for its own sake. Each case must be judged individually with respect to these questions:
- How serious was the offense?
- Was this the first time or a repeat offense?
- What were the circumstances?
- What has been the tenant’s past conduct, and how long has he been renting with you?
- When was the last time he violated a rule?
- Does the same situation happen with other tenants?
Administer the discipline properly. Telling a tenant he’s being penalized for breaking a rule isn’t pleasant, but it’s critical to remember that the purpose of discipline is corrective, not punitive. Always avoid sarcasm, threats and temper tantrums when laying down the law. Never hand a tenant a penalty without explaining it. Failure to do so may make the tenant feel bitter and angry rather than appropriately chastened.
Bending the Rules
Are there times when it’s OK to bend policies for customers? If you want to keep delivering a great customer experience, you better believe it! One caveat: Never compromise rules that are in place to keep people, information or your property safe, period. Also, be clear and consistent with the rules you can live with flexing. What you do for one customer, you must be prepared to do for the next.
Though it may seem counterintuitive to have rules if you’re just going to bend or flat-out break them, there are times when it’s the right thing to do. In some cases, the problem may lie in the rule itself. What rules have you implemented at your facility that tenants tend to break or have a difficult time following? Scrutiny may be required to understand why a particular policy is ineffective and should perhaps be changed.
Firm But Fair
A facility manager bending the rules on behalf of a tenant is one thing; a tenant who willfully breaks rules (often accompanied by rude behavior) is another. A customer’s satisfaction frequently hinges on his perception of fairness. Even if the outcome is a little different from what he originally expected, a tenant tends to be satisfied if he perceives his experience with you was just and to his advantage.
Managing rule-breakers can be challenging, but taking control of each situation and following these guidelines will make them easier to handle. With practice, navigating these incidents will become much more natural. The goal in each case is to learn from any mistakes, gain confidence and grow from the experience.
As you get more confident in dealing with rule-breakers, you’ll see that even your most challenging tenant can leave your office with a smile. Stay firm but fair, enforce rules when necessary, and show customers you’re open enough to be flexible.
Susan Haviland is the owner of Haviland Storage Services, which specializes in auditing, manager training, market studies and operational reviews. She has more than 32 years of industry experience, from serving as a site manager to acting as vice president of operations at Extra Space Storage Inc. and Price Self Storage. She's a frequent speaker at industry conferences and tradeshows. For more information, call 760.401.0297; visit www.havilandstorageservices.com.