Lots of self-storage managers enjoy working in this industry because their position has autonomy and is almost never boring. Though there’s always lots to do, workdays are often filled with tranquil routine—until a tenant complains and disrupts the serenity.
Whether a renter is upset about a rate increase, an overlock or limited gate hours, there are proven ways to calm the seas. Strategies to prevent, de-escalate and resolve conflict are important tools to have in your arsenal because they help keep your self-storage site running smoothly, preserving your freedom to handle issues on your own without involvement from your superiors. Bringing in your boss or owner to assist is sometimes necessary, but there’s always the chance you’ll be disappointed in how someone else handles an issue.
To begin, it’s helpful to be aware of some triggers that can cause your self-storage tenants to lash out. When certain procedural actions need to be taken, you can mentally prepare yourself for potential fallout. Common causes of customer irritation include:
- Rate increases
- Lack of facility access
- Lien sales
- Removing an amenity
There’ll always be a few customers who are likely to complain about any new policy or change. Being equipped with the tools to combat complaints and diffuse negative situations will help you maintain emotional equilibrium.
Be Armed With Information
Perhaps just thinking about the above situations fills you with dread. This is understandable, as you’re customers’ main interface with the company and responsible for enforcing its policies. Good managers know their tenants and often some details about their circumstances, while great managers know their tenants and understand the needs of the company. This is an important distinction, since your role is multi-dimensional. Providing great service—even in difficult situations—will generate maximum revenue for the business.
When we raise rental rates in my operation, we tailor the notification letter to each self-storage tenant, carefully informing them of the reasons for the increase. These might include the need for capital improvements, an upward shift in market rates or higher operating costs. As the manager, you should be well-informed of these reasons, so you can answer customer concerns and inquiries. It’s imperative that your owner or supervisor give you every relevant morsel of information to help you combat potential issues.
Collaboration between you and ownership prior to the rate increase is also important, so you can flag customers who are likely to respond poorly due to mitigating circumstances. For example, if a tenant has recently been affected by a leak in their unit, a break-in or a loss of employment, a rate increase could set them off, costing the company a loyal customer and potentially inciting a bad online review. You are most familiar with your customer base, so it’s up to you to help foresee a problem before it starts.
Set the Rules of Engagement
A good way to reduce conflict with your self-storage customers is to set the tone and tenor of engagement from the first meeting. This means providing great service while conveying pertinent information, including what’s expected from the tenant. This helps lay the ground rules and a baseline for a symbiotic relationship between the you, the customer and ownership or upper management.
Most self-storage tenants don’t know what’s in a lease agreement or what’s expected of them before storing. It’s your responsibility to inform them and capture proof of having done so. A signed lease that outlines all the site rules and regulations is standard. Consider having a separate document for tenants to sign that highlights the key portions of the lease that are commonly violated. This allows for ample conversation and questions at the time of move-in. It also helps ensure the rules are clear and concise for those who won’t read the meat-and-potato clauses. Further, it gives you leverage if there’s an issue down the line.
If you ever need to discuss an issue with a tenant, set a rule at the outset that you’re willing to have the conversation, but it’ll be cut short if there’s any profanity, yelling, disparaging comments or threats. Most customers appreciate knowing these rules of engagement.
Leave It Outside
None of us is immune to stressful situations, but the directive of the gold standard is to continue to provide great customer service, no matter what ails you personally. This can be difficult when your world feels tumultuous, so getting into the right mindset is imperative. It may feel difficult when you’re experiencing a moment of weakness, but centering your emotions can help tremendously in preventing and managing conflict.
On days when your outside life is in disarray or you’re aware of a customer issue, set your frame of mind to “the show must go on.” Tell yourself that you need a bit of je ne sais quoi, whether that’s lipstick, an upbeat song appropriate for the office or a fragrance that will bring you calm. While you’re on the clock, you’re there for the tenants and the business. You can get back to the regularly scheduled program of the outside world when you leave for the day.
As tough as it can be, the best way to keep a negative situation with a self-storage customers from spiraling out of control is to remain calm. I once witnessed an incident with a tenant who rented office space as well as a storage unit. He regularly violated our policies and had an excuse every time. On this particular occasion, I was there with the new facility manager, who had reached out for help in explaining the lease to this customer.
In most cases, once you explain that they signed the rental agreement and XYZ is the company policy, it resolves the issue. In this instance, the tenant began to yell, using disparaging terms and wishing death upon us! Onlookers emerged from the other office suites and tried unsuccessfully to calm him. My manager and I remained cool, and in a very low tone said, “Sir, if you continue at this rate, with your threats, we will have to evict you, as you’re threatening harm to individuals.” He immediately stopped and apologized, and we continued our discussion.
Though we managed to keep that event under control, the tenant continued to violate his lease and was eventually evicted. Sometimes that’s the inevitable outcome. Even after you educate customers about expectations, you can still be met with conjecture at every turn.
Know When to Tap Out
Though we were able to de-escalate the incident described above, there may be times when things can get out of hand. Even if you remain calm, reason with the customer and demonstrate why someone is in violation of your policies, some self-storage tenants are tenacious because their end game is to force the manager to acquiesce.
In these circumstances, it may be necessary to “tap out” of the situation and escalate it to a superior, such as a district manager, supervisor or owner. If it’s clear you won’t be able to resolve the situation on your own, inform the tenant that you’ll raise the issue to a superior and will require 24 hours to respond. In the event of threats, continuous harassment or other any situation in which you fear for your safety, it may also be prudent to contact law enforcement.
It’s imperative for upper management to respond to escalated incidents quickly and effectively. Though managers should enjoy autonomy in their roles, they should also feel supported in relation to the situation and any recourse taken.
Whatever your personality, you have the ability to handle self-storage customers well. Your superiors just need to give you the space to learn how to dismantle conflict in a way that’s comfortable and works for you.
I know of one excellent manager who’s very personable but so quiet her supervisor questioned whether it was wise to hire her. She now operates two facilities, astutely assesses situations and successfully finds solutions with her tenants. She set the rules with customers and has mastered communicating with them. Though her style may be different from that of other managers, she’s plenty effective in her role.
Though each customer is unique, consistently applying the above practices will help you keep the peace with your self-storage prospects and tenants while maintaining a safe environment for yourself.
Tocarro Williams is director of operations for Donald Jones Consulting & Services LLC, which provides consulting support for self-storage management, acquisition, feasibility and development. She oversees 25 stores in five states. Her responsibilities include facility-manager training support, revenue management, and marketing. She’s led teams of all sizes and has a background in healthcare and human resources. To reach her, call 682.540.3890.