I’m a big fan of human ingenuity, particularly when it comes to solutions that were seemingly born from sheer audacity. The Erie Canal is one such engineering marvel that stands the test of time. Can you imagine considering to build a 363-mile canal with 571 feet of elevation change in the early 19th century? Even if you could accurately predict the economic impact of the final product, it’s difficult to fathom the scope of also constructing 83 locks along the narrow waterway to help usher valuable cargo to the East Coast using a lot of elbow grease and mule power.
As such, the idea of navigating the canal was intriguing from the moment I first experienced going through one of its locks many years ago. This summer, we crossed off that bucket-list item by renting a cruiser for a week and touring several miles of locks along the waterway and Finger Lakes. I’m not a boat guy, so the thought of handling a 40-foot vessel was intimidating, even if we were just going to putt-putt along at 8 mph. Believe me, when 20 tons of inertia are gliding through the wet stuff, you quickly realize just how fast 8 mph can be when coming into dock.
I bring this up because while the trip turned out to be a rousing success and a lot of fun, dealing with our boat-rental provider from 2,700 miles away was a paradox in customer service—so much so that most of our party began to have serious doubts about what we’d encounter once we arrived. Fortunately, it all worked out for the best, but the experience served as a stark reminder that some companies still trip over the most basic fundamentals in providing friendly service and accurate information.
I thought I’d share a few of the failings simply to serve as a reminder to please not let your self-storage operation fall into the same ruts.
Once we’d booked the boat and sent in our deposit, we were all in. Since our party included only one truly experienced boater and none of us had piloted a canal cruiser, we naturally had questions about some trip logistics, the boat itself and figuring out a good itinerary for our time on the water. Though most contact with the provider was done via email, there were a couple of instances in which we called to ask specific questions.
As a consumer, there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re a bother. On the couple of occasions calls were placed, the voices on the other end were deadpanned and disinterested. The amount of information gathered via the phone was mostly minimal and not particularly helpful. The lack of enthusiasm dampened some of our excitement for the trip and lowered our expectations.
Even though the company already had the sale, it was puzzling not to feel appreciated for our business. As all good self-storage managers understand, servicing customers by conveying energy and a smile through a phone line, while going out of your way to be helpful, goes a long way to building trust and setting positive expectations.
Though we acquired some resource materials to help plan our trip, figuring out a reasonable route and potential excursions was a challenge. There’s surprisingly little updated information either in print or online about touring the canal system in a 40-foot houseboat. During our initial planning, a couple of items on the rental company’s website had caught our attention prior to booking the boat, including a complimentary DVD about operating the vessel and materials to help plan a route.
When we called to inquire about receiving these materials, we were told matter-of-factly and unapologetically that the company no longer supplied them. The website also indicated the company supplied bikes and other recreational items to take on one’s journey, but again, when we inquired about their availability, we were told the company had stopped the service because customers had a bad habit of either damaging or not returning the items.
As we all know, a company’s website is typically the first point of contact customers have with a business. Most consumers assume the information presented is current, even if a website is bare bones without all the latest design elements. You don’t have to have a flashy website for it to be serviceable, but accurate information is absolutely essential. Though we didn’t pick our provider based on these particular items, they had factored into our decision-making to some small degree.
This was a healthy reminder to periodically go through your business website to ensure what’s being conveyed to potential customers is still accurate. It’s easy to get caught up in the bustle of day-to-day operations and adding new items to a site, while forgetting about old static pages and items that no longer apply. Even just an annual or semi-annual site check can help keep your web content up to date and help manage customer expectations.
By the time we were ready to take possession of the boat, we had begun to doubt our choice. We remained optimistic, but guardedly so. The morning we arrived at the dock for our orientation, there were two company trucks in the parking lot waiting for us, which was a reassuring sign. As we gathered our luggage and looked around like lost tourists, it must have been pretty obvious who we were, but no one got out of the trucks to greet us or inquire if they could help.
Even once we established that we were the boat renters, by approaching the vehicles, the same standoffish demeanor that had been present on the phone was now evident in person. There was no hearty welcome or enthusiastic inquiry asking how our flights had been. I started to doubt whether they’d actually rent us the boats—that maybe we were the problem. I remember thinking, “None of these people could be a self-storage manager!” All of the initial impressions were poor.
Slow to Warm
All of this was a shame because, in reality, the on-the-ground customer care turned out to be quite good. The man in charge of taking care of the boat fleet and who gave us our orientation was a genuinely nice man. He drove us to two grocery stores to get our provisions for the week and even took our empty luggage home with him so it wouldn’t take up unnecessary space onboard. He was just reserved and took a while to warm up. Perhaps there’s a natural guardedness that occurs when you let a bunch of Griswolds take a 20-ton ramrod out for a week.
By the time our trip concluded, our relationship with him was excellent. Our impressions of the company—though not a complete reversal—had reverted back to favorable. I’d even recommend them (with caveats).
These three key areas of customer service—phone skills, website and in-person greeting—are staples of good self-storage operations. Rentals are won and lost based on initial interactions on the phone and with a website, and expectations are either confirmed or derailed by that first in-person greeting. Our boat-rental company was fortunate that we were committed from the time we booked the boat. One can’t help but wonder, though, if poor initial impressions has cost them other business.
We often recommend self-storage operators look outside the industry to find inspiration in improving their businesses. I suppose it can also be helpful to find the opposite to confirm that what you’re doing is on point or serve as a reminder to keep improving your service level and value propositions. If you don’t, your competition will gladly step in to steal the business.