This week brought some sobering news in relation to pandemic-related deaths. Not only did the U.S. death toll surpass 750,000 lives lost, a study published by “The BMG” (formerly “The British Medical Journal”), revealed U.S. men have lost 2.3 years from their life expectancy, while women have lost 1.6 years. Worse, researchers indicate the drop in life expectancy in the United States was driven largely by the loss of those younger than 65. To put it in context, U.S. life expectancies have fallen at a faster pace than any time since World War II, according to NBC News.
The numbers are a grim reminder that of all the life events that drive self-storage rentals and impact facility operation, death is all too common—never more so than in the last couple of years. We probably don’t talk about it enough as an industry. It’s a weighted and unpleasant subject. But these situations also create opportunities for operators to demonstrate compassion and comfort toward tenants and their families under the most difficult circumstances.
A customer-related death usually impacts self-storage in one of two ways—a unit rental by someone who needs to store belongings connected to someone who’s deceased or an active tenant dies. With death a common occurrence for so many American families the last 20 months, facility managers likely have had to brace themselves to handle grieving customers or process a deceased tenant’s account with more frequency.
You never know what a customer may be going through when they inquire about a unit rental. The five Ds of self-storage demand—death, decluttering, disaster, dislocation and divorce—all carry differing degrees of stress and trauma. The most delicate for managers to handle is usually a death, but those same managers probably also don’t get enough credit for assisting someone through a difficult period.
This is partly why a consultative sales approach can be invaluable. Managers don’t need to pry much to get the gist for why someone is renting a unit. Some customers will be guarded, while others will feel the need to open up and share. In either case, attentive listening and an empathetic tone will help lead the customer to the right unit for their needs. For someone who’s grieving, a compassionate encounter with a service provider can be a positive, memorable experience that resonates long after the heartache begins to heal.
Of course, the death of an active tenant is more complicated than simply assisting someone store items that belonged to a loved one. There are legal issues that must be handled properly including what to do with unit contents, who can legally access the space and a potential lien sale. Numerous variables can come into play, from the customer’s will to family members demanding recovery of items. It’s critical for managers to have formal policies and procedures to follow that comply with state regulations. This can also include a clause in your rental agreement that stipulates to whom the operator can turn over the property. Operators are wise to consult a self-storage attorney to ensure they’re properly prepared and protected to handle such incidents.
Even processing a deceased tenant’s unit and property with respect, thoughtfulness and care can help grieving loved ones through a stressful and unpleasant task. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are dozens of instances every day in which self-storage managers ease someone’s burden. These may be quiet and dignified moments that don’t always get fully acknowledged, but you should be proud of the compassionate role you play in helping customers cope with heartbreak. Never underestimate the power of purposeful gestures to help lift someone’s spirit.