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Choice Between Policy and Compassion

Policy vs. Compassion: The Hard Choices Faced by Self-Storage Managers

Self-storage managers often face tough choices in their dealings with customers between following corporate policy and offering compassion. While you can positively impact people’s lives with empathy, what sometimes seems like the more sympathetic choice could cause more pain down the line, particularly in the case of a deceased tenant and his loved ones. When choosing the right path, it’s best to consider the long-term effects of your actions, not just the immediate emotions involved. 

Two months ago today, my baby brother was killed in a motorcycle accident. He was 37. I wouldn’t normally share something so personal in this blog space, except as it happens, Matt had rented a self-storage unit the month before he died, which left some interesting business to handle in his absence. I now have fresh insight to the rental experience from a user perspective, and I think it highlights a valuable lesson for facility operators about the choices you sometimes have to make between following policies and offering compassion.

Last week, we published a guest blog by Stephanie Tharpe, senior vice president of operations for A+ Storage of Tennessee LLC, about the effect facility managers can have on customers’ lives via empathy. “As managers, we have the unique opportunity to make a difference in someone’s life, which can have a huge positive impact,” Stephanie wrote, and I agree. But what happens when such kindness occurs at the expense of company policy? While you may think you’re doing someone a favor, you could be causing greater pain down the line. Consider this example from my experience.

At the time of his death, my brother was between residences and had put the bulk of his belongings into storage while he searched for a new property. He’d been in his 10-by-20 unit for only three weeks. When mom and I began the excruciating work of sifting through his personal affairs, we came across the rental agreement for his storage space, and she asked me what to do.

Having worked in this business nearly 19 years, I know a good deal about how certain things are supposed to work. But the truth is, I’ve rarely used the product myself; and I’ve certainly never faced a situation like this one. That said, I’ve learned a few things over the years from my friend Jeff Greenberger, who everyone knows to be a legal expert in our field, as well as from articles and presentations by industry attorney Scott Zucker, who has also worked with our brand for many years.

So I understood a couple of important things: First, we needed to notify the storage facility of my brother’s passing as soon as possible and make arrangements to keep the rent paid; and second, no one should be admitted to the unit until official paperwork was presented to the operator proving a person’s status as administrator of his estate. At least, that’s what I believed.

Imagine my surprise when a childhood friend showed up at my mom’s house with a box of photographs he claimed to have extracted from the storage unit. When I asked how he got in, he admitted he’d taken the key to the door lock from my brother’s keychain. But since he had no gate access to the property, he’d simply told the manager what happened and that he needed to get into the space. She felt sorry for him and gave him his own proximity card. No doubt she believed she was doing the right thing at the time, but my family and I were upset to learn he’d managed this so easily.

In a recent article titled “Dealing With Self-Storage Tenant Death, Divorce and Other Disasters,” Scott Zucker writes, “While some state laws dictate that a self-storage operator must immediately overlock the unit of a deceased tenant, other states allow family members who hold a key to the unit and the tenant’s gate-access code to enter and, if warranted, remove the unit contents. However, it’s important to clarify that this is only allowed when there’s no assistance required from the facility manager. If the family member doesn’t have the code and key, the manager can’t facilitate access.”

We were lucky in that the person who entered and removed items from my brother’s unit was a close friend and someone we trusted. But what if it had been otherwise? What if it had been a crazy ex-girlfriend bent on spite, or some less honorable acquaintance? While this manager was attempting to be compassionate and may have believed she was helping, she might have made a very hurtful error, one that was against corporate policy and state law.

To be fair, this type of situation puts an operator in a horrible position. What should you do when a person turns up in the office wracked with grief over a deceased tenant, asking for help? You can offer condolences. A shoulder. A box of tissue. And that’s about it. Yes, if you deny the visitor access to the unit, you may put yourself in the line of emotional fire, which may feel cruel and will certainly be uncomfortable. But do you really want to be the person responsible for the unsanctioned forfeiture of a loved one’s belongings, adding to the pain of a much greater loss?

If you’ve ever lost someone close to you, you know that upon their death, everything they ever touched instantly becomes precious—their toothbrush, that half-eaten bag of potato chips, their beat up old baseball hat, etc. My family and I became fervently protective of my brother’s items in storage because it was all we had left of him in the physical world. The thought that some unauthorized person might violate the space and remove those exquisite memories was agonizing.

When it comes time to make a choice between offering a customer or site visitor compassion or pointing to a corporate policy, you can’t always let your heart decide. Consider the long-term effects of your actions, not just the immediate emotions involved. While you may hurt or upset the person in front of you right now, you might save many other people from pain down the road.

Have you ever been faced with this tough decision? What did you do? Please share your experience and insights using the Comments button below.

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