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Coach or Player?

July 1, 2000

6 Min Read
Coach or Player?

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Coach or Player?

By Harley Rolfe

The dilemma is that a commodity business like self-storage doesn't breed"hard-nosed" marketers. Yet the day may arrive when marketing is a necessarydiscipline in the successful operation of a storage facility. Without the pressure ofperforming under fire and the promise of a career payoff for the victors, few peoplebrought up in the self-storage industry have marketing credentials, and people who doknow something about marketing are not likely to be well-grounded in the industry. Bothare blind to each other's specialties. So how do we engineer an amalgam between the two?

The real question is whether the self-storage operator will go to the marketinginformation source or the source will go to the operator. Since the need is generatedwithin the operator, I believe he must search out the marketing source.

A Change in Scale or a Change in Kind?

In the same way that our government sponsors a War College to teach the practice ofarmed conflict, there is also a study of how to prosecute one's business in the face ofcompetitive conflicts. But a number of storage operators don't buy the idea that there'svery much to marketing. They risk trying to conduct their business in a new competitiveenvironment as if nothing significant has changed. Yet, we know that when all theoperators in a commodity market are so oriented, nasty price wars result. We talked aboutthose dynamics a couple of columns ago.

For most people, self-storage has been a pretty benign business, and the addition ofcompetition doesn't seem like it will change things all that much. What goes unrecognizedis that when a competitive squeeze arrives, the character of the market (behavior ofsellers and buyers) changes. So how can a self-storage operator determine what the realmarketing McCoy is? Let's discuss the three sources of marketing information:

1. Academia: The business schools conduct a dual program. There is theteaching role, ministering to the needs of business students in learning the marketingprocess as one of the major functions--and costs--of business. The other is the broadersearch for methods that generally make the marketing process more efficient. For instance,50 percent of the price of a product at retail goes towards marketing. (That's somewhatmisleading because marketing includes distribution and transportation costs, plus thepromotion expenses you would normally expect.) It relates to all those things that arepost-manufacturing.

The current marketing darling--the Internet--makes those academic guys drool as theytry to divine what role it can play in improving efficiency. These institutions are ofteninstrumental in proposing suitable legislation to improve the operation of markets. Othermovements that get their attention are the move toward "big box" retailing (HomeDepot), supermarket evolution (Super Wal-Mart), mall retailing, etc., and the issuesinvolved in maintaining and improving market efficiency--a major component of which is theencouragement and preservation of competition.

2. Professional or career marketing: This is the job of the marketingpractitioner. He usually has formal training (see above) in the marketing process withspecific courses in the mechanics of marketing (product planning, market strategies,market/sales research, new-product introduction, assessment of markets, (such ascompetitive conditions, demographics etc.), media selection, sales channel determinationand the like.] These people have a solid exposure to the academic side, but also develop agood dose of the practical or grimy side of active market experience. The job of theprofessional marketer is to sell stuff for his employer--usually in competitivecircumstances. I count myself in this category.

Let's stop a minute. Notice that the objectives of the academic folks and practitionersare contrary. While the first group is looking out for what is best for society or thepublic, the next group's mission may be at odds with the general good. What is good forany group may not always be good for each individual. Professional marketers are mainlypreoccupied with the welfare of an individual supplier. The academic side lovescompetition as a means to foster the best interests of society. The practicing marketeronly has eyes for his employer or client. He helps them thrive in whatever marketsituation they find themselves to defy the ravages of wide-open competition.

3. Anecdotal: Also less respectfully called "gadget" or"whiz-bang," this is marketing information that is mainly bright ideas."Joe tried this. It worked for him. It will work for you, too." It tends to besomewhat sensational rather than a studied evaluation of what and how to apply a properset of business techniques, but it is often quite interesting. At the moment, the onlyself-storage-specific material in this category is a book by Fred Gleek, entitled Secretsof Self-Storage Marketing Success--Revealed! In addition to the book, Mr. Gleekpublishes a regular self-storage marketing newsletter and has conducted a number ofseminars. He is the only person providing this type material for the self-storage owner.

Family Jewels

Now the question becomes, "Which do I need and why?" Here my bias shows. It'sa matter of how you define your ownership/manager role. I suggest that the most intimate,proprietary aspect of your (or any) business is how you succeed in a competitive market.Nothing can be as vital as how you are besting your rivals. The "how" of successin a competitive market is the "family jewels." To be dependent on others forthose basics is perilous.

Me? Puzzled?

I wrote my book and do these columns to try to fill in the blanks. Frankly, most peoplethat have reviewed the book say it is too much to ask an operator to absorb. I'm puzzled.How people with thousands or millions of dollars at stake can seriously say that thematerial is "too much" when their choice is to be subjected to tough pricecompetition and, perhaps, lowered facility valuation, baffles me.

By knowing the principles underlying effective marketing, you can identify thepredictors of market success and compose or choose approaches that have an excellentchance of fruition. For consistent marketing success, you need to know why programs work.What are the driving principles that make them go. Knowing those principles allows you tomake discerning choices from among often-quixotic options and recommendations.

Who's the Coach?

The analogy I often use cites the role of a coach vs. the players on his team. Thecoach knows the rules, can analyze the opposition, knows the other coaches' tendencies,knows the strengths and weakness of the various players on both sides, and has knowledgeand an approach to the game he has honed over the years. He can develop a game plan andshow his team how to get the job done. His players do none of those things. They study thegame plan as designed by the coach, practice the drills necessary to fully use the plan,then, on game day, execute. If things don't go right, they don't adjust the plan, thecoach does. So the question for you is: Are you the coach or a player? If the latter, thenwho's the coach?

Missed some previous issues? Check the web at www.hardnosed.com.

Harley Rolfe is a semi-retired marketing specialist whose career includesexecutive-level marketing positions with General Electric and AT&T. He also ownedlodging and office facilities for more than 20 years. Mr. Rolfe holds a bachelor's degreein economics from Wabash College and a master's degree in business administration from theUniversity of Indiana. He can be reached at his home in Nampa, Idaho, at (208) 463-9039.Further information can also be found in Mr. Harley's book, Hard-Nosed Marketing forSelf-Storage.

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