Inside Self-Storage Magazine 05/2001: My Comeuppance

May 1, 2001

6 Min Read
Inside Self-Storage Magazine 05/2001: My Comeuppance

My Comeuppance

By Harley Rolfe

I recently had an encounter with a multisite operator whoindicated he found these columns and my book refreshing and asked for my help.Of course, I was flattered and looked forward to the chance to do some livemarketing work with a sizable multisite operation. I was pumped! This person hada technical background, which gave me reason to assume he would acknowledge theneed for the solid, quantitative base so necessary to good marketing work.

We got to the specifics regarding where to begin. I told him the way to startis to situate the marketing foundation: First, identify and measure the segmentspresently making use of his facility. Next, determine how these tenantcategories use storage by sending questionnaires or doing telephone surveys.That marker would set the start-point for our marketing efforts. I thought heunderstood what was involved and we would be off and running. Was I ever wrong.

No Way, Jose

He was in a hurry, didn't want to spend the time, didn't want to spend themoney, didn't think the tenant survey was necessary, didn't want to disturb histenants, etc. "Just use the segments you listed in your book," hesaid. I said those were just my casual observations of the comings and goings inthe facility with which I am familiar. They're not sufficient to found an actualmarketing program. He may have thought I should already know what all thesegments are. And frankly, he may have thought I didn't know what I was talkingabout. And then there was the matter of my fee: $5,000 for a complete marketplan. That's about a quarter of what a consulting firm would charge, yet fair tome because I already know the business.

What I also know is how vital this basic market information is. Marketersmust get it right. Everything else flows from that. Yet, so far as I know, thiswork has not been done by anyone. So, my never-to-be client has a lot ofcompany.

Did I Muck Up the Deal?

Sure. But even now I don't know how I could have avoided it. The self-storageoperator needs to know exactly which tenant problems storage is solving--andhow. These "problems" will fall into segments. Until you know whatthose are, you're flying blind. Further, operators need to keep those segmentscurrent to track changes and progress toward goals over time. No militarycommander would commit troops to an encounter without good intelligence, yet somany new to the marketing game proceed without any knowledge from which tocompose their battle plan. They just wing it. I can't do that.

A Lesson from Brainstorming

It's time for a diversion, one that will be conducive to our self-storagemarketing evaluations: brainstorming. Some say brainstorming is a bunch ofmumbo-jumbo. But we've all at some point had the flash of a solid bright ideathat just popped out of some recess in our mind. Some call it weird. Some callit intuition. More recently, thoughtful people have begun to wonder if thatresource can be used in a deliberate way to produce valuable, on-demand insightsand solve intractable problems.

On a professional level, there are several strict rules designed to spur thatfree-association or brainstorming process.

  • A group is assembled. The leader is selected from outside the group and sets forth the problem at hand.

  • The group numbers no more than 10 people.

  • All members are peers, with no bosses or subordinates.

  • There is a time limit for the group session--i.e., 90 minutes--that is strictly enforced.

  • The goal is set in terms of the number of ideas that must be produced. The object is quantity, not quality. Tangent ideas are followed wherever they lead.

  • Authorship of any given idea is kept confidential.

  • There are absolutely no critical comments allowed. On this the leader has a zero-tolerance policy. If a group member offers a derisive remark, look, movement, etc., that person is immediately dismissed.

  • The leader writes each idea on large writing tablet, dry-erase board, black board--some medium in plain view of the whole group. He hopes to cover the room with a slew of ideas. Usually, each idea is numbered and the leader uses the number as a measure of progress.

Bureaucratic Nonsense?

Brainstorming, as used by professionals, can generate brilliant,unconventional ideas. This is not happenstance. Something happens whenintellectual people compete for originality in a nonthreatening forum.Brainstorming is a reliable process used to mine creative mental activity thatdoesn't occur by "just thinking about it." These brainstormingsessions are designed to strip people of their inhibitions and put moderatepressure on everybody to do their part by producing ideas. It's OK to makestupid suggestions. It's OK to ramble off on tangents. No boss is around tothreaten with chiding comments or to fix that "glare" on someone.

After the session is complete, managers will apply the critical thinkingneeded to turn all that "creativity" into useful approaches toproblems. Out of 200 thoughts, maybe five to 10 will survive to become usefulparts of an action plan. But those few are often great approaches the normalprocess of logical problem-solving analysis would never have uncovered.

What Did I Learn?

The point is: Brainstorming has a serious side. But the laid-back use of theterm generally keeps it from being acknowledged as a sound way to deal withproblems. Marketing often suffers a similar fate. There isn't much respect amongthe general population--or the self-storage industry, for that matter--for theprocess of marketing. There is little acceptance of the need to break down thetenant base into segments and understand how each uses storage. And spendingtime and effort to do so doesn't seem important when an operator is feeling thehot breath of competition. Invoking an unfamiliar course of action may be thelast thing a beleaguered operator wants to do. Also, when someone is accustomedto spending virtually no effort or money on marketing, any amount seems like alot. Under high-pressure circumstances, the basic instinct is to retrench andconserve resources. So, there are a number of reasons why an operator would behesitant to launch a marketing program.

Still, trying circumstances demand sharp preparation. Generals, coaches,politicians, diplomats and businesses all do it. Whether you call itintelligence, scouting, focus groups, spying or research--people who launchserious programs all do the groundwork. When the stakes are high, mistakes arecostly. It's what you don't know that can blindside any plan.

Harley Rolfe is a semi-retired marketing specialist whose career includesexecutive-level marketing positions with General Electric and AT&T. He alsoowned lodging and office facilities for more than 20 years. Mr. Rolfe holds abachelor's degree in economics from Wabash College and a master's degree inbusiness administration from the University of Indiana. He can be reached at hishome in Nampa, Idaho, at 208.463.9039. Further information can also be found inMr. Rolfe's book, Hard-Nosed Marketing for Self-Storage.

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