In spring 2019, I made a big change: I decided to handle the landscaping at two of my self-storage facilities on my own. The sites are only an hour from my house, and I figured I had the time and energy to do the work myself rather than continue outsourcing to the company I had used for years.
The landscaper I’d previously hired was a real professional. He mowed every Thursday unless weather forced a schedule change. He ran the weed-eater, blew clean the driveways and even picked up trash. If a tenant veered off the driveway and made ruts in the lawn, he’d fill them in and add grass seed. But I have a mower, and I convinced myself I’d see big savings by doing this job myself.
Things started pretty well. I loaded my mower onto my trailer, with only a little damage. I usually remembered the weed-eater and fuel. I forgot the blower a couple of times, but I told myself the grass clippings didn’t look that bad on the concrete. Besides, I was saving money!
At one point, I had to travel for work. By the time I got out to my self-storage facilities to tend the grounds, 13 days had passed, and they looked like a jungle. It took much longer than usual to clean things up, and I was exhausted; but I kept reminding myself of those big savings.
Things got dicey over the summer. I had to replace the mower deck I destroyed moving it onto and off of the trailer. I slid sideways down a steep hill one day when it was wet and I shouldn’t have been mowing. I lost a gas can when it blew off the trailer. Worse: Despite my efforts, the properties never looked as good as they had before.
When the season ended, I analyzed my decision to stop outsourcing. Not only had the facilities lost some curb appeal, I’d become something of a slave. Financially, I’d only saved about $3.80 every time I mowed. So much for big savings!
Why to Outsource
I grew up a farm kid in the Midwest. There, it was a matter of pride that we could fix anything—wiring, plumbing, engines, you name it. If we couldn’t fix it, we at least messed it up so badly trying that a professional could only shake his head once we called him in. I’ve carried much of that mindset into my self-storage operation, but I’m getting smarter about my work.
I’ve learned the highest and best use of my time isn’t fixing a leaky toilet, it’s analyzing a recently listed property in my market, for example. I can either spend two hours making three trips to the hardware store for plumbing parts, or I can focus on the financials of a potential competitor. Every half hour spent replacing a door latch is 30 minutes I could have spent conducting a rate survey.
As small self-storage operators, even when we know our best role, it can be a challenge to stick to it. So, if you have an inkling to stray from what you should be doing in favor of tackling a maintenance issue that could (or should) be outsourced, here are four reasons to hire a vendor:
- You aren’t the best at everything. (It may hurt to admit that.)
- There are tasks you can do that will net your business more money than performing routine maintenance.
- Hiring an expert will get the project completed faster and better.
- Stress relief! Hiring someone to perform a task means there’s one less thing that you need to work into your list of things to get done.
Finding a Service Provider
Despite my landscaping experiment, I’m not particularly concerned about price when it comes to outsourcing maintenance jobs. What I demand is excellent service. We don’t promise prospective customers we’re the cheapest self-storage facility; we want them to see us as the best. Why should it be any different when we’re the ones paying the bill?
If our office furnace goes out at 4:30 p.m., I don’t want to call a service provider and hear, “I’ll have an estimator contact you in the morning to schedule a time to come out and examine the problem.” Instead, I need to hear, “I’ll stop at my shop at 8 a.m. for parts, then be out to fix your problem.” I’m looking for service, response time and clarity of plan.
I know this is the Digital Age, but when I want to find a professional service provider, I go to the nearest gas station. Seriously. In my experience, if a provider is sophisticated enough to have a website, it probably has multiple trucks and employees. I prefer a single-truck type of operation, one with a guy whose daily ritual includes coffee, doughnuts, snacks and gas. Have you ever gone to a gas station at 8 a.m.? You’ll see a steady stream of service trucks stopping in and fueling up for the day. It’s a smorgasbord of service providers!
If you don’t see anyone who offers the type of service you need, just ask the gas-station attendant. He’ll usually offer a name. Another strategy is to ask one of the providers you do see to recommend someone. If you need an electrician, ask a plumber or roofer. Most will be able to name someone with whom they have a good working relationship. Asking for referrals is a big part of the self-storage business, so why not use it in reverse, as opposed to picking someone who has a pretty website?
Ensuring Good Outcomes
How do I know I’ll hire the right person? I don’t. But, again, we rent storage units all day, and we don’t worry if a new tenant is going to take advantage of us. It’s a risk you run. You aren’t marrying the person; you’re hiring him for a job. If the vendor does poor work, don’t call him again. Just don’t continue to mow the yard for $1 per hour because you’re worried the provider you hire might fail you. That’s a very poor business decision.
When I hire someone to do work for me, I let him know where I got his name, especially if someone referred him. I also let him know I have lots of contacts to whom I could mention him. This is a human-nature strategy. Rarely will a vendor want to reflect poorly on the person who recommended him, particularly if it’s a friend or family member. Plus, if he knows you’re willing to spread the word about good service, he’ll want to ensure you’re happy. Self-storage operators aren’t the only ones who value referrals!
Here’s something else to keep in mind: If the person you hire doesn’t do a good job, it might be your fault. You may not have sufficiently explained what you wanted. If you’re hiring a lawncare provider, explain that you’ll pay $5 more if he mows in a certain direction to keep from discharging grass clippings into your flower bed. Did you ask him to trim a bush, or did you just assume he’d notice the bush needed trimming? If you believe contractors should do the extras for free, consider whether you hand out locks to your tenants for free.
Communicate with your vendor to ensure he knows what you want from his service. If it’s yardwork, walk the property with him. Point out the boundaries. Explain how you want things to look. A contractor should be given as much direction as an employee. Just because someone owns a mower, hammer or pipe wrench doesn’t mean he’s a mind-reader.
Whatever the job, ask the contractor to come see you when he’s done, then inspect the work and praise or correct as warranted. And if you don’t even have time to examine the work, you definitely wouldn’t have had time to do it yourself!
When it comes to outsourcing maintenance, the best question for self-storage owners isn’t, “How much can I do?” Instead, ask yourself, “What should I be doing?” The answer to that question will rarely be related to maintenance!
Gary Edmonds has been the owner, manager, janitor and lawnmower at Pike County Storage in Pittsfield, Ill., since 1999. He and his wife, Diane, also own All-Star Mini Storage and Puro Mini Storage in Peoria, Ill., and U-Store-It in Macomb, Ill. With a background in banking, financial services and construction, Gary strives to be surrounded by people who are smarter than he is. He can be reached at [email protected].