If you’re like most self-storage operators, you treat your policies and procedures manual a lot like a gym membership: You have it but don’t really use it. That’s imprudent because the rules outlined in this guide are the cornerstone of your business. They explain what you do and how you do it. They help define your organization and ensure the operation runs smoothly. In fact, no facility should be without this critical document. Let’s explore what should be in it and how to make productive use of it.
Policy vs. Procedure
First, let’s explain the difference between a policy and a procedure. Policies are the larger ideas and rules of your self-storage operation. They detail the “why,” often covering items like new-hire onboarding, paid time off, discipline, sexual harassment and workplace discrimination. Good policies help keep your business out of the courtroom. If you don’t have written documents for any of the above topics, the clock is ticking toward future litigation.
Procedures outline the “how” of a business, explaining the way in which policies are implemented. Think A + B = C. In other words, if you complete certain steps, you’ll achieve a specific outcome. When a new employee is hired, procedures serve as an essential resource for training and performing the job. Examples include guidelines for processing move-ins, move-outs and credits, as well as how to close out the workday.
Whether you’re writing big-picture policies or more specific procedures, keep the importance of consistency in mind. Know your company’s overall goals. Every manual should have an overarching theme dictated by the company’s culture, voice, values and objectives.
What to Include
So, what should you include in your self-storage policies and procedures manual? To get started, it’s helpful to do a brainstorming session with other industry professionals to get all the topics on the table, though that isn’t always practical.
First and foremost, to avoid unpleasant legal issues, you’ll want to address anything controlled by local or federal laws. Following are a few examples:
- Facility access: A detailed explanation of who can access the property or an individual self-storage unit as well as when and how
- Customer status: How to respond in the case of tenant death, divorce, disappearance, bankruptcy and other potential conditions, such as military status
- Rule violations: How to handle any rule-breaking by tenants or other visitors as well as employees
- Auctions: All the steps that must be taken to process a lien on a delinquent unit
- Illegal activity: What to do in the event of a break-in, vandalism, etc.
- Safety: What to do if an employee or tenant is injured, how to prep for a natural disaster, and other safety measures
Make sure any information you provide is checked by a reputable self-storage attorney. If you spend a little time, money and effort on this portion of your guide, it’ll pay dividends for years to come.
Your policies and procedures should also cover topics affected by local or federal labor laws and human resources (HR) regulations. As few self-storage operators know what all of them are, I suggest you find a third party that specializes in HR to help you assemble this portion of your guide. There are lots of companies that offer this service. You can even use a website like Upwork, which has an immense inventory of specialists who are looking for freelance projects.
Though there’s a cost to this, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. A few hundred dollars is a drop in the bucket compared to the potential legal ramifications that could result from a lack of solid, lawful self-storage guidelines. Here are some other HR-related items you might include:
- Employment basics, including what’s expected of staff
- Workplace policies such as clocking in, taking breaks, time for lunch, etc.
- Compensation (salary/wages and overtime)
- Employee benefits, including paid time off
- Discipline, including triggers for write-ups and termination
- Discrimination (sexual, racial, age, religion)
- General codes of conduct, i.e., how to treat co-workers, what to wear on the job, etc.
Finally, your guide should provide instruction on how to complete typical day-to-day tasks. Some key items to include are:
- How to open the facility for business and close it at the end of the workday
- How to process a move-in, move-out, transfer, address change, etc., in the facility-management software
- How to process payments (full and partial) as well as when and how to issue refunds
- How to conduct a facility walk-through and what that should entail
- How to handle various customer-service challenges
- When to offer customer discounts and how to manage those in the software system
- An outline of maintenance and other property tasks that should be handled on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or annual basis
Putting It to Use
Once you’ve created this amazing labor of love, then what? You need to ensure compliance, but a lot of self-storage operators struggle with this part. In time, it’ll get easier. Think of it this way: Let’s say you’re just learning how to swim, and when you get into the water, you’re given a floatation device to help you relax and acclimate. Over time, you need to use it less and less. It’s still there if you need it, but as you become more comfortable, you swim with ease and don’t need much, if any, help.
The key is to ensure your policies and procedures are always ready and available. When someone on your self-storage staff asks an important question, it’s important to be able to direct them to the right place for the answer.
I view a policies and procedures manual as a living, growing resource. It gets stunted when it’s printed and stuck in a three-ring binder shoved in a drawer somewhere. I recommend making your guide digital so it can be easily accessed and updated when necessary. We live in an age when it’s free and easy to make a simple web page to house all this information. When something needs to be changed, it can be done at once in a single location vs. having to fix multiple copies in several places.
At a minimum, all staff needs to sign off on your policies and procedures, stating that they’ve read and understand them. But let’s be honest: Most of us have signed documents without knowing what they actually say. Nonetheless, this is an important step to ensure you’re legally covered as an employer.
I can’t overstate the importance of having an updated, fully accessible policies and procedures manual for your self-storage operation. It’ll allow employees to feel more at ease and confident in their roles. You’ll also have great comfort in knowing you’ve provided the tools your staff need to do their jobs. Creating such a guide can be a tedious process, but it’s well worth it.
Rick Beal is co-founder of Atomic Storage Group, a third-party management and consulting firm for the self-storage industry. His expertise includes business and management consulting, project management, marketing and pricing strategies. To contact him, email [email protected], or stay up-to-date with his publications and speaking engagements on LinkedIn.