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Man keeping a secret

Using Secret Shopping to Learn About Your Self-Storage Business and Its Competitors

Secret shopping, also known as mystery shopping, is a great way to evaluate your self-storage employees and how well they handle your customers and prospects. It can also help you understand the level of service offered by your competitors.

Living in the Information Age means we have vast amounts of knowledge just a mouse-click away, but some data must still be acquired first-hand. This includes the level of service offered by your own self-storage employees as well as your competitors. The best method for gathering this intelligence is secret shopping. Let’s see how this technique can be applied in both scenarios.

Evaluating Your Own Business

The best way to learn how your managers handle your self-storage tenants and prospects is to conduct an in-house secret shop. This can be performed by an employee who’s unknown to the facility staff or a third-party company that specializes in this type of service.

Outsourcing can be valuable because the provider can usually shop in-person as well as on the phone, often creating audio recordings of each encounter. It should also be able to evaluate previously recorded calls, if your company regularly captures conversations. Some vendors will go so far as to rent a unit at the facility to measure each step of the process.

When reviewing the results of a secret shop with your managers, always use a non-threatening tone. Many managers are unaware of their customer-service skills could use a little improvement. Some may resent having been shopped. The key is to present the findings as a learning opportunity and use them to better the business.

Shopping the Competition

When I hire a manager, one of the first tasks I assign him is to secret shop the competition. To properly evaluate other storage facilities in the area, it’s best create a believable backstory. I usually suggest saying something simple like, “I’m moving to town next month and may need some extra space until I find a house,” or “I’ll be moving back home with the folks until I can save some money.” Both are common situations for our customers.

While shopping, never use common industry terms like “occupancy percentage,” “unit mix,” etc., or you’ll risk blowing your cover. An experienced manager will easily pick up on the language and realize he is being shopped rather than dealing with a legitimate customer.

It’s smart to shop with several unit sizes in mind, but I suggest starting with the spaces that have the lowest occupancy at your own facility. You may discover price differences or other factors that could help explain your levels.

While visiting a competitor’s property, make sure you get a tour. This is an easy, effective way to evaluate the facility’s condition, note amenities offered, and get a sense of how many units are vacant to help estimate occupancy.

Also, don’t be afraid to give out your real name and mobile number. This will help you determine whether the competition follows up leads and the techniques it uses when contacting prospects. Good managers may even pick up some new sales skills from the managers they’re shopping.

It’s not unusual to walk out of a competitor’s office with information that bears no resemblance to what the company presents over the phone or on its website. This data can be good to have when negotiating a lease with a potential new tenant at your own property.

If your manager is unable to visit a competitor’s site, secret shopping by phone can also be effective. Again, plot a storyline in advance, one designed to mine specific information; and use a mobile phone, not your own facility phone, to maintain anonymity.

Other Uses

Secret shopping can also be an effective tool when conducting research for a potential property acquisition. It can be a terrific way to gather intelligence on the facility and its current management.

Employment head hunters might also use secret shopping to identify job candidates. After all, truly skilled managers are the strongest asset a self-storage facility has.

No matter what form your secret shopping takes, use the results to improve your business. The goal is to be the location your competitors observe as a model of success.

Sean Landry is owner and president of Expert Storage Management LLC, which offers third-party management services for self-storage, including staff hiring and training, revenue management, pricing, unit-mix optimization, marketing strategies, and more. He founded the company in 2016 after a successful career as a facility manager and consultant. For more information, call 504.251.1260; e-mail sean@expertstoragemanagement.com; visit www.expertstoragemanagement.com

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