By Jennifer LeClaire
Competition is a fact of business life. But what if you could lock out your competition—or at least rise above them?
You can, if you follow the advice of industry gurus who have been watching the industry evolve—and even leading the revolution—for decades.
From foundations that every facility should build upon to over-and-above strategies only the best and brightest employ, locking out your competition means rejecting the status quo, inspiring creativity at your facilities, and, above all else, making your customers feel like the most special people on the planet.
So read on as our self-storage industry experts offer up 10 tips to lock out your competition. But, be warned—you may have to change your mindset if you really want to break from the pack.
1. Focus on your strengths instead of your weaknesses.
Facilities too often spend energy working on their weaknesses at the sake of overlooking their strengths, says Tom Litton, President of Litton Property Management in Lodi, Calif.
“It’s your strengths that bring in business. Ask your managers what your facility’s strengths are. When they tell you, spend your time working on them,” Litton says.
Practically speaking, that means if your facility doesn’t offer the best access, don’t waste time try to figure out how to fix a problem you can’t fix. Instead, find a way to promote your competitive strength. That could be customer service in the local industry, the best prices in town, or some other advantage.
2. empower your manager to provide 120% customer satisfaction.Empowering your manager to provide over-the-top customer satisfaction does not mean to give the store away to your tenant, said RK Kliebenstein, Principal of Coast-To-Coast Storage, a self-storage consultancy in City of Atlantis, Fla.
Rather, it means if a guest complains about lights not coming on and it is a ballast instead of a bulb, you should empower your manager to have it fixed.
By the same token, Kliebenstein says, if a five-year guest is late the first and only time in five years, empower managers to waive a late fee if necessary. Teach and train your team to not make excuses. Acknowledge a defect, thank the guest for pointing it out, and then remedy it.
“If we cannot give 100 percent to our guests, we need a little self-examination as to what it takes to offer the highest level of service, and why we cannot deliver it,” says Kliebenstein, author of the upcoming book How to Make Money in Self-Storage. “The difference between 100 percent and 120 percent is anticipating the needs of your guests and staying a step ahead of them.”
Litton agrees. Getting that 120 percent effort, though, will probably require some specific customer service training, not just sales training or computer software training. “You have to demonstrate to your employees what good customer service looks like,” he says.
3. Pay your managers more.The people behind the counter give your facility personality. Your manager’s sense of professionalism and empathy with tenants can set you apart, according to Jim Chiswell, President of Chiswell & Associates, a self-storage consultancy in Palmyra, Va.
Remember, the manger’s role is not really to rent units. The manager’s job is to sell a storage solution. That’s a different strategy and if you can find a manager to take that approach he or she is worthy of a paycheck that reflects it.
“The customer may need 300 square feet of space, but it doesn’t have to be a 10-by-30. It might be a 10-by-15 outside, a 10-by-10 on the inside with climate control, and a 5-by-5 for books,” Chiswell says. “The manager should find the best solution for the customer’s storage problem.”
4. copy your competitor’s winning strategies.Doing business in any industry demands competitive intelligence. Litton recommends looking to see what your competitors are doing—if it is working well for them, copy it.
“Innovative ideas become ubiquitous, then they become an expectation,” Litton says. “I had the first facility in Nebraska to offer move-in trucks. Now everybody has them because they couldn’t compete with me if they didn’t offer move-in trucks.”
5. Drive by your facility at night.Drive by your competitor’s facilities, too. What you see could be hurting your competitive stance. For example, if you drive by and discover that your sign lights are burnt out, you could be making a poor impression on would-be tenants.
“Many operators spend thousands of dollars arguing for a sign when they build their facility,” Chiswell says. “Yet, what good is that sign at night if the lights or the timer is out? If you want to edge out your competition make sure your facility looks good at night because often there are still thousands of people driving by.”
6. Run as fast as you can and don’t look back.In today’s business climate, if you are not running as fast as you can you are standing still. Clinging to old dogmas from the early days of self-storage will leave you eating dust, Litton says.
“You can’t just sit there and do what you’ve always done. You have to constantly innovate and challenge everything you do. Ask yourself why you do the things you do,” Litton suggests.
Litton recently asked his managers why they don’t let tenants move out with the free move-in truck. Their answer: “You’re the boss and you told us not to.” After some debate, they settled on a new strategy. The facility would charge a modest fee to let customers use the truck for moving out.
That sparked yet another idea. The manager sent a letter to all of the facility’s customers inviting them to use the move-in truck—for free—if they needed to transport more stuff to their unit.
7. Track industry and facility data.
You are probably well aware that there is a wealth of industry data available to you in all segments of the industry. Minico Publishing releases new updates each and every year.
Are you making the most of industry data? If you want to lock out your competition, you’d better, Chiswell says. Look at the industry data and then compare your facility to those numbers.
“If 15 percent of your tenants are paying by credit card on auto-pay right now, then set a goal to double that by the end of the year—then measure your progress,” Chiswell says.
“Look at what ZIP codes your tenants are coming from,” he continues. “Mapping programs can help you figure out where your customers are really coming from, so you can better target your advertising.”
8. Get creative with your customers.What would you tell a tenant if they wanted to install a telephone line in their storage unit? In the old days, you might respond with a flat-out, “No!” But in today’s market, if you want to lock out your competition, you might consider it.
Litton let a janitorial company owner do that in 1993 so he could check his messages while he was out working in the evenings and the tenant is still there today, 15 years later.
“People often tell me, ‘It sounds like you’d just let a customer do anything’,” Litton says. “I say, ‘Yeah, you are right. I would, so long as it makes sense and doesn’t hurt anybody.’ Why not be there for your customers? You can make a customer for life if you are willing to make a few concessions to meet their requests.”
You can also give them what they don’t expect. When a commercial tenant visits your property on a hot summer day, greet them with a cold bottle of water and a smile.
“Make sure people know you care about how they are doing and that the facility is meeting their expectations,” Chiswell says. “Don’t just sit there uninterested when someone drives through the gates. Pay attention and you’ll keep customers.”
9. Embrace technology-now!The self-storage industry has been slow to embrace technology, especially Internet technology. You can lock out your competition by investing in a Web site, or at least taking the time to establish a digital footprint on community Web sites that let you list your business.
“The Internet is imperative,” Litton says. “If you don’t have a Web site presence—and I’m not talking about a cheesy Web site—then you are going to get lost. The Internet is growing exponentially. You need to get a Web site and answer your e-mail!”
10. Change your yellow pages ad every year.Get your whole team involved in evaluating your Yellow Pages ad and how effective it really is in driving business through the doors. It could be that you need to change your value proposition, Chiswell says, or put your new Web address in the ad.
“It’s time to get back to basics, as well as come up with new ideas,” Chiswell says. “Tell your team you want new ideas coming in every week without thought as to the budget it takes to execute them. If they tell you it’s time to repaint the parking lot but that’s not in the budget, you could at least look into sealing the entrance and painting the lines again to make the entry way look sharper and more appealing.”
Jennifer LeClaire is a freelance writer based in Hallandale Beach, Florida, and a regular contributor to the Mini-Storage Messenger and Self-Storage Now! Her clients include The Associated Press, The New York Times, and CBS Television/Winstar Communications.
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