Jim Chiswell

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Over the past few years, there has been a clear and consistent push for self-storage owners and operators to implement the latest technological advances at their facilities and on their websites to create efficiencies. While many of these technologies have been proven to ease operations as well as help attract and retain customers who seek convenience, security, and accessibility, which definitely makes them worth the investment, the need for top-notch property managers has not become an obsolete aspect of the storage business by any means.

As a matter of fact, Jim Chiswell, president of Purcellville, Va.-based Chiswell & Associates, LLC, a self-storage consulting firm started in 1990, is adamant that “nothing replaces the person on the other side of the counter”. Chiswell, who is a firm believer in the selling power of a heartfelt handshake, says, “They can be supported by technology, but there will never be a complete replacement for a smile or helpful encouragement in dealing with a customer.”

Words Of Wisdom
Although technology certainly has the ability to make our lives and businesses run more efficiently, there are plenty of instances that require a human touch, especially during the often turbulent times when people require storage space for their personal belongings. “A manager’s job is not to rent units, but to solve people’s storage problems,” says Chiswell. And, without a doubt, the finesse of a trustworthy self-storage manager can turn a distraught customer into a loyal, long-term tenant who sings your facility’s praise to his/her friends, co-workers, and family members. 

As once said by Walt Disney, “You can design and create and build the most wonderful place in the world, but it takes people to make the dream a reality.” Chiswell, who relates Disney’s quote to self-storage, says the legendary cartoonist’s words ring true for small operators and large operators alike. “It’s the folks behind the counter who ultimately make a facility successful,” he states. “Managers are the face and voice of the facility.”

Chiswell adds that even the most innovative and appealing storage facility can turn out to be a flop if its manager’s customer service is subpar. For that reason, storage owners and operators should put some extra effort into choosing the right managers to oversee their properties. He suggests beginning the hiring process with telephone interviews since self-storage managers spend a significant amount of their time on the phone with both potential and current customers.

“Do telephone interviews first,” says Chiswell. “It doesn’t have to be an hour-long interview. Fifteen minutes will suffice.” A short telephone interview can provide valuable insight about how comfortable and well-mannered a candidate is while speaking on the phone.

On another note, Chiswell cautions owners and operators to be wary of candidates who know nothing about your company or the business during the interview process, which he says shows a lack of interest. According to Chiswell, because information is readily available through the Internet, “they should at least have a basic understanding”. Moreover, owners and operators should stay abreast of what’s happening in the market area as Chiswell warns that the closure of a local business could result in an abundance of applications from either over- or under-qualified individuals seeking temporary employment until they can find a more suitable position elsewhere.  

The Right Skills
When it comes to selecting the right person for the multifaceted job of self-storage manager, Chiswell reminds owners and operators to hire for attitude and train for skill. “Always choose people skills over storage skills,” he says. “They have to be comfortable in their own skin. That’s more important than storage experience.”

Although personality plays a large role in Chiswell’s hiring decisions, he notes that he also seeks someone with the ability to sell. “Everything starts with being sold something,” says Chiswell, “so hire a good salesman and focus on opportunities to make them a better salesman.”

For starters, he states that managers should be encouraged to add some intimacy to their interactions with customers. “Human contact has impact,” Chiswell says. This can be achieved in several very simple ways.

First of all, he suggests that managers welcome people into your business by standing when they enter the office. And managers can take this act of acknowledgement a step farther by coming out from behind the counter. “The counter can be a barrier to building relationships,” says Chiswell. Both of these actions can create a more personal, inviting experience for the customers.

Then there’s the handshake, which can be seen as the metaphorical icing on the cake. Handshakes can be used to greet customers upon arrival or as a means for sealing the deal after a rental agreement has been signed. Either way, Chiswell feels there is “nothing in selling that can have more of a positive impact then a sincere handshake”.    

In addition to these physical elements of selling, managers should be both knowledgeable and articulate. While knowledge comes with training and experience, some managers may need extra support becoming fluent in storage talk. Chiswell, who mentions that public speaking is still the number one fear for the majority of people, has seen positive results for managers who have joined their local branches of Toastmasters International (www.toastmasters.org), a non-profit organization that enables its members to develop their public speaking and leadership skills through practice and feedback.

Pay And Perks
Of course, to keep a good manager you need to provide appropriate pay. Salaries obviously vary by marketplace, but Chiswell notes that self-storage managers are traditionally underpaid by some owners. “Manager pay changes can make a big difference,” he says. “You can land a better caliber person with better experience through a higher payroll.”

Chiswell is not adverse to offering housing as a condition of employment for several reasons. First, an apartment or residence creates a tax advantage in that the company is not paying the tax burden on the equivalent payroll offset by the value of the residence. Housing can also be a motivational tool for managers. “It’s leverage,” he says. “If they screw up they lose their job and their house.”

In addition, on-site managers are frequently viewed as an extra layer of security. “Customers tend to think that on-site managers are watching their stuff all the time,” says Chiswell. “That’s not the case, but it provides them with peace of mind.”

Although money and housing are typically the favored forms of compensation, some managers relish in being able to take over the reins at their properties. “Give managers the authority to trust their guts,” Chiswell says. “They should have permission to ‘fire’ tenants who are problem tenants and to decide not to rent to someone who gives them a bad feeling.”  

Last, but certainly not least, Chiswell advises owners and operators to include their property managers in every aspect of the business. “Get managers involved in the budget preparation,” he says, adding that they should be asking managers for their input about the facility’s operations as well.

Indeed, self-storage managers have the ability to make or break a facility. Therefore, be sure to do what it takes to keep the manager who lifts your business heads and shoulders above the competition.

Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, and Self-Storage Canada.

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