Look Who’s Talking – M. Anne Ballard, president of training, marketing, and developmental services, Universal Storage Group

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By Erica Shatzer

The year is 2020, and self-storage facilities built during the development cycle before the Great Recession are either two decades old or close to that 20-year milestone. Twenty years really isn’t a long time for an edifice to be standing, but new developments could be dulling their former luster.

Although plenty of people have a fondness for historical buildings and antiques, M. Anne Ballard, president of training, marketing, and developmental services for Atlanta, Ga.-based Universal Storage Group, points out that there is a difference between vintage charm and obsolescence. And an out-of-date look from the early 2000s could be persuading customers to choose the competition over an aging self-storage facility.

Ballard, who was doing site visits in mid-January, recounts that storage owners were rattled about the volume of new facilities coming on line throughout their market areas. While some owners are adamant that their properties have what it takes to attract customers and convert them to tenants, “They’re not seeing what customers see,” she says, adding that many could use a “reality check”.

Fresh Perspectives
To put things in perspective, let’s draw some correlations from the housing market. People who are searching for a new home are oftentimes hypercritical of superficial items, even though those things don’t affect the house’s structural integrity and can be changed with minimal effort or expense. They walk into houses for the first time with “fresh eyes”. Understandably, they may think twice about making an offer if the roof is leaking as it could damage their belongings and require costly repairs. But besides major dealbreakers, they will undoubtedly notice the other details as well, such as lousy landscaping, outdated fixtures, not-so-contemporary wallpapering, drab decor, worn out furniture, and ragged carpeting. Because most people seem to prefer “move-in ready” homes to fixer-uppers, an unkempt and dated home is likely to be a harder sell than a tidy, modern one.

Obviously, buying a home is a more in-depth decision than renting a self-storage unit, but the takeaway from that analogy is simple: First impressions are visual.

Though the facility may be clean and well-maintained through your eyes, it is easy to overlook things you see on a regular basis. Customers, on the other hand, will definitely spot the items in need of improvement. Then they will either expect lower rental rates to match the shabby appearance or store their belongings at a facility that is up to date and compatible with their standards. For that reason, Ballard advises owners and operators to take an objective look at their self-storage properties.

“Get bifocals if you need them,” she says, “but start seeing clearly in 2020.” 

In other words, there’s no time like the present to be honest with yourself about your self-storage facility and what it needs to better compete with the newest properties in the marketplace. However, since it can be difficult to have an unbiased viewpoint, it may be helpful to hire a third-party consultant to supply a sincere synopsis.  

A Clear Vision Whether you hire a professional for insights or take off the blinders and do it yourself, Ballard suggests creating a plan to get your facility up to speed with the newer competition. “Write down goals,” she says. “Then prioritize those goals.” Of course, many of the remodeling goals will require funding, so a cohesive and realistic budget is another necessary piece of the upgrade puzzle. 

One of the first objectives on the list should be sprucing up the building’s exterior. Since the parking lot is the first area customers encounter, Ballard emphasizes that it should always be well maintained. She reminds self-storage owners and operators to ensure property managers are doing the following:

  • Pulling weeds. “There’s no excuse for it,” says Ballard. “You don’t need to buy Roundup. There’s no reason why a manager can’t just pull them.”
  • Picking up trash. This includes making sure the dumpster isn’t overflowing (if there is one on site) and tenants aren’t leaving messes outside their exterior units.
  • Shoveling snow and salting walks. This is a safety requirement that must be done to avoid slip and fall accidents.
  • Tending to the landscaping. Dead plants should be replaced with colorful, native species. The grass and shrubberies should be kept trimmed. And don’t forget to keep the vegetation from taking over the sidewalks.
  • Fixing potholes. While some may be too large for do-it-yourself repairs, fixing small cracks and holes before they become bigger problems is time well spent.
  • Re-painting faded paint. There are several exterior paint jobs to consider, including parking space lines, curbs, doors, the facility itself, and bollards. The big jobs may be best left to the pros, but the smaller ones should be a cinch for managers. 
  • Washing glass. Glass doors and windows should be kept free of fingerprints and streaks.

As for the interior, Ballard tells owners to focus on the office. “Do something that has an impact and show you’re thinking about the customers,” she says. “Let them see that you are making improvements.”

There are numerous items that could be updated without having to completely gut the area. Here are her suggestions:

  • Walls – A fresh coat of paint is sometimes all it takes to brighten up a space.
  • Furniture – A comfy sitting area makes the office more inviting. It also shows you care about your customers’ comfort. The office furniture should be sturdy as well. Ballard recalls one self-storage facility where the manager remodeled the office but was left with a wooden desk chair that was rotting away; its splintering wood stuck out like a sore thumb. 
  • Décor – New décor doesn’t need to be flashy or expensive to transform an area. There are many possibilities. You could even pick a theme or highlight an aspect of the community (i.e., its claim to fame). For example, there are facility offices that double as museums, showcasing sports memorabilia of a hometown celebrity or collections of artifacts from a former company. Whatever you choose, make it interesting and/or aesthetically pleasing.
  • Signage – Besides replacing burned our bulbs from exterior signage, Ballard is adamant that “if it’s worth saying, have a sign made”. She frowns upon paper signs, even the ones placed in plastic sheet protectors, stating that it doesn’t cost much to have an office sign professionally made.
  • Lighting – Last but not least, Ballard suggests replacing the old wall packs that cast a dingy yellow glow with the blue-white LED lights. “They make things look brighter and cleaner,” she says.
  • Technology – Self-storage security systems and management software is continually evolving. Updating your site’s technology can enhance operations, increase security, and attract customers.
  • Beverage station – This addition is always well received, because every tenant enjoys a free cup of coffee or bottle of water. Most of facilities managed by Universal Storage group also offer fresh baked cookies or at least a dish of candy.

Overall, Ballard truly believes that even the oldest properties can be clean and neat. “See it clearly,” she says. “See what it could be. And do a little bit each day to make it happen.”

Indeed, having a vision will enable you to make continuous improvements and become better competition for the new self-storage facilities in your market. Just don’t forget the importance of cleanliness! “It should be immaculately clean,” says Ballard. “Keep it tidy.”

Feedback And Fees
Obviously, facility improvements are one of the times you will have to spend money to make money. But making upgrades should enable you to answer “yes” to the question she poses: “Are you worth more than the competition?”

The improvements she suggests throughout this article would certainly justify rental rate increases. And those upgrades should be mentioned in the rate increase notification letters you send to tenants.

In addition to the rate increase letter, you may want to include a customer survey. Ballard notes that this is a good way to seek their input about the improvements. They may have suggestions that could be easily implemented as well.    

Age Doesn’t Matter
It may seem like the new developments have the upper hand, but Ballard knows that any facility, regardless of its age, can thrive with a good game plan in place. That’s why the facilities Universal Storage Group manages, even the newest ones, have strategies for “continuous improvement” that are reviewed annually.

Remember: Age is only a number. Some of the most successful self-storage facilities are operated by management teams dedicated to persistently putting their best foot forward. 

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

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