If you’ve ever watched an episode of True Detective , Breaking Bador any other gritty crime drama, a certain image probably comes to mind when you think of storage facilities. Creepy, underlit hallways. Sketchy individuals coming and going at all hours of the night. One of those boards with string and photographs connecting the dots of the government conspiracy. A lone unfriendly employee sleeping in the back office with five cats.
Even if you don’t watch these types of shows, you may have unpleasant personal associations with the words “storage unit.” You or a family member might remember having a change of life experience exacerbated by an insensitive or unhelpful manager while moving into a dingy, poorly maintained unit and facility.
As a business owner in the self-storage industry, I understand that many of our customers are coping with big – often painful – life transitions when they come to us. They’re not always thrilled to be seeking out self-storage, but they need it for an important reason. Other types of real estate that face similar challenges. Senior living facilities and funeral homes, for example, work with people going through some of the most difficult moments in their lives.
But then again, the executive suites of yesteryear had comparable reputation difficulties. Professionals who needed to rent office space didn’t necessarily want the stuffy, outdated environment associated with suites. Yet in recent years, companies have rebranded the product type as “coworking” and transformed the same idea into something modern and innovative.
If you are “selling” real estate that people need but don’t necessarily want, how can you navigate complex emotions and turn around an outdated concept? How do you break the – often accurate – biases of some of the older sites and less conscientious operators that give your product type a bad name? Here are a few strategies we’re using to change negative connotations externally and internally to create a customer-centric business model.
Make Customers Feel Cared For
Self-storage is increasingly common in the U.S. Nearly one in ten households (9.4%) now rents a storage unit, according to research from the Self Storage Association. This is a major opportunity to show a new generation of customers that your product type can be a dream, rather than a nightmare.
We have found that women often make these types of decisions in their families, and it’s essential that all customers feel just as comfortable using our facilities as they would tackling any other household management task.
Safety and cleanliness are important to our customers, and we prioritize those qualities in big and small ways: making sure employees are always present during opening hours, maintaining fresh paint and bright lighting, offering spacious and inviting offices. Find what your customers care about most, and focus on improving those parts of your business.
Train Employees With Empathy
Many self-storage companies are moving toward a fully automated model. Instead of talking to an employee, customers use unmanned kiosks to manage their accounts, make payments and ask for virtual assistance. Our company took a hard look and decided that going completely virtual was not right for us, even though the purely automated route would be cheaper to maintain.
We chose a hybrid model; we have the option and the tech to offer fully autonomous rentals, but we always have staff available at the actual site. Our customer experience is deeply rooted in our employees, and you simply can’t replicate that personal touch with a machine.
We coach our employees to listen to customers, ask questions and figure out their individual needs. Our goal is to try to solve their problems and make their lives easier, not just make a sale. During training, we show videos of employees at other sites talking to customers on the phone. After, we ask trainees questions: What was their tone? Were they listening? How were they building rapport? Did they help the customer find what they need? What can we learn?
Make empathy the cornerstone of your employee development. Encourage your staff to listen to customers, understand what they’re going through and look for ways to help. When our employees make an extra effort to stay late or find a solution to a tough problem, customers remember and appreciate it.
Invest In Your Facilities
There’s a bad attitude among some in real estate that if you have high churn, you don’t have to put any time or resources into taking care of your facilities. The takeaway is: Someone else will always need a storage unit or a parking spot or a cheap apartment, so why bother doing any more than the bare minimum? This leads to poor customer service and deferred maintenance, like leaky roofs, peeling paint and potholed driveways.
We think this mindset is both apathetic and short-sighted. We want satisfied repeat customers who would be spoiled if they went to any other facility. Give extra value to your customers by investing in high-quality branding and creating a premium experience. Turn them into brand advocates who will sing your praises. In these days of social media, word gets out anyway.
It’s also important for our long-term strategy that the communities we are building in see us adding value to their neighborhoods. When we take an eyesore of a site and transform it into an immaculate and well-maintained facility, that helps us pave the way for zoning in other locations and is important for our own employees to take pride in our facilities.
It only takes one poor experience to create a bad name but a whole new generation of better operators to create a good one. We have to put in more work to overcome clichés and counteract bad examples. Center your efforts around your customers and their needs, kick the cats and shady characters out of your leasing office, and you can reshape the way people see your business and your product type as a whole.