Sep 24, 2023
I grew up in the hotel industry, the son of two hospitality lifers. My mom, who worked for Hyatt her entire career, made sure we never passed a napkin on the floor of the Hyatt Regency Orlando International Airport without picking it up. My Dad, who spent years working in the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin hotels, made sure I never passed a towel beside the pool without placing it in a bin. I spent high school and college summers sweating through entry level jobs at those hotels. I learned first hand what it feels like to work in a property with first-class management.
I can still close my eyes and envision steel bumpers lining the bright, windowless halls of the hotel interiors. Corridors that connected rooms with washing machines so impossibly large they resembled factories more than the white boxes found in my family home, and kitchens staffed by armies of white-clad cooks, carefully preparing convention meals featuring troughs of potatoes-au-gratin. Behind the scenes, it sometimes felt chaotic, but there was always a logic, a process designed to deliver a fantastic guest experience with as little waste as possible. Every bellman, housekeeper, and front office manager had a role to play and enjoyed being part of the team. The result was impressive: when you stepped “on stage” to connect with guests, the environment was relaxed and every interaction felt effortless.
That experience masks the fact that the industry is operationally intense, to say the least. As it institutionalized through the 70s and 80s, brands like Marriott, Hyatt, and Hilton brought a new level of data-driven professionalism to the white-hot asset class, measuring everything that was happening in the tens of thousands of properties proliferating across the US. Technology evolved to simplify the thousands of activities a hotel needs to carry out daily. An explosion of value was created for real estate owners and operators alike. Something similar is beginning to happen in self-storage today.
Unlike hotels, thankfully, self-storage doesn’t require quite the same orchestra of talent. A lot of the jobs to be done can be carried out by the operations team, whether it’s a site manager or call center agent. In this post, we’ll take a look at what it means to manage a facility exceptionally well.
Responsibilities of facility operations
One of the primary responsibilities of operations is to drive new revenue. A good operations team runs in lockstep with marketing by following up with website leads or actioning local programs like real estate broker partnerships or community events.
Leasing units to renters either on-site or remotely via phone, chat, or video conversations is obviously a huge responsibility for operations staff. Any good sales process starts with deep knowledge of the product being sold. A good manager, on-site or remote, knows their facilities like the back of their hand. This knowledge can of course be gained with experience but given the state of turnover in our industry, experience can’t be the only way facility knowledge is delivered to operations staff. Facility maps, unit mixes, features, active discounts, and rental goals should all be easily accessible to any new manager or agent that finds herself in a sales process.
Equally important, the staff should know as much as possible about the potential renter they’re interacting with, whether that’s available before a customer interaction or learned during the sales process. Does this lead have address data that tells us how far away he or she might be from your facilities? Has this lead provided information on what they intend to store or what size unit they might be interested in? Have they rented from you before? Have they displayed behavior that would cause us not to rent them a unit in our facilities? All of this should be instantly available to operations the moment that lead walks in the door or hears your manager’s voice on the phone. In the hotel business, greeting a guest as Mrs. Smith or Mr. Brown is a subtle way to win good-will.
Equipped with the right product and customer data, capable operations staff can work wonders. But maximizing the sales machine in your facility can’t rely on merely checking these boxes. Regular sales training, even for the uber-experienced, should be table stakes. Involving staff in sharing best practices and listening to call recordings collaboratively can unite your team around improving their sales skills and create a culture of continuous improvement.
Renting units is not the only sales job of operations. Ensuring maximum revenue requires systematic upsell processes for insurance, merchandise, and any other opportunities available in your facilities. Make this part of regular sales training meetings, perhaps involving staff that have shown success in upselling within their facility or region.
Customer service should be imbued in your operations culture. It drives word-of-mouth and online reviews, which are critical to future lead flow. And it starts the moment someone rents a unit. Moving in is the most important time for a storage customer. Develop a step-by-step script for new move-ins and practice it with your operations team regularly. Look out for surprises in the process and document them so you can continuously refine the process to make it as seamless as possible for the renter. Moving out should also be simple and repeatable, practiced and supported by process and talking points that have proven to drive renter satisfaction.
Collections are also a part of customer service - though often uncomfortable for new managers. Collecting late payments, securing auto-pay enrollment, and keeping tenants out of the lien process has a major impact on the bottom line. And these activities don’t have to create friction between the manager and the renter! If your operations team is not equipped with scripts, training, and techniques to make collections matter-of-fact and clear, you’ll likely see the effect in your NOI analysis. In talking to hundreds of operations staff, we frequently see them left to their own devices to ease customer concerns in moments of the collection process. This can be stressful and the natural reaction for most managers or agents without training is to “give away the store” or grant concessions in order to resolve the issue. Clear talking points and drilling stressful situations will make these moments more comfortable and actually head off collections issues before they grow into auctions or less-than-stellar reviews.
When a successful customer interaction has taken place, don’t let it go to waste! Ask for a review or referral. Even the most frustrated customers can be turned into raving fans with a calm, compassionate, and clear staff interaction.
Maintaining a sparkling facility with street appeal, clean common areas, and functional hardware is a third critical component of the operations staff’s jobs to be done. Institutional quality operations require regular walkthroughs that take place as frequently as possible. Operations staff should have access to mobile technology that allows them to expedite the walkthrough process. Staff should be able to note follow-ups such as unexpected move-outs, damaged units, or access control issues. If you shave an hour off the time it takes to do a walkthrough by focusing on the known move-ins, move-outs, overlocks, etc, you can often afford to do the walkthrough more than once a week. This is especially true if leaving a facility on-site office doesn’t mean your facility is missing calls, or if your roving maintenance staff knows most of what they’ll have to do when they arrive at a remotely managed facility.
In most businesses, the jobs described above fall to at least three specialized professionals. An onsite manager with 500 units at their facility is essentially a salesperson that's also responsible for 400+ existing customers and is required to clean the office, bathroom, and fixing a parking lot gate on any given day. A remote agent might be leasing units at numerous facilities they've never even seen. Have some empathy for what's required of operations.
It’s everyone’s job to help here, so don’t pass that newspaper without picking it up. Don’t ignore the renter who might need help. Take the time to practice your sales process step-by-step and iterate on your talking points and gaps in customer & product knowledge. Investing early and often in what might seem like minutiae can have a compounding effect on your business. More converted renters, referrals, reviews, and lower receivables await an operations team that continuously improves. The result is a more valuable business that requires less urgent and costly work and time.