Innovative Thinking

by Clint Greenleaf, Greenleaf Book Group LLC

Many executives think that innovation is a complex process requiring deep thinking, expensive consultants and detailed approaches. In reality, it’s a lot simpler than that. While it can be complicated, at its core, it’s often as simple as thinking of better ways of doing the same old task. Let’s look at some simple ways that you can innovate in the self-storage industry. Ideas for innovation can come from four major areas—from your customers, your employees, your competition, or from outside your industry altogether.

Your Customers

Your customers are full of ideas. While some may not be feasible or cost effective, the desires of your customers can lead to great innovations for your business. There are a number of different ways to solicit ideas from your customers. For your local customers, you could do a customer appreciation event—keep it simple with burgers and hot dogs, and when they come, ask them how you’re doing and what other services they’d like to see. You can also send out a survey with invoices, via email, or when they come to your location. In some cases, it won’t take much to make them happy. In other cases, their requests might expose a new potential service area to expand your offerings. The trick is to fully listen to their ideas and look for trends. Turn off your defenses and graciously hear them out…there might be a gem of an idea in their requests. Your customers want to see you succeed—and there’s nothing like tapping into their pool of wisdom for help.

Your Employees

Your employees have innovative ideas— and it’s your job to unlock their brilliance. Balancing day-to-day tasks and big picture thinking seems complex, but there are some simple things you can do to help them innovate. When they ask questions or voice dissenting opinions, spend a few minutes to answer their questions or clarify your approach. You’ll either explain something they should know about the business, or you might find that you’re doing something ineffectively that can be improved upon. Listen for “It would be great if…” statements. They may complain about computers or software, or they might wish that your customers could have better access to their business units. Perhaps they’ll expose a latent issue that can be resolved to increase productivity, as long as you’re listening. Pay extra attention to new hires who are learning your systems and procedures. Their fresh eyes can identify clunky, “it’s always been this way” processes and they may be able to bring stronger systems to you from their past experience.

Your Competition

This is probably the easiest way to find innovative ideas: Look at what other facilities and operators are doing. But don’t just look at your competitor one town over—look all over the world to see how self-storage businesses are serving their customers. In researching this article, I found a treasure trove of interesting ideas from other companies that are offering tons of premium services like professional organizer services, online selling services and video monitoring—and charging for them, too. Innovation will not only help you compete for business; it will also help you grow your business by building new lines of income.

Outside Influences

When we first moved to Texas, we bought a home from Streetman Homes. About a week later, I got a really nice personalized letter from Randy Streetman, the CEO, thanking me for our business. It invited us to contact him directly with questions or comments and was personally signed on heavy stock paper. This simple gesture really made us feel connected to Streetman and proud to be a customer, and I realized that I wanted the customers at my company (Greenleaf Book Group) to feel the same way. For the last 10 years, I have been sending out similar letters to our clients when they sign a book deal with us. Most authors comment on how “innovative” we are to make personal contact by the CEO so early in the process. While it does allow me to connect with them in a non-traditional way, it is also just a great way to open the lines of communication. And while it’s quite effective, it’s certainly not my idea – but one that I was happy to make mine when I saw how well it worked. That’s one of the key approaches to innovation: You don’t have to think of everything on your own, but when you see something you like, you can customize it to your own business.

An Exercise in Innovation

A good exercise for you to consider with your business team is, “What could destroy our business tomorrow?” While it’s not exactly pleasant to think about, the question begins a process that exposes the dangers of your current business model. What key offer or development by your competition could render your business useless? Once you know what can destroy you, it’s much easier to protect against it. In the publishing business, we had heard for many years that eBooks were coming, but they kept stalling out for one reason or another. Then Amazon’s Kindle became mainstream and sales skyrocketed. Publishing, a business full of go-betweens, could quickly be streamlined—eliminating the need for many steps. Publishers who ran this exercise in the late ‘90s and in the early 2000s were ready for the change. They innovated their models to sell electronic product and were careful to make sure they bought the electronic rights to books they published. They also met the needs of their authors by giving them value they could not get by self-publishing alone, like editorial or marketing support. In other words, they saw a changing value proposition on the horizon and changed course accordingly versus sitting idly by only to watch their companies go under. Innovation isn’t always this obvious— or this simple. The point here is that even industries like publishing, which eluded change for so long, will eventually face a time when they must evolve. Sometimes innovation is necessary for survival; at other times, that’s not so much the case but it still drives growth. Making innovation a priority for your self-storage business now will help ensure that you are not only prepared for survival mode but are also driving towards a stronger, more valuable business tomorrow.

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