Storage Essentials Manual
Back to Basics—Industry Fundamentals
by Jennifer Jones, Managing Editor of Self-Storage News
Owning and operating a facility is an enormous responsibility. Some of our members have one facility with a few units while others own multiple facilities in many states. While the needs differ from facility to facility, there are core business practices that make sense for all.
Getting back to the basics of what makes the self- storage industry great is a good way to ensure the core focus of the business is still being realized.
For this series, we spoke with several members in third-party management positions who have a wide variety of experience. Together, they have 88 years of experience in the industry, have managed more than 550 facilities and worked with around 400 owners. All of those owners had different measures of success and goals for their facilities, with some in lease-up and others well established. Within the Storage Essentials Manual, you'll find numerous ideas and best practices that can be used whether you have one small facility or multiple large ones.
There are so many things to consider when running your facility. If you’re in a major urban area like Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio or Houston, you’re probably seeing a lot of competition. What used to work may not anymore. Many of you are facing competition from the REITs, which report they are increasing their marketing budgets around an average of 25 percent.
So how can you set your facility apart? Do you spend money to make money? Do you increase your marketing budget, or make capital improvements? Knowing the right way to move forward and where to invest your time, money and energy is key to competing in an overbuilt market.
“On one hand, this business is incredibly straightforward: rent units, make money (lots of it at that),” laughs Sarah Cole with Oakcrest Management. “On the other hand, if you invest the time, training and money to ensure that you and your staff are properly trained and have the needed tools to be successful, the investment pays for itself many times over and allows you to sleep better at night.”
“We recommend setting a clearly defined standard or procedure for maintenance, operations, leases, etc.,” says Katie Cowen with Move It Storage. “If you have a clearly-defined process to guide your staff, you’ve set a standard that they know they have to adhere to. “You need to stay on top of things much more than you did in the past because it’s much easier for tenants to find storage now than it ever has been before. I saw a statistic this week that there are more storage facilities in the U.S. than there are Starbucks and McDonald’s combined. I have no idea if that’s actually accurate, since you can’t trust Internet memes for news, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is.
“Competition is fierce now, and you can’t get by with ‘good enough’ anymore. You have to be great to succeed in the overbuilt market that we’re currently in, and this can mean needing to make significant physical improvements to your location if you want to keep up.
“Another factor now is the cost of hiring good help is getting steeper every day. The strong economy is creating a scarcity of entry-level workers and the days of a $9- or $10- per-hour property manager seem to be well behind us. We’re seeing major metro area salaries in the $13-16 hourly wage level lately, with or without an apartment onsite to offer.”
“Agility is key,” says Monty Rainey of RPM Storage Management. “People tend to think of self storage as a static industry, but you really need to be ready to change tactics at a moment’s notice. What worked a month ago may not work today and what works at one facility may not work in a different demographic.”
Some additional tips:
Keep a rolling inventory of clean units, preferably two of each size, so you have ready-to-show units of every size in which you have a vacancy. Highlight the units on your vacancy report so all employees can easily reference available units.
The most important maintenance tip is setting a schedule and adhering to it.
• Clean air filters on HVAC units every 30 to 60 days, depending on time of year.
• Set your HVAC thermostats to cool to 80 degrees and heat to 50 degrees. The objective is to keep the temperature in the range to protect stored contents, but not the same range you would keep an apartment or office. This saves energy and money.
• Keep the unit door tracks (and any exposed springs) lubricated to make the doors easy to open and prevent broken springs.
• Change the rubber gasket at the bottom of the door when it gets brittle to allow it to seal out dust.
• Keep the hall floors dry mopped weekly and wet-polished as needed to keep the halls bright and shiny.
• Perform daily walk-arounds/lock checks for security and to be visible to customers. A "nice but nosy" manager can help prevent problems before they happen and should always work to establish good rapport with customers.
• Keep up your property’s curb appeal. If kept clean and well-manicured with professional, friendly signage, it can help generate leases from drive-by traffic.
• Consider using a support ticket system if you have several facilities or a large facility. This allows your maintenance professional to know what tools might be needed before heading to the store. It also allows tracking of high-priority items.
• Keep the office area and the approach to the office looking fresh and clean. Often, owners who have had a facility for years let it look less than its best. Look at your facility with a fresh set of eyes.
• Keep signage as friendly as possible. Don't go overboard on rules signs.
• Treat others the way you want to be treated.
• Respect everyone; it goes a long way.
• Use scripts to develop managers’ communications skills.
• Prepare a general escalation or upset customer document for dealing with difficult customers later in the customer life cycle.
• Role-play difficult situations with managers to teach them the best responses, practices and reactions.
• Use a standard lease, standard addendums, and a scripted lease explanation. It is helpful in getting customers to understand and adhere to their lease agreements.
• Perform regular lease audits to ensure that you have 100-percent lease compliance at your facility.
• Have a clearly-defined operations manual—it is essential. If you don’t have one, TSSA has a very good basic operations manual that can be purchased. With minimal effort, you can make additions/revisions to make it your own.
• Perform a very comprehensive audit every month that includes property inspection, inventory, lease reviews, auction file reviews and a review of the financials.
• Have managers shop competitors by actually driving by the facilities to see what is new/different.
• Have a third party conduct telephone and in-person shopping to see how your facility is being represented.
• Focus on rental rates just as much as occupancy—both are important.
• Take time to have meaningful, unrushed conversations with your managers to let them know how much they are appreciated. A good manager makes a huge difference.
Marketing is really about staying on top of things and finding what works for your property.
“Marketing self storage is inherently different than most businesses,” says Rainey. “You’re not going to have much luck convincing someone who doesn’t need one to rent a storage unit. The key to marketing a facility is to put your name in front of that potential customer so that in six months, when the decision is made to clean out the garage, your storage business is the one they automatically think of. They’ve already been to your property when you had that event (car wash, garage sale, food drive, etc.) and already know your facility is well-run and maintained.”
Ultimately, as Tron Jordheim with Store Here Management says, “Every market is a bit different, and every facility has its own characteristics and quirks. There is a ‘right mix’ of people and technology for each site. The trick is to find the right mix for your particular needs.“
Processes are very important. If you have solid processes that are well suited to a particular site, and you follow those processes, things will run more smoothly and be easier to track and audit.
Getting it Right, from SEO, Technology to LED Lighting
One of the key things that helps people find you when they need you is marketing. There’s digital marketing, social media marketing, grassroots marketing and traditional marketing. The REITs are increasing their digital marketing budget by around 25 percent this year to dominate online searches.
So how on earth can you compete with their scale and budget?
SEO (search engine optimization) is incredibly important when someone Googles a term like “self storage near me” and gets a search return with ads (at the top of the page), location results with maps (next) and organic search returns. Improving SEO is a long-term strategy; gains do not happen overnight and it takes consistent effort. However, if you do it correctly, you can make significant gains in moving your facility to first page results instead of being hidden on the third or 10th page in a digital ghostland. As an example, Tiger Self Storage in Porter, Texas moved up to the No. 3 and No. 4 spots on page one from page two on Google for two top search terms using a combination of SEO and PPC, so it can be done with the right strategy and tactics depending on your market. This was accomplished by a new faster website that was optimized for SEO, relevant and optimized content and backlinks in a few short months.
PPC (pay-per-click) is a form of internet marketing, the most common of which is search engine advertising, which you may have heard of as Google AdWords. For example, if someone types in “storage facility near me” and you bid on that keyword, then your ad may show up on their Google search. It’s referred to as “pay-per-click” because each time someone clicks on that ad, you are charged a fee (the amount depends on how competitive that search term is and how relevant and targeted your ad campaign is). Ads chosen by Google are chosen based on the amount of the keyword bid and the advertiser's quality score which is determined by how relevant your site is to the search term, your click-through rate and the quality of your landing pages. When you are working on SEO, which is a slow process, PPC is a great way to get quicker results. In effect, you are buying visibility.
Gately says, “Every facility has a website, hosted by a third-party website marketing company. We believe SEO is very important. We evaluate results monthly and track the number of website visits and eventual leases we get to determine the return on our investment.
“We use tracker numbers on our website and for most advertising to be able to identify the number of calls from any source. The tracker number forwards the caller to your facility, keeping track of each call.
“We use PPC for most properties, especially new facilities in lease-up. We adjust the PPC depending on results and the recommendations of our website provider.
“For new facilities, we invest in prominent LED signs with the capability of changing messages/ graphics. For all facilities, we invest in the largest signage allowed by local code, including banners to promote specials. We schedule our managers to do off-site marketing about two hours per week, targeting area apartment managers, retirement communities, competitors (to promote cross referrals) and major area employers.
“In late spring or early summer, we will send out a postcard mailer for properties in lease-up. Most of our marketing is year-round to keep consistency.”
Rainey says, “Keep it local and know who your customer is. Ninety percent of your customer base either lives or works within a 3-mile radius. Don’t waste time and money marketing to people who live far outside that radius. Limit your promotional giveaways to items people will use over and over and not end up in a junk drawer somewhere, never to be seen again.” This would include items like stainless steel water bottles, magnetic grocery list pads, letter openers and staple removers, and of course the standard items, such as ink pens and keychains.
Cowen says, “We focus a lot of effort online, but we focus just as much effort on the facility itself. All of the online marketing in the world won’t help a run-down or trashy-looking facility succeed. We consider maintaining the curb appeal of our facilities as a key item in our marketing program. Depending on the area, we may also do local marketing in the form of print ads, billboards or local sponsorships.”
Cole says, “You can’t just pick one marketing avenue, you need to do a little of everything to stay visible. We aren't an industry that people are shopping for daily, like a restaurant or grocery store. However, if you keep a visible presence in your community, when they need storage, they'll remember you and come to your facility.
“Therefore, we do online (Craigslist, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+), grassroots (flyers, tote bags, mugs, pens) and take them to different businesses, and we host charity events (pet adoptions, car washes, BBQs).”
At the end of the day, you have to know what you want to accomplish with your marketing. Tie your marketing with your overall business objectives and set realistic goals to be successful. Digital marketing with re-targeting ads, website analytics and more can help lead people down a buyer’s journey to your facility. One of the keys with any marketing strategy is knowing your audience (potential customer pool) and developing a marketing strategy that is targeted to them.
Tailoring to Your Facility
When you consider what a manager can and can’t do for your business, you realize how important training and hiring really are. A manager is part of your brand—the personality of your facility, the person who makes sure things are working properly. Depending on the size of your facility, they can wear many hats from marketing and maintenance to operations and revenue.
Trusted Self Storage Professionals has new assistant managers work with an experienced manager for two to three weeks before being scheduled to work alone. New managers work with an experienced manager for several weeks before being assigned their property. “We have one site that does most of our training, which makes for consistency,” says Gately. The manager doing the training is a strong manager who likes training others and uses a written checklist of all tasks to be trained that must be completed and sent to the property supervisor. Good training is critical to achieving operational excellence and to have confident, competent employees.”
“Move It is larger than some of the other operators, so we’ve used our benefit of scale to set up an online learning management system (LMS),” says Cowen. “Our managers get a combination of live, one-on-one training, training via review of an operations manual, and training via modules in the LMS. The LMS modules can include written lessons with a test afterward, video lessons with a test afterward, or a combination of both items. We also utilize training resources and certification from our software provider (SiteLink) and our ancillary truck rental services (U-Haul/Penske).”
Cole says that at Oakcrest Management, each new manager gets one week of training with a seasoned manager, two days of customer service phone skill training and one week in their store with a seasoned manager/ supervisor. “By the third week, they should be able to handle day-to-day functions on their own. On lien process days (NOC, cut lock, etc.), a supervisor will be with them to make sure notices are done properly and the new manger is learning how to do them properly. Oakcrest Management also has quarterly training webinars on various topics, such as collections, closing the sale and auction process.”
So, what do you do if you don’t have multiple facilities or don’t want to hire third-party management? You can write your own training manual. Each day you are performing a task, write down your thoughts and start creating checklists. Implement some of the tactics used above at your facility. You may only hire a new manager once in a blue moon or you may have higher turnover. Creating a training manual, although a time-consuming process, can ultimately save time when you hire a new manager.
Creating checklists for leasing, maintenance (as well as schedules), operations, procedures, new hire orientation, marketing and more will ensure your new manager is aware of your systems and expectations.
At RPM, training never ends. They have a designated trainer who gives personal, interactive training following a two-week program. At each subsequent store visit by a district manager, time is set aside for ongoing training for the entire staff. RPM also provides employees with paid tuition for online business management related courses.
Finding and Setting Value
While pricing is certainly covered in other articles, it’s a big topic. So we want to call special attention to it. Be sure to look at the other articles for revenue management and how to use software to improve your rates.
Many things should be considered when determining unit rates. “Price should be based on a combination of market rates, quality of the facility and amenities offered,” says Cowen. “Price alone is no way to judge a storage unit because a 10’ x 10’ climate-controlled unit on the fourth floor with no elevator access has a completely different value than the same unit on the first floor right next to an entrance door.”
Cole says, “We base it off of availability and competitor pricing by size. If we are below 70 percent occupied on a size, then we may price it a little under a competitor, but if we are 100 percent occupied on a size, we may price it above other competitors.”
Gately concurs, “We have found on existing facilities with stabilized occupancy, the most important factor in pricing is your property's occupancy on each unit type. We keep pushing rates higher on any unit type that has an occupancy of 90 percent or better. Even if a competitor is $20 cheaper on the same size unit, we will keep inching our rate higher, so long as our occupancy on that size is holding 90 percent or better.
“We also use premium location pricing on certain units. For example, say $10 higher on first floor than upper floors or $5 higher to be near the elevator.
“Manager training on setting rates is very important. A well-trained manager understands that most prospects are looking for overall value (not just low price), so the manager emphasizes the benefits when talking prices.”
“Don’t use a broad scope for pricing,” says Rainey. “When a store is struggling with occupancy, you may have a tendency to lower prices. While this may be needed for some unit types, you may have other types that are more than 90 percent occupied and those rates may even need to be increased. Each unit size and type is its own product and should be based on supply and demand, not on overall store occupancy.”
Why You Should Consider Automating at Your Facility
Understanding what technology can do for you and your facility can make a difference in your bottom line, bring you money that may be left on the table and streamline your operations. If you’re still using spreadsheets, they may work for you to some degree, but automating and updating your processes will allow you to have a better idea of where things stand with your facility on a daily basis and free up time to devote to other functions. The difference is like trying to light a fire by rubbing two sticks together versus using a match. Both get the job done, but one is much more efficient.
“I am a strong believer that automation makes for efficiency,” says Cowen. “Your benefit in automating everything that you can is that you know it gets done, and it frees up your manager’s time so they can focus on serving their customers and renting units.”
“We automate functions having to do with tenant communication and revenue management,” says Gately. “We use a texting service to remind delinquent tenants about payments, which has been very successful. It saves the manager time and the tenants appreciate its convenience. We make sure our managers use it as a reminder for tenants, but not as a substitute for the manager making phone calls or sending emails on the more serious delinquent situations.
“We also use automated tenant surveys that can be scheduled to go out within a few days of move-in or move out, which are emailed to the tenant and can be sent to the manager or to the corporate office. We keep the surveys short and easy to complete and use the information to make sure we are creating a positive customer experience.”
“Our management software automates the delinquency process, late fees and automatic lien letters that are generated and emailed,” adds Cole. “All new move-ins receive an automated email welcoming them as customers and inviting them to take a survey.”
“We automate our collection calls,” says Cowen. “Robo-type calls are used as our first call to alert tenants that units are past due. These aren’t the only calls made, but a good portion of past due tenants pay after the robo call but before our managers make their ‘live calls.’
“We have an integrated SMS [text] program that is scheduled to send tenant messages for certain events on pre-defined dates. These can include past-due notices, or notices that something is happening at the location. This has been especially helpful during weather-related closure events to keep our tenants updated with issues on the property. These aren’t completely automated due to a software limitation in SiteLink, so someone has to actually hit ‘process’ to send out the notices, but once that’s done, the system generates a text to every tenant who is set to receive that particular message.
“Nothing zaps a manager’s will to live like stuffing hundreds of envelopes with letters. We use an automated mailing service that’s integrated with our software to process paper notices to our tenants. This is also an option for sending auction notices without having to go to the post office, which saves a ton of time for our managers.”
Reviews can help a facility’s reputation drastically by showing your potential customers that your current customers love you. Cole says, “Use Google Review QR codes to allow tenants to leave reviews while at the store. We created a QR code that will take tenants directly to our Google Review page for each location. When the customer is at the store renting a unit or truck, or making a payment, we ask them to scan the code and leave us a review. Because we made it so simple, our number of reviews have gone up quite a bit.”
There’s also something to be said for instant communication and striking while the iron is hot. “We don’t have missed call leads because they automatically roll over to our call center rather than going to an answering machine,” says Cole. “When a customer makes an appointment to come to the store to rent a unit, there is an auto- mated text message that is sent out two hours before their appointment.”
Cole’s website automatically emails completed and incomplete reservations to the manager, district manager and home office to follow up with the customer and track the reservation lead.
“Most management software programs now offer a revenue management feature, which we have found to be a real money maker and time saver,” says Gately. “For example, you can program the software to raise rents on vacant units by a set percentage when the occupancy on any unit type exceeds a defined target (e.g., raise rents by 6 percent on any size that is 90 percent occupancy or higher). During the busy leasing season, this can really be a big help to the manager, as the software will automatically raise the rate without the manager having to even notice that the occupancy target has been achieved.
“This revenue management feature is also very helpful in prompting rate increases on occupied units. For example, you can instruct the software to raise rents on any occupied unit after 12-months’ tenancy by a certain percentage. You can allow the rate increases to be limited to the current street rate or not. The manager can get the proposed list of rent increases each month for review. The manager can be given the authority to approve the rent increases or modify as deemed appropriate.”
“We use a website scrubbing soft- ware to monitor our competitors’ rents and specials and any changes. The software is inexpensive and provides regular prompts of any rate changes with comps in your defined market trade area. The pricing is laid out in an easy-to-use grid, showing rates by competitor and unit type. In addition, we have the managers contact their counterparts on five or so comps each month by phone to trade notes on the occupancy, rates, specials and market info. The managers should drive by their comps at least quarterly.
Cowen also uses software to help with competitive pricing. “We use a revenue management program that ‘scrapes’ online rates for our competitors and compiles them into a list so we’re able to easily see our low, high and median competitor rates in any given market.”
“We have an automated payment prompt that customers can use to make their payment over the phone,” says Cowen. “This saves our managers or call center agents from having to talk to multiple customers who are just wanting to make a payment and frees them up to handle other customer issues or new inquiries.
“We even use automation for maintenance internally,” says Cole. “We have a maintenance ticket system where the manager creates a ticket and it sends it to the maintenance personnel. They repair what needs to be repaired and the manager receives a notification when the job is done and the ticket is resolved.”
Technology has come a long way and continues to allow us to streamline things that we previously handled manually. A lot of times, the use of technology can give us an edge on competition as well by giving us data at our fingertips to help us make smarter and quicker decisions.