Best In Class

A tribute to small operators
By RK Kliebenstein

What does it really mean to be No. 1? That your facilities comprise the most square feet? The most units? The most land? The most employees? Are any of these important enough to make you No. 1?

I was recently asked to prepare a speech to present to the Texas Mini Storage Association. As the president-elect for the national Self Storage Association, Kevin Langley, was explaining to me the message he wanted delivered to the group, we discussed a phrase that really means something to me: "best in class." As I travel around the country and throughout Europe, I am constantly bombarded by the message "Business 'X' is No. 1!" In self- storage, Public Storage is regarded as No. 1 based on shear numbers--square footage, number of units, employees and revenues. Many would argue, however, this is not the case. I urge you to shop any of the top 20 operators and ask yourself, is this what it really means to be the best?

» Focus on Quality, Not Quantity

I have always believed the No. 1 owner-operator in almost any market is the one who is active in the day-to-day operations of his self-storage property. This usually means the facility is new, because there is a growing trend of owner-operators becoming very complacent--even lazy--after lease-up. The slothful approach to management is not intentional, but migrates into the daily routine as the store produces a steady cash flow.

In the early days of an operation, the owner is at the store checking occupancy, making sure everything looks new and clean, and is really involved. He checks the deposits and marvels at each percentage-point gain in occupancy. If you have a store that is more than five years old, ask yourself: Did you call the store today to see how many spaces were rented? Did you check the move-in/move-out report and congratulate your team on a job well done? Did you ask what you can do to correct a declining occupancy trend? When was the last time you took your manager to lunch and had an in-depth conversation about what sets your store apart from the competition? Are you reviewing the mystery-shopping reports with your sales counselors every month, striving for higher scores and better closing ratios? Are your traffic reports consistently producing data by which you can manage revenues?

» Driven by Excellence, Not Obsolescence

When was the last time you walked the property and looked in every vacant unit? Were they spotless? Were the doors lubricated and adjusted? Are there new rubber sweeps on the bottoms of the doors? What about new pull handles? When did you last drive through the property at night to make certain every bulb was shining brightly? Have you replaced the sir filters in the A/C building as a part of routine maintenance or because the unit was not cooling as well as it used to? Is there a sticker on the HVAC unit indicating the date of the last filter change? If you have left these items up to your manager, they may not be getting done as regularly as you would like.

What does your restroom look like? Mobil Oil had an entire advertising campaign built around the cleanliness of its gas-station restrooms. Is yours well-stocked? Is the sink spotless? What about the floor? Is the tile clean? Are there black marks or water stains on the floor? How does it smell? If you think these things are not important, maybe you are not interested in "best in class" status.

» Is Bigger Really Better?

The answer to this question is no! To be more exact, heck no! I recently visited the No. 1 store in a particular market--No. 1 in customer service, cleanliness and, most important, occupancy. The store was also the oldest in town, the smallest and had the least number of employees. This was truly a "best in class" store.

The facility's sign was not the largest in town, but it was well-located; and against the white background, green and blue letters proudly displayed the facility's name. The reader board simply said "great value, friendly faces." The entry drive was wide and clean, with well- maintained grass on either side. I pulled into a wide parking spot clearly marked "Parking for Our Future Friends." I walked just a few steps to the front door where the pleasant smell from a room freshener and a smiling face greeted me.

"Good morning, my name is Gary, and thanks for stopping in. How may we help?" I announced my need to store a car that would probably require a 10-by-20 unit. I noticed Gary record my visit on a clipboard along with the time of day. "Just for the record, how did you hear about us?" he asked. I replied and my answer was also noted on the clipboard. I was then taken through the sales process. Gary asked for my name and used it twice. I was informed about the facility's wide aisles, security cameras, newly installed individual door alarms and hours of operation. Most important, Gary listened to my questions and answers and acknowledged they were important to selecting the right space.

He informed me he did not have a 10-by-20 unit available that day, and asked about the make and model of the car to be stored. After asking if I had a moment to spare, Gary went to his computer, looked my car up in a database, and informed me the car was 14 feet, 6 inches long and would fit nicely in a 10-by-15 space. He asked if I would be storing other items, and offered to show me a 10-by-25 and a 10-by-15. He then said he would give me a free lock if I would take one of the alternate spaces, and offered to put me on a transfer list to a 10-by-20 if that was the size I really wanted.

We took a property tour as we went to look at spaces. I was offered a cup of coffee or bottle of cold water. The golf cart we traveled in was clean and neat. On the seat was a brochure and an envelope with "Free Gift" written across it, both of which were for me. Gary pointed out the gate operation, security cameras, location of the climate-controlled building (just in case I needed a "special" space later on). He was never pushy, but informative, and we shared the usual chitchat. But I knew I was at No. 1 when Gary said, "RK, I have only one of these 10-by-15s and only one 10-by-25 unit left for rent. I want to have you as a neighbor," (he lives on the property), "and I would like to hold either space for you. Which one is best for you, and would you be reserving the space with a credit card or a deposit check?"

Well, it was time to tell Gary he was being "shopped." He was just as enthusiastic, and said he was glad I chose to stop by. When we returned to the office, two more people were at the door. He politely asked if I would understand if he assisted some potential renters. As I returned to my car, I noticed the absence of litter and cigarette butts and the presence of flowers on the property. On my way out, there was a sign that read, "Glad You Stopped By."

I opened the envelope marked "Free Gift." Inside were a couple of coupons for neighboring businesses and another envelope marked "Let me buy you a drink," which included a coupon for a free soft drink at the local deli. Gary's card was inside with a handwritten "thank you" on the front. There was also a coupon for a free disk lock with a new unit rental and a referral coupon for 10 percent off the first month's rent for a friend and 10 percent off my rent for the referral. Pretty slick!

When I got home, Gary had left a voice-mail message that he was glad I stopped by, and even though I was just shopping him, he would appreciate any referrals I might be able to offer. He asked me if I could think of anyone who needed storage and offered to send that person the referral coupon. A few days later, the owner, too, left me a voice mail that he was glad I stopped by, he was sorry I was not on the list of "Gary's new neighbors," and I should call him personally if there was anything he could do to help me with my storage needs.

That, my friends, is a store that is No.1.

RK Kliebenstein is the team leader at Coast-To-Coast Storage, which offers consulting services for the self-storage industry. Specializing in feasibility studies and financing, Mr. Kliebenstein is a frequent speaker at industry tradeshows and author of articles regarding the industry. For more information, call 561.367.9241; e-mail

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