Just Answer the Dang Phone
For a good many of us, occupancy has dropped back into the upper 80s or low 90s. We are no longer riding high on 100% occupancy and ever-increasing rental rates. Delinquencies have risen. While some of this rise is due to economic hardships for our tenants, I’d be willing to venture that a big part of the reason is the lack of attention we have had to give to collections in the past few years. When you have occupancies of 100% and a waiting list to boot, the fear of delinquencies is negligible. All you have to do is auction the delinquent tenant, replace them with a new tenant from your waiting list and charge them a higher rental rate. It’s a win-win. Now that the waiting list is empty, and so is a handful of your units, a growing delinquency list is a bit scarier.
The question, especially for those that are unfamiliar with this “new normal” occupancy level, is “How do I recoup lost occupancy and get back to 100%?” I’ve heard this question more than a few times over the past several months.
For the first time in several years we are presented with the need to market our facility and attract new tenants. And for many of you today, you may have purchased a facility that was happily enjoying 100% occupancy that you didn’t have to work for and now have no idea how to replenish.
One, you may want to adjust your expectations. Unfortunately, if you banked too heavily on maintaining 100% occupancy in order to pay the bills, you may be in for a rude awakening. It has long been understood that occupancy that sits at 100% is not necessarily a good place to find yourself. While it can be the result of low supply/ high demand in your particular market, it likely indicates that your rates are too low. In an industry of month-to-month leases, turnover is generally healthy and welcomed. Before this recent boom in occupancy that sent rental rates soaring and caused waitlists to overflow, the sweet spot for most facilities was around the 89-92% occupancy rate. At this level, you have available inventory and can keep it moving. Occupancy that always sits at 100% means you spend more time turning away tenants than renting units and inevitably those tenants that stay end up paying rent that is far below market value.
Two, adjust your question. Instead of asking how you can get back to 100%, ask “How do I stay top of mind and easy to find for potential renters?” The fact of the matter is that you cannot create demand. Self-storage is a product that is only sought after when a need is identified. Your job is to help your potential renters identify self-storage as a solution to their need. This is where marketing comes into play. Many owners haven’t had to worry about marketing, sitting at 100% with the waitlist ready to go. But now you need to engage in the marketing game. Thankfully, there are endless marketing options available to every operator at every price point, from digital, to visible signage, to simple maintenance.
Some of those options are free – Google Business Profile (GBP) is available at zero cost to the business operator and is a priceless resource for any business. Your GBP is the tool that places your business on the map. Literally. Without a GBP, the most common search of “storage units near me” will result in zero people locating your facility on Google. That is sad in any scenario and the number of facilities that aren’t using this tool is incredibly high. We all use this feature during our daily lives – tacos near me, hotels near me, coffee near me. If your business doesn’t show up in a “near me” Google search, does it even really exist?
Some options are low cost – Curb Appeal is easy and does not have to break the bank. A clean, well-lit facility only takes a small amount of effort and goes a long way in attracting potential customers. No one wants to place their belongings at a facility with overgrown weeds, trash scattered in the drive lanes and light bulbs that burned out long ago. Of course, curb appeal can be taken to the next level with a little extra TLC. Dingy, faded doors are easily restored through the use of products like Everbrite Coatings. Upgraded keypads, new lighting, a few well-placed cameras and a new coat of paint on parking spaces and bollards can make a world of difference. Never underestimate the power of the drive-by and the impact your first impression can and does make! Over 30% of your first exposure to potential tenants aren’t made online, but through people driving by your facility. Make it count!
Signage should be constantly evaluated. Faded peeling paint, lighted signs that don’t work, banners that have seen one too many wind storms… these things scream of a company that does not care enough to even showcase their own name well. That sends a clear message to the tenant about the care you will take with their belongings.
GrassRoots Marketing in the form of good ole fashioned community involvement is an easy way to spread the word about your facility and make connections with potential customers. This can look like supporting a local non-profit, sponsoring the high school football team or being an active member of the Chamber of Commerce. Social media can also play a role in grassroots marketing. Though you may not be able to track actual rentals from social media, if you are able to connect and interact with your potential customer base, it will increase your brand recognition. People like doing business with people they know. Get to know your community and let them get to know YOU!
Some options are going to cost a bit more – Google Ads can be extremely expensive in some markets, if you expect them to be effective against bigger competition that is. Throwing $100 a month at a Google Ad in an urban market with lots of competition will only result in you padding the pockets of the folks at Google. Many of the big guys are spending thousands of dollars every month on ads that ensure their placement is always on top. Understanding how Google Ads work and the market that you are in is helpful in making sure you aren’t throwing money away that could be better used in another marketing avenue. This is a good place to call in the experts!
A Good Website is the first-impression that you give potential customers in the online world. Make it a good one. Clunky websites with broken links, information that is difficult to find and doesn’t work on a mobile device will actively lose business for you. In today’s mobile world, your website needs to be “responsive” which allows it to automatically adjust its layout based on the size of the screen being used for viewing. It should also allow for online payments, reservations and rental of units. Anything less and you are likely operating at a level lower than your competitors. Consumers are more attuned to using online options than ever before and with their computers in the palms of their hands, it’s more important than ever that your business be capable of providing service in this arena.
A Good Manager is arguably the most expensive, most valuable and usually the most under-appreciated aspect of promoting and running your facility well. The manager is the face of your business. They are most often a jack of all trades – the friendly smile that greets customers, the helpful voice on the phone that answers questions and closes deals, the handyman that does minor repairs, the janitor that cleans up after tenants, the security guard, bill collector and marketeer. Don’t skimp in this area. This person could single-handedly drive your business into the ground if you aren’t watching, or they could also be the answer to most everything you’ve been looking for to grow your facility and keep those tenants happy and in line!
However… Your marketing efforts will not have the desired impact unless you Answer the Dang Phone!
Answering the phone is the easiest yet often most missed opportunity for many operators. We let the in-person tenants or the day-to-day activities of property upkeep distract us from answering calls as they come in. Remember, you can’t create demand in storage. Once the tenant takes the initiative to call your facility, the need for a unit has already been established. You only need to answer the phone and provide the solution. For a generally friendly person, with a basic understanding of their property, renting a unit to a tenant is a piece of cake.
The best marketing campaigns create a call to action on the part of the tenant. One of those actions is often a phone call to inquire about the facility. Many operators rely on customers leaving voicemails that are returned later in the day. More often than not, once the return phone call is made the potential tenant has already found another storage solution and no longer needs your service. And that is assuming that voicemails even receive a return phone call at all. Sadly, many operators today are wasting their marketing dollars simply because the phone isn’t being answered.
This is not meant to place blame on the manager. It’s understandable that no manager, no matter how highly skilled, can possibly answer every call, every time. If you don’t have a backup system in place to catch those rollover calls, you are sabotaging your own marketing efforts. You have options for solving this dilemma. An inhouse solution might be to utilize a phone tree system to rotate calls between employees or maybe hire staff specifically for after hours and weekend calls. An easier and more comprehensive solution, especially if you don’t have a staff of employees, would be to hire a call center. Call center options generally offer a variety of options that can meet your specific needs. Again, no two facilities are the same so choose an approach that works for your business needs. Make your marketing dollars and time count.
Answer the dang phone. If you can’t answer every call, every time, then hire someone that can.
Melissa Huff is the co-owner of Lighthouse Storage Solutions LLC, providing tailored consulting services to help owners enhance their self-storage operations. She also serves as the Director of both the Tennessee and Louisiana Self Storage Associations. To contact her, email [email protected] or find her on LinkedIn.