Opening a New Facility and Hiring the Right Managers

The process of financing, developing, designing, and building a self storage facility is a daunting and expensive undertaking. In this era of rampant self storage development and competition, the adage, “It doesn’t matter how great the facility looks, it is the manager behind the counter that makes the difference,” has never held more weight…

Many new owners lament the time and energy consumed to locate the perfect site, generate the perfect design, investigate and formulate the perfect unit mix andknowing with absolute certainty that their facility will be a champion.  But they can’t get the darn thing leased up.  It’s all about the manager.

Staffing a new store can be intimidating. Consider and clarify these issues before advertising for a manager:

  • Are you hiring resident managers?
  • Are you hiring a couple or individuals?
  • What will you pay?
  • What benefit package will you offer?
  • What will be your hours of operation?
  • Will you hire experienced or inexperienced managers?

All of these concerns should be addressed and policies established before publishing an employment ad.  The toughest question is, who to hire?

Management Companies  

If you are a novice to the self storage industry, I encourage you to enlist the services of one of the many experienced and qualified self storage management companies that can be found in trade journals or online. You will be spared sleepless nights and can glean an education and experience by hiring an expert to manage for you. Most management companies offer a range of services; as little or as much as you desire.  They might hire and train the manager (and you) and open the facility for a one-time fee, and then consult on an as-needed basis.  Or they can help you manage for a short period of time, or as long as you wish.  Ask what services they can provide and what fees they charge.

If your heart’s desire is to manage the facility yourself then read on. There’s a lot to learn.

The Experienced Manager

If this is your first foray into the self storage industry, the employment of an experienced manager or management team is your best choice. Self storage has a specific set of operating rules and laws that must be followed; an experienced manager will be familiar with these regulations.
The following list of items should be considered whether hiring an experienced or inexperienced manager:

1.  Look for consistent and stable work experience – You don’t want someone who job-hops or continually has problems with previous employers.  If he has had trouble with authority in the past, he will have trouble with you.  Avoid any applicant that states that his last boss “didn’t know what he was doing”.

2. Run a background check – First, ask permission.  Then spend a little money and use a legitimate background check service.  If the candidate refuses, then say, “thank you,” and move on.  If the background check comes back clean, you can continue with this candidate.

3. Conduct a phone interview – Much of a self storage manager’s job will be achieved via the phone. Is the applicant’s voice pleasant, does he speak clearly? Does he interrupt or talk over you?  Does he sound like someone you could trust?  All of these things are important to your client and should be important to you.

4. Ask about previous job duties – Request a detailed list of duties he performed at prior facilities. Let the applicant explain an average day in the life of self storage. Did she stay in the office all of the time? Or was she always riding the golf cart looking for things to fix? Many managers prefer one type of work to another.  If you are hiring more than one manager – a team – their skills and strong suits should be complimentary.  In previous years, when couples commonly managed, the wife typically supervised the office while the husband spent the day on the property, cleaning and fixing.  It is best to hire managers who can perform all aspects of the job, not just a part of it.

What type of self storage operating software and gate system have they used?  They may not be the same systems that you have chosen, but they may be similar.

5. Ask about his clients – The manner in which a candidate speaks of his clients and tenants reveals volumes as to the type of manager he will be. Does he only tell you about the problem tenants and the troubles they caused? Or does he speak fondly of some of the people that he assisted during his tenure? Never forget that the tenant is paying your bills! They are to be treated with respect and unerring customer service.

6. Contact and talk to his work references – Always try to speak to the previous employer. If the candidate tells you about a bad experience, get the other side of the story. Then you must make an informed decision as to whom to believe. Personal references are worthless; who isn’t going to give you a list of people who will relay glowing stories about the perspective employee. If the previous company practices a policy of not discussing past employees, as many do today, ask if they would rehire this person within the same organization. If the answer is no, ask for an explanation.  Some will be forthcoming, others won’t.  It doesn’t hurt to ask.

7. Ask how the person would handle conflict? – This can reveal the applicant’s true level of experience. A manager does not exist that has not, at some time, had to handle a difficult tenant. Whether dealing with someone who is just disgruntled about a late fee, or with a tenant whose items are to be auctioned, you need someone who can hold her ground while remaining calm and respectful under stress.

8. What does he expect of you as an employer? – Some employees want to see the boss every week; some would prefer not to see them at all.  If you are a first-time self storage owner, the one who needs to see you every week will probably not be strong enough.  The one who would prefer that you go to the Bahamas and call him from there wants to be his own boss and run the show his way. You need a manager who can work independently, but is not opposed to taking direction from you as the owner.

Hiring an experienced manager will negate the need to train from square-one; the Self Storage Primer, if you will. Ideally, an experienced manager will bring a basic knowledge of facility operations. The caveat is that this manager may not take direction well from an owner with less experience.  Contracting a management company to conduct quarterly audits for the first year might be advisable. This can furnish an opinion from a disinterested party as to how well your store is being operated.

The Inexperienced Manager

If you’re comfortable with your level of knowledge and your decision is to engage a manager without previous self storage experience, then seek out a certain personality type. Ask questions that will reveal a person’s work ethic and their ability to be self-motivated.  Management involves sales as well as maintaining records and following procedures.  Often, those who must dot every “i” and cross every “t” are not the best salesmen. Again, there are questions to be addressed; many are the same:

1. Look for a stable work history – As with an experienced manager, someone who moves frequently from job to job won’t be around for long; she’ll either leave, or you will invite her to do so.

2. Run a background check – Again, you must ask permission; if the candidate declines, so do you. Managers deal with your money and your tenants’ possessions. A clean background check is an absolute priority!

3. Conduct a phone interview – Listen to determine the candidate’s phone skills just as you would with an experienced manager.  Is he pleasant, polite and clear?

4. Ask why she wants to work in the self storage industry – This will allow you determine if she truly understands what self storage management entails. If an applicant discloses that she wants a desk job that doesn’t require a lot of hours, you may quickly move on to the next candidate. This will also present the opportunity to explain exactly what the job requires.  Watch her expression to see if she is surprised by the amount of work that is actually involved.

5. Ask about past work experience – His explanation of his previous positions will reveal his work ethic. If he complains about how long and how hard he had to work at the job, then you might want to pass. You need a manager who is upbeat and positive. Depressed people don’t make sales.

6. Request work references and call them – She should not hesitate to provide work references for you to contact.

7. Does she know her way around a computer; does she possess light maintenance abilities? – It’s still surprising how many people are not computer literate. And then there are those who don’t know how to change a light bulb and lack any desire to know. Unless you plan to contract a handy man for every little maintenance issue, your manager must be blessed with basic “fix-it” skills.

The final question is a question you ask yourself.  “Would I lease from this individual? Would I trust him to protect my belongings?” Attempt to view this person from your tenants’ eyes.  It is important to listen to, and pay attention to those first impressions, that “gut feeling” when hiring someone to work for you in this capacity.  If something just doesn’t feel right, then it probably isn’t! It’s likely that your customer will have the same gut feeling, and will listen to it.

Training Your New Managers

There are many avenues that can be followed in the process of manager training. If you are opening your first self storage facility, I again encourage you to retain the aid of a management company to guide you. Management companies can act as a consultant without daily involvement or, if you prefer, they can take the day to day operations off you hands. Within any level of participation, a management company can help you establish operating policies and procedures that have been fine tuned over years of experience.

If you choose not to hire a professional management firm, you may use the following guidelines to train your new manager:

1. Divide training items into sections – Make a list of all the duties that have to be performed to operate a facility. For instance, “Opening the Store” may be one section that addresses each detail that must be accomplished when the manager first arrives every morning. “Leasing a Unit” could be another section that teaches the manager your procedures and policies involved in leasing a unit. Continue to list each duty, and the details that need to be checked off within that activity.  Try to keep everything straight forward and simple.

2. Train at the Facility – On-site training at the facility where the manager is going to work is by far the best choice. This allows the manager to become familiar with the set-up of the store and decide if changes in the workflow need to be made.  Classroom training is good reinforcement for marketing or phone skills, etc.

3. Role Play – Allow your manager to conduct practice rentals with several different people. Invent different types of phone calls that they may encounter. Teach them how you expect an initial call to be answered, how to ask for the sale, how to handle a call to a delinquent customer, etc.

4. Write it down – People learn better when they write what they hear. Insist that they take notes and make sure your manager takes good notes. Together, you can create a list of prompts to make sure all important information is gathered. Procedure manuals are great but they never cover everything.

5. Maintenance – Confirm that your manager understands what maintenance tasks you require. If you expect him to care for the lawn, then he must know how often to mow it. If he is to change out air conditioning filters, then set up a schedule. If he doesn’t know how a particular task is performed, then schedule a subcontractor to assist in training.

6. Reporting – Your manager must understand what type of administrative reporting you expect. If your software is not Internet based, then you will be completely dependent upon your manager to provide you with the proper reports.

7. Performance – Clearly explain performance standards to your manager.  Do you expect five or ten leases per week?  What is an acceptable delinquency rate?  This is the time to discuss how those goals can be obtained.

8. Be open for questions – For the first few weeks, your manager may need guidance in specific situations. You cannot cover every possible event during the training period, so you must be available to answer questions and provide support. Schedule yourself to be on-site with a new manager for the first few days after opening to help with the transition.

The most important concept you must instill in mind of your new manager is customer service. All of us in the self-storage industry sell the same basic product: air. The difference between facilities is how well a manager cares for his tenant…and how a tenant feels when he leaves a facility. A customer leaving your store after a bad experience is much more likely to share his bad experience with family and friends than he is to share a great experience. Word of mouth is a powerful marketing tool.

A qualified, well-trained, congenial manager will help to make your new self storage facility thrive. It really is all about the manager!