Treat customers with TLC, not contempt

This is a tale of two cities. Recently, I helped a friend move from Louisiana to Texas. I was struck by the complacency of the truck rental agency in Louisiana; and the seemingly calculated rudeness upon reaching the truck rental dropoff/self-storage facility in Texas.

On the front end, the reserved 14-foot truck was AWOL. The only available option was a 20-foot truck. The rental agency never called to say there was a snafu, and they adopted a take-it-or-leave-it attitude. On a schedule and limited in options, we grudgingly accepted the bigger truck.

That turned out to be the more pleasant of the two exchanges. At the other end, we had a scheduling conflict that required us to return the truck a couple of hours late. Despite calling ahead, the agency docked my friend $40 for a late return. Then, the agent told us the fuel level was low and that she would charge $30 plus $4/gallon to fill it up unless we opted to do so. So, we filled it up. The next day, my friend noticed a $14 charge on her bill, evidently for checking in the truck with low fuel-even though we subsequently took care of it. There was other rudeness, but you get the point.

All of this got me thinking about how self-storage renters and truck renters often have the same mindset-e.g., in transition, anxious, facing unanticipated or unpleasant circumstances. If anything, this group deserves extra TLC, not another kick in the pants from uncaring organizations. At the same time, rules exist to be followed. How can you provide extra caring while making sure renters understand the rules of the road?

1. Adopt the "Katrina" mindset. Until you know differently, presume renters are in turmoil and treat them the way you would want to be treated. Go the extra mile to make the process, from initial rental to ongoing communications, comfortable and friendly.

2. Write and speak the rules. Instead of just giving written information (or access to it) to tenants, take the time to explain the rules to make sure the tenant is clear and on board. This gives the self-storage owner/operator the chance to humanize the process while confirming "message received." Too often, rules are either misunderstood or ignored-leading to later conflict that could have been avoided with upfront communication.

3. Empower employees to make exceptions. The last thing an already exasperated prospect or tenant wants to hear is, "There's nothing I can do." While this may be true in some circumstances, give employees leeway to make judgment calls instead of forcing them to adhere steadfastly to the rules without exception.

Here's a classic example: A tenant who has made timely payments for some time goes late on a payment or their credit card is rejected. Instead of immediately going into enforcement mode, establish a corporate policy that first seeks to understand. If it's a valid problem, do everything reasonably possible to resolve it. Otherwise, your self-storage facility could end up with both a delinquent and dissatisfied tenant-probably leading to escalating recovery costs.

4. Get creative with resolutions. If a tenant has a temporary cash flow crisis, think about win-win resolutions. For example, consider a temporary "loan." Let the tenant go rent-free for a couple of months, with the understanding that the money will be added onto the rental agreement over a period of time, or will be due as a "balloon" payment upon termination-with reasonable interest added.

None of this is intended to subvert savvy business practices, or to cast your facility in the role of patsy. In an environment of high stress and anxiety, you are more likely to come out ahead financially by treating your tenants with respect and caring than bending them over at every turn.

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