The mighty self storage operations manual

operations Oct 22, 2018

Last summer I went to a self storage facility to do an audit. The facility had one employee who had been there for eight years. The owner trusted her, but he knew one of my other customers and wanted to make sure that everything was running smoothly.

I arrived at the self storage business at 8 am for the audit. I walked into the office and printed the site map and two other reports. The manager went upstairs to her apartment, called the owner and quit.

It was 8:15 am on a Thursday, and the owner found himself with no employees. He had no operations manual, no passwords, and no idea how to run his business.

What is an operations manual?

A self storage operations manual is not a corporate document written in an ivory tower. It's not filled with human resource legal language that is unreadable and unusable.

An operations manual simply a written version of what to do every day and how to do it.

A well-written self storage operations manual is a living roadmap for running your business.

If I can walk in your business, pick up your operations manual and run your company, you have a well-written self storage operations manual. Your operations manual should cover every task, process, and procedure necessary to run your business. As the owner, you should have final approval over each written process to make sure things are being done the way you expect.

Here is a sample from one of the operations manuals I wrote on how to start the day: Start of Day:

  1. Unlock 2 outside locks at [Name of Business]
  2. Unlock all 3 small red locks on gates at [Location of Business]
  3. Go to the back office. Turn off safe. – Push button
  4. Get money and checkbook out of safe (in office closet) ($120 start day)
  5. Check drop box for payments and enter if needed
  6. Log into:
    1. [Storage Management Program]
    2. [Email Program]
    3. [Credit Card Processor]
    4. [Gate Software]

Does that seem corporate and high level? Not at all.

I documented what happens when the staff enters the building, step by step. A new employee, they can take this page and know what to do and how to do it.

Why you need a self storage operations manual

When you drive to a new place, do you guess where to go or do you put the address in your phone to get directions? Having directions saves time, money and tons of stress. Have you ever gotten lost with children who are screaming for the bathroom? I sure have! It isn’t fun.

Why would you run your multi-million dollar business without having directions? A self storage operations manual is the directions for your business. It contains the guidelines to keep you moving forward. A good operations manuals will tell your staff what to do from the time they walk into the business on the 1st day of the month until the time they leave at closing time on the last day of the month.

There shouldn’t be guesswork involved in your self storage business. Having a documented process for every task will make your business run smoother, be more profitable and cause less stressful for you and your staff.    

During my audit last summer when the manager quit, the owner didn't have an operations manual. Only the manager knew the password to settle the credit card machine, the passwords for the email, and which customers were current. She was running one of the businesses entirely on a piece of paper that mysteriously disappeared when she quit. I know this is an extreme example, but I have other stories like this one. It happens.

You may not experience this level of disaster, but what if your employee gets in a car accident on the way to work? What if their child is sick? What if you have to fire them and train someone new?

What would you do in this situation? Does someone know how to take payments? Does someone know the passwords to the storage management system, credit card processor, email, and gate software?

Every business should have a well-written operations manual, even if you don't think you need one. Think of it as insurance. You hope you never need it, but when you do, you are grateful to have it.

Besides the necessity of an operations manual in the case of emergency, it is much easier to conduct an audit when there are written processes in a company. It is simpler to train a new employee when you have a document for them to look over. It is easier to sell a business when you can show a buyer exactly how you have been running it.

How to write a self storage operations manual

A good operations manual is written in the office with input from the manager or owner.

Writing an operations manual isn’t difficult, but it is tedious. I have spent at least 40 hours with the manager when I wrote an operations manual for one company. Usually, the conversation goes like this:

Me: “What do you do when you come in the office in the morning?”

Them: “I come in and start my computer.”

Me: “How do you get in the building? Do you enter a gate code? Flip a switch on the sliding front doors? Turn off an alarm?”

Them: “Oh yeah, I do. I type in my code, and then flip the sliding glass doors switch to auto. Then I go to the alarm.”

Me: “Where is the alarm?” Them: “Right there (points). So I turn off the alarm then go in the office.”

You see where this is going. The tasks we do every day become automatic for us, so we don’t think about all the little steps it takes to get them done. Write the operations manual with the goal of having a stranger walk in your office and run your business.

If you are going to write the manual yourself, be prepared to ask a LOT of questions. Dig down until you get to the smallest step of the process and then document it. Read your notes back to your staff and make sure you have all of the steps, in order.

Each step should be written as clearly as possible. I use numbers in an outline form to keep it organized. Use headings such as "Start of Day" or "Payments" to make the processes easy to find. When possible, use visuals as well. Adding screenshots of each step of the payment process will make it even easier for new employees.

What to do next?

An operations manual is a living breathing document. Save the manual in either Word or Google Drive so it can be edited easily. Review the entire manual at least twice a year, going through the steps to do each task and see if anything has changed in your operations.

Anytime a new situation arises, document what happened, how you handled it, and why you did it that way.

When I write a manual for a customer, I also print them and put them in a binder with tabs. That makes it easy to grab and flip to the right section if they are doing something for the first time. If you are interested in having me help you with writing your operations manual, let me know.

If you want to go a step further, make a video library that explains each task and how to do it step by step. This is a great way for visual learners to understand the steps, but if your staff is trying to do something new in front of a customer, it isn't the best way to follow a process.

Topics to cover in your manual

This list is to get your wheels turning on what to include in your manual. It's not a comprehensive list of everything that your manual should contain.

  • Start of day
  • Move in
  • Transferring customer units
  • Taking Payments
  • Waiving late fees
  • Marking checks NSF
  • End of day
  • End of week
  • Move out
  • Monthly process (1st, late day, overlocks, etc.)
  • End of month
  • Keys - Where overlock keys are kept, documentation of customer keys, where spare office keys are located, etc.
  • Company credit card policies
  • Handling customer complaints
  • Customer phone calls
  • Showing units to customers
  • Deceased tenants
  • Auctions
  • How to deposit funds
  • How to do accounting (if your staff does the accounting which I do NOT recommend)
  • Paying bills
  • Payroll rules (How to track time, where to send it)
  • Sales Tax
  • Advertising
  • Social media accounts
  • Website – How to work it
  • Maintenance of facility
  • Asset maintenance (golf carts, vehicles, etc.)
  • Disaster Plan

I love writing self storage operations manuals for owners. Writing the manual often leads to evaluating their processes and providing recommendations to make the business run even better. If you want to chat about operations manuals, email me ([email protected]) or fill out the form below.

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