Kings Of Customer Service: 2022 Managers Of The Year

Posted by msmessenger on Mar 18, 2023 12:00:00 AM

Many businesses live by the notion that “the customer is king” and strive to provide exceptional customer service befitting of royalty. Others stand by the claim that “the customer is always right,” thus employees should do whatever it takes to make the customer happy. Whichever statement your company tends to follow, the underlining meaning is the same: Customers are vital to the success of any business and should be valued. 

In this industry, where new self-storage castles are quickly sprouting up throughout the land, customer service can—and usually does—serve as a differentiator amongst competitors. Good customer service attracts and retains customers; it also leads to positive reviews and referrals. Hence, owners and operators have come to understand that property managers who deliver extraordinary customer service are worth their weight in gold. And this year’s Manager of the Year winners, Colin McHugh of Metro Self Storage, David Colores of St. Michael’s Self Storage, and Stephen Wotjowicz of Morningstar Storage, certainly reign supreme in the customer service department! 

Winner: Colin McHugh, Metro Self Storage
Nearly five years ago, Colin McHugh left his family’s restaurant and home state of New Jersey to start a new chapter of his life. He moved to New Haven, Conn., and secured a job at a local music store. Even though he had an appreciation for music and met like-minded folks through work, which was valuable as a new resident of the area, McHugh soon realized that he needed a career with a living wage. That’s when he came across an advertisement for a position as a storage consultant at Metro Storage LLC. 

“I had never really considered it as a career,” says McHugh, whose only previous experience with self-storage was his parents’ unit rental. After reviewing the job requirements and concluding that he was qualified, he applied for the floater position. “It seemed right.” 

He joined Metro Storage LLC in 2019, covering several facilities in the district before being promoted to property manager of the 93,000-rentable-square foot, 872-unit Metro Self Storage store in West Haven in September 2020. 

McHugh learned the nuances of the business through the company’s new hire training program and everything he needed to know about the West Haven location from the site’s retiring property manager, who had been at the facility so long she “knew it like the back of her hand.” “She was fantastic,” he says. “I learned a lot from her.” 

Although property management was new to McHugh, he was already well-versed in customer service. At first, that was his primary focus as he wanted to build rapport with the customers who were comfortable with the previous manager. “Getting to know the tenants took time,” says McHugh, who has yet to meet some of the customers who are set up on autopay and never call or visit the property. “Making collection calls was tough to get used to,” he adds, noting that debt collection was something he had never done at previous jobs. 

Certainly, the unfamiliar tends to make people uncomfortable, but despite his initial uneasiness and the learning curve, McHugh “embodies the skills and characteristics of a top self-storage manager,” says PJ Richards, director of learning and project management for Metro Storage LLC. “He is detail oriented, customer centric, an exceptional communicator, and process focused. His commitment and drive to being successful is infectious and makes the Metro Storage in West Haven an outstanding storage solution for the entire New Haven metro area.” 

And McHugh has stellar site stats, as well as numerous five-star customer reviews, to back up those claims. For starters, the average occupancy rate over the past year has been 92 percent, net operating income (NOI) has increased 30 percent, gross potential rent is 7.8 percent over budget, and controllable operating expense is 7.2 percent below budget. As for his customers, they most frequently describe him as professional, helpful and accommodating, polite or courteous, informative or knowledgeable, kind, patient, and respectful.

“These numbers are the result of excellent facility management, dedication to customer service, and a commitment to excellence,” says Richards.

While Metro Storage LLC handles the social media accounts and the majority of the marketing for its portfolio of facilities to enable managers to focus on customer service and property management, McHugh has been responsible for distributing marketing materials and establishing beneficial relationships with two college campuses. 

“Colin is always looking for ways to maintain and improve occupancy at his facility,” Richards says. “Each spring, he works with the housing departments at nearby Yale University and the University of New Haven to promote summer storage to the tenants.” 

McHugh mentions that the “big rush of students in the summer” boosts the occupancy at the property so much that he’s oftentimes left with no vacancies. Though a sudden influx of tenants can be stressful, he remains cool under pressure, even in emergency situations. 

“Colin initially coordinated all the efforts to get emergency repairs and clean-up underway,” Richards says about flooding from Hurricanes Elsa and Henri that impacted more than 100 tenants. “Simultaneously, he inventoried all damage, contacted all tenants, and coordinated efforts to handle tenant clean-up and insurance claims. His ability to immediately shift into emergency management mode after each incident resulted in an expeditious resolution of the clean-up and minimal negative impact on the business.” What’s more, after the pressing problems were addressed, McHugh assisted the company and vendors in correcting the issues that contributed to the flooding. 

In addition to helping the West Haven location thrive, McHugh has become an invaluable part of the Metro Storage team. “Colin was instrumental in the development, testing, and implementation of two company-wide initiatives this past year,” says Richards, who mentions that the company had expanded its online rental process to make it contactless. “Colin helped to define and document the new operational process, and his store was then established as a beta test location for the procedures, where his input and tweaking were instrumental in perfecting the online rental process.”

Of course, McHugh was proud to be a part of it and honored that the company trusted him to carry out its mission to make the rental process as seamless as possible. He also tested several of Metro’s new sales and tiered pricing models. “His efforts helped to formulate the options that the company ultimately put into place,” Richards says, adding that he has become a “recognized leader in his district.”

Like most leaders, McHugh shares his knowledge and experiences with others for the betterment of the company. “He is the go-to expert to assist others with operational challenges or questions,” says Richards. “He has trained many new hires and successfully onboarded them into the district. Additionally, he assists in refresher training in the district on complex topics such as the delinquency process.” 

Still, regardless of his influence and recognition, McHugh remains humble, wanting to express his gratitude to his facility co-workers (Brittany the storage consultant and Mike the maintenance person) and the entire Metro Storage team. “I cannot stress this enough,” he says; “it’s not a one-person show at all. It’s a good network, and we’re all here to help each other.”  

And fortunately for Metro Storage, McHugh plans to continue his reign at the West Haven property. “I really enjoy my job and the location,” he says, noting that he’s gained valuable experience, grown, and looks forward to many other learning opportunities in his current position. “I like where I’m at right now in my life.” 

First Runner-Up: David Colores, St. Michael’s Self Storage
In Santa Fe, N.M., one resident manager has set a high bar for excellence. David Colores, who has been at St. Michael’s Self Storage for nearly four years, is no stranger to the industry or performance awards. In fact, he cut his teeth with the sector’s two largest REITs, receiving top honors on two occasions and training more than 60 of their employees before joining the Sierra Self Storage Consulting/A B Kelly Realty team. 

Known for turning around troubled properties, Colores has managed to drive NOI to new heights at St. Michael’s Self Storage. “He is always looking for ways to increase revenues,” says Andrew B. Kelly, Jr., owner of Sierra Self Storage Consulting, LLC and A B Kelly Realty, LLC, “from selling merchandise on each sale and pushing revenue beyond the standard rate on just about every rental. His year to year, as of July 2022, is 12 percent ahead of revenues from July 2021.” One way he accomplished this feat was by enlisting the maintenance person’s help to convert smaller, unused units into larger ones. 

Never one to shy away from physical labor, Colores has been at the forefront of improving the facility’s curb appeal as well. Working alongside the maintenance person, he has cleared gutters, painted, and assisted with major facility upgrades. Colores was responsible for mailing letters to tenants and assisting with smooth installation process when the approximately 700-unit facility replaced old roll-up doors with new Janus doors. He also coordinated the resealing of the site’s asphalt to minimize disruption to tenants by completing the project in sections and keeping everyone in the loop about the progress. “He personally replaced and removed all the warning cones each day before and after the asphalt company was done,” says Kelly. 

Obviously, being a resident manager, Colores is bound to take notice of the property’s appearance. His thoroughness really shines when it comes to cleanliness. Kelly describes his office as “immaculate” and points out that this is just one of the ways he takes pride in management of the site. And his high regard for sanitation was especially important throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. During that time, in addition to maintaining a clean environment, Colores was instrumental in helping the management company develop a health strategy to operate the site amid the lockdowns. Armed with a laptop and a cordless phone, he set up a customer rental station outside the office and assisted customers from his on-site apartment. “He was responsible for all temperature checks, office and equipment cleaning, and logging off all employees’ shift requirements for everyone’s safety,” says Kelly. “… his customers and our employees felt safe dealing with one another during the initial COVID outbreaks.” 

At the core, it’s Colores’ can-do attitude and willingness to help others that keeps St. Michael’s Self Storage fully occupied. Plus, word-of-mouth marketing and referrals quickly re-rent units as they become available. But that doesn’t keep him from always having a stack of business cards on his person to distribute to anyone he meets who may need storage down the road. 

As a resident manager, “I’m there for emergencies and security, but I’m really there for the customers,” says Colores, who extends his unparalleled customer service to customers before and after the posted office hours. “I’m always going beyond expectations.” 

Kelly couldn’t agree more. “David’s enthusiasm for excellent customer service is infectious to both his workers and customers,” he says. “He is always going the extra step to help any tenant … He overloads customer service like few managers can do.” 

Second Runner-Up: Stephen Wotjowicz (50)
Down in Maitland, Fla., Morningstar Storage has broken lease-up records thanks to the dedication and first-rate customer service of one of its newer property managers, Stephen Wotjowicz. After approximately two decades of experience in leadership roles within the retail sector, Wotjowicz joined the company in March 2020 following a lengthy recovery from a work-related accident that occurred in the parking lot of a big box store. It was his inability to stand for 12 to 14 hours in a retail setting that lead him to the self-storage industry—a blessing in disguise in his eyes. 

Although he had no prior property management experience, Wotjowicz quickly learned the ropes and managed to lease up a new facility in his childhood hometown in record-breaking time. By knowing the community in which the site is located, and doing plenty of strategic marketing, he and his team brought the five-story, 622-unit property to 40 percent occupied within the first 30 days of opening. That’s a whopping 266 rentals in one month! Of those rentals, 227 were reservations made before the store even opened its doors, proving that pre-opening marketing is essential. 

How did they do it? Wotjowicz was making in-person business-to-business visits with goody bags in hand—one thousand goody bags to be exact. He visited several apartment complexes (six or seven) within one mile of the store, establishing relationships with all those property managers. Additionally, Wotjowicz managed to get them to include Morningstar’s marketing materials within their welcome packets. 

“I still talk to them once to three times a month,” he says. “Building that rapport was key.” 

He also canvased the area for other marketing opportunities, stopping at every business that was open to deliver an introduction, smile, and goody bag—a strategy that resulted in stabilization in less than a year. Actually, the Morningstar Storage facility in Maitland opened on July 13, 2021, and reached an occupancy rate of 85 percent by Jan. 6, 2022. The property is now approximately 94 percent occupied. 

Clearly, marketing made a substantial impact on the site’s lease-up success, but Wotjowicz’s customer service is just as legendary. His initial objective with customer service: Impress customers as soon as they exit their vehicles. “Their first impression is what they see when they drive by and get into the parking lot,” he says, mentioning that curb appeal is of utmost importance. To ensure that they are wowed from the get-go, Wotjowicz keeps the parking lot litter free, the entryways clear, and the landscaping sharp. Once inside, he works on building relationships by listening to customers’ needs and assembling the best packages to meet their demands. 

One example of his impeccable customer service started with a woman in need of immediate storage space as well as a moving truck. Though the site’s free moving truck was booked out for weeks, she was visibly distraught and had to leave her home that day. Instead of instructing her to rent a truck, Wotjowicz reached out to another Morningstar property that was eight or nine miles away to inquire about their moving truck. He then drove to that site, along with his maintenance man, to fetch the truck for her to use that day. That kind of care, quick thinking, and willingness to help makes Wotjowicz a magnificent manager.   

And it’s all part and parcel to the “way” he approaches customer service. The W represents the “wow factor.” A means “always being present,” while Y is for a “yes-I-can attitude.” 

Without a doubt, Wotjowicz is off to a great start in his self-storage journey. He looks forward to continued growth at Morningstar Storage as well as potential opportunities for upward movement within the company.   

Self-Storage Sovereigns
It’s easy to see why these three kings of customer service were crowned the winners of Mini-Storage Messenger’s annual Manager of the Year awards. With imperial devotion to their customers and properties, they are more than deserving of the honor! Congratulations!

Erica Shatzer is the editor of Mini-Storage Messenger, Self-Storage Now!, Self-Storage Canada, and MiniCo Publishing’s annual Self-Storage Almanac