Bureaucracy In Business

Many years ago I rented one of those storage unit thingies. You know, the garages with the bright orange doors that you rent monthly to store all of your crap that you really should throw away but can’t bring yourself to? In my case, I actually had a reason in that I was storing client equipment and paperwork…as well as some crap that I should have thrown away.

Thank goodness I’ve simplified my life since then, but back in the old days I used to horde useless crap just like any other good commercialized American.

I forget how much the monthly rental fee was, but it wasn’t much. Somewhere around $80 I think. For over a year, I paid my rental fee every month, on time, and had no hassles. I visited the storage unit about two or three times a month, so I was actually using it and not wasting my money. In other words, I felt very good about the purchase.

One day I’m opening the mail in my office and I pull out a letter from the storage unit company. It stated in very large, bold letters that I was “SERIOUSLY DELINQUENT!” and if I didn’t “PAY IMMEDIATELY!”  then in three days they were going to literally tear off (destroy) the padlock to my unit (a lock I had to purchase myself, per their instructions), go through all of my stuff, and auction it off. (Apparently there’s now a TV show called Storage Wars where they film storage unit owners doing this…auctioning off other people’s crap. Nice.)

I was bewildered. After all, according to their letter I was “SERIOUSLY DELINQUENT!“. Could I really be this late in paying such a small bill? I found it hard to believe I was months behind on any bill I had, much less this tiny one. I checked my books to see if I had paid them last month. Sure enough, I had, and the check had cleared the bank. Hm.

Then I looked for the due date on the current month’s bill. Sure enough, I was late in paying them. Four days late. Four days.  In my entire business and personal life, I had never encountered a company that considered four days late as  “SERIOUSLY DELINQUENT!“. Here I was, a mere four days late, and they were ready to break into my garage and auction off  thousands of dollars of my stuff in order to get their single payment of eighty bucks.

None of this made any sense. I assumed there was some kind of bookkeeping mistake on their end.

The next day, I drove out to the storage unit and walked into the office. The place was run by an old couple who apparently lived there. Or at least it looked that way. The old woman was behind the counter and greeted me warmly as I entered. I showed her the late notice and ask her if there was some kind of mistake.

“No mistake,” she said sweetly, “On Tuesday we’re going to auction your stuff off if we don’t receive payment.”

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll make a payment right now, but if you look at the date of the letter and the due date on my bill, it shows that I was only four days late.”

“Yes,” she said, looking at the paperwork.

Very calmly, doing my honest best to not take any kind of snarky tone, I said, “So if a customer is four days late, you break into his unit and auction his stuff off?”

Immediately her entire demeanor changed. The pleasant look on her face vanished and her eyes darkened. Instead of a normal tone of voice, she now spoke in a clipped, angry chitter.

“Well,” she sputtered, “If you read your lease, you would see that it clearly states…” She went on and on about their billing policies, the entire time her tone was one of anger and defensiveness.

When she finally finished, I said to her in a very calm voice, “I’ve read my lease, and I don’t remember every detail, but I’m sure you’re right. I’m sure that’s exactly what it says. Now, from a customer service standpoint, when you tell a long-time customer who’s never been late that you’re going to auction his stuff off when he’s only four days late…does that make sense to you?”

“Well,” she said robotically, “The lease you signed clearly says…”

And on and on it she went. I smiled, paid her, wished her a good day, went back home, cleared some space in my garage and a bedroom, borrowed a truck from a friend, cleared out my storage unit, and moved everything into my house. Problem solved.

Not only was the the stuff in my storage unit valuable, but some of it was owned by my clients. A lot of the paperwork was highly confidential  If the owners of the facility were going to brainlessly and robotically have and enforce such an insane policy, I couldn’t afford to lose thousands of dollars of paperwork and equipment, as well as seriously cause problems with my clients, all because of some minor, one-time bookkeeping delay.

I later learned that in the storage unit industry, this kind of authoritarian policy is normal. Just a year after this happened, one of the companies I was consulting with, a large regional plumbing company, had the exact same problem with their storage unit. Due to a minor bookkeeping delay with their AP person one month, they were a few days late paying their storage bill, and the storage unit actually bashed open their lock and inventoried their equipment for auction.

The president of the company was enraged, and immediately ordered his staff to cancel the storage contract and remove all their stuff from the unit and somehow find a way to store it on-site. Which they did.

Hey, perhaps the storage unit industry has a good reason for this insane policy. Perhaps the vast majority of people who rent storage units are evil, lazy financial delinquents who constantly rip people off and refuse to pay their bills. I don’t know. I do know that when companies like this enforce insane policies like this over the concept of logic and customer service, not only do they lose a LOT of business, but they lose that business from the best and most responsible types of customers in the marketplace…which would be other businesses.

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