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Business Profile: PhoneSmart

PhoneSmart answers call of busy self-storage companies

A problem many Americans face is that they have too much stuff. Providing a place to stash all that stuff drives an $18 billion-a-year self-storage industry eager to fill its two billion square feet of rentable space.

Tron Jordheim’s job is to help self-storage business owners fill that space when they or their employees are too busy to answerphones.

Jordheim directs PhoneSmart, a boutique call center tucked into a labyrinth of cubicles and small offices entered through a side door of the building housing its family-owned parent company, StorageMart, at 2407 Range Line St.

“Boutique is a fad or newspeak word for a small, specialized call center,” he explained.

PhoneSmart handles rollover sales calls and does mystery shopping for 80 client companies and 500 properties in 43 states and across Canada, Jordheim said. It also answers calls, on a much more limited basis, for those leasing apartments and commercial space.

In Columbia, PhoneSmart answers calls for four StorageMart stores, along with Parkade Plaza and Kitty Hawk Apartments, properties owned by its parent company.

After four rings, a PhoneSmart employee picks up a client’s phone and becomes part of a surrogate sales force that gives out rates, availability and other needed information. Employees also call clients’ offices, posing as prospective customers, to test out clients’ sales staff performance.

PhoneSmart started in late 2000 with two employees serving 15 StorageMart-owned facilities, Jordheim said.

“PhoneSmart is an example of how a small, specialized call center can develop a real nice business when lots of other call centers are being sent overseas where labor is dirt cheap,” said Jordheim.

“We’re sort of the replacement of the manufacturing economy that’s gone away. We’re one of those small business anchors that hold the town together.”

“With 30 employees, we’re putting probably $50,000 a month in payroll into the city of Columbia,” he said. “From the start, we were determined not to be an answering service with minimum-wage workers creating no value.”

About a third of the 30 employees are full time. Employees go through a month of training starting with two weeks of basic selling skills. This is followed by another two weeks of training in management and storage-selling techniques, Jordheim said. Most applicants don’t make it through the training session.

“Turnover is low because we are choosy on who we hire,” Jordheim said. “Columbia is a great for this kind of business. The technology infrastructure is good, and the labor force is great. With new people coming in and with the university, there are good hiring choices.”

Jordheim said self-storage owners make up a small group — there are about 5,000 people on the company’s prospect list. The Self Storage Association reports there are more than 45,000 self-storage facilities in the United States.

“The biggest challenge is keeping your customers. Customers are very fickle and even though they might like you today, they may not like you tomorrow,” Jordheim said.

PhoneSmart earlier this year launched two new blogs, one to provide clients with sales tips and information and the second blog to pitch its mystery-shopping service.

StorageMart owns and operates more than 55 self-storage facilities in several states. The company strongly orients its stores toward college-educated females ages 25 to 39, according to a newsletter article written by its president, Cris Burnam.

In 1990, Jordheim moved to Columbia as a dog trainer and wrote a dog-training column, “Bringing Up Bowser,” for the Columbia Daily Tribune. He joined the water company Culligan as a sales representative in l993, and later became its general manager.

“I worked in New York City for a number of years as a cold call person for a fresh water company,” he said. “You learn a lot knocking on doors.”

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