Student accommodation is positively luxurious compared with the drafty digs of my student days. En-suites, studio flats, even cinemas in halls were unheard of when I was at university, but are par for the course today.
And where luxury accommodation goes, demand for excellent service follows. And with it, an expectation that the service they receive will match the high-quality space they are renting.
This demand by students for excellent service is fully understandable, according to Sean Lawless, Director of Durham-based lettings agency, Bill Free Homes.
“Students are expecting more in terms of service and quality of the accommodation because we are charging them more to rent rooms,” Lawless explains.
The increased demand for high-spec student lets has thrown a spotlight on the industry, particularly in the media where stories of sub-par service and standards of accommodation have made headlines, both locally and nationally.
In London, students even went on strike, refusing to pay rent until standards were raised and their complaints were addressed and dealt with. These of course, are extreme examples, but as with residential renting, there are rogue student lettings agencies just as there are uncaring landlords.
Lawless suggests that any bad rap student lettings agencies receive in the press is, on the whole, unjustified. “A lot of student lettings agents forget that it isn’t just landlords who are their customers, but the students are too,” he says.
“As letting agents, we have to match their demands by raising our own standards.”
Determined to drive up the standards of student lettings companies across the country, Bill Free Homes founded NSHEP (National Student Housing Excellence Partnership), a network of student accommodation agencies, who between them manage over 11,000 rooms and meet throughout the year to share best practice and work towards creating quality assurance in the industry.
“We believe the majority of letting agencies are good and adhere to legislation and work hard to give their customers, both students and landlords, a good service. But there are some bad examples, that usually end up in the news which doesn’t help the rest of the companies that are doing a good job,” Lawless says. “That is why we created NSHEP. Providing excellent service to students as well as landlords matters greatly, and we can all learn from each other where this is concerned. That said, there’s a lot to educate the students about too.”
One factor that goes a long way to helping raise levels of service in managed accommodation is being available when a student has an issue with a property or their finances.
Sean Lawless adds: “For most students, their university years are the first time they have lived away from home and many have the expectation that things will simply be taken care for them if they ring up and tell someone, regardless of the problem and time.”
“We’re at the coalface of this in terms of dealing with enquiries from people at the intersection of child and adulthood. But we always remember that our job is to give good customer service.”
A part of this education is teaching students as to what constitutes an emergency, and what does not. Often student lettings agencies have to handle ‘emergency situations’ that turn out to be the opposite. But good customer service dictates that they must still be dealt with appropriately and in the right manner.
A good agent would never put off a complaint by a tenant either on their books in a managed property or on behalf of a landlord. Agents themselves aren’t available 24/7, but good service must be.
“Our telephone answering service receptionist has become good at prioritising what is an emergency and what isn’t whilst providing a reassuring adult voice,” Sean adds. “For instance, a broken boiler at 10pm in July is not an emergency, in November it is. This goes a long way to help deliver the good customer service we work to promote.”
Of course a line of what constitutes customer service has to be drawn at some stage. “We were once asked by a group of students if they could have a hot tub,” says Sean. “We said yes, but they were paying for it and the increased utility bills. They soon changed their minds.”
*Samantha Jones is Commercial Manager for Property at telephone answering specialist Moneypenny.