Secret shopping, or “mystery shopping”, originated in banks and retail environments in the 1940s as a way for companies to ensure their employees were trustworthy and doing their jobs correctly. Although the practice has spread throughout other industries, the structure is essentially the same: a consumer in the target market poses as a potential customer, taking notes on what they did and (perhaps, most importantly) did not like. 

At The Black Sheep, we take secret shopping to the student housing network, relying exclusively on college-aged students to pose as potential leasees through online, phone, and in-person tour inquiries. This past quarter, our network of contractors set out to evaluate 130 properties spanning nearly 30 states. From their analyses, we’ve compiled a list of what makes a property stand out, both positively and negatively. 

Some may seem obvious – if nobody picks up the phone after three tries, you’re going to lose that prospect. On the other hand, some of the things that really caught our student’s attention may not be as obvious. Let’s dive in!

The Good: What did students love about the top-scoring properties?

Personal attention

Highly-rated agents and properties made our secret shoppers feel personally attended to. They felt the agents truly cared about them, both as prospective tenants and as people. 

One satisfied student wrote, “​​The agent was so kind and funny, which I loved!” Another expressed, “I felt very welcomed and all of my questions were answered in a clear manner. The staff was super respectful.”

Another added, “I really enjoyed talking to this leasing professional. He seemed interested in me and my needs, plus went into detail about the apartment and its amenities. I appreciated the enthusiasm he displayed and would definitely want to sign here or take a tour based on the phone call.”

These highly rated agents did not necessarily check every box – they may not have remembered to ask how the student heard about the community, mentioned time-sensitive promotions, or asked to schedule a tour. However, they expressed genuine interest and warmth, which went a long way.

Insight: Personality is as (if not more) important than following the process for winning student engagement and leases.

Patience is key

Another lesson from highly praised locations – don’t rush the customer. Students could tell when an agent wanted to get the call over with or end the tour as soon as possible. One happy student relayed, “The tour was very professional from start to finish. I felt like I was in no rush and I could have asked unlimited questions”. On the contrary, dissatisfied students could sense an agent’s impatience. Many noted that they felt rushed, especially when it came to the phone inquiry.

Insight: If students think your leasing agents have more important things to do, they will disengage.

Proactive support

Happy shoppers also expressed feeling comfortable with the agents. After all, students are young, and many of them don’t have experience looking for a place on their own, and may not initially be confident in doing so. Agents who created a sense of comfort made a lasting impression. Students also enjoyed being given additional information beyond what they may have asked about. Finally, and perhaps not surprisingly, students appreciated a fast reply, especially when it came to an online inquiry. Such an inquiry may very well be the first point of contact a student has with a property, and a response (or lack thereof) could easily set the tone for a student’s perception of the location.

Insight: Though this seems obvious, respond fa-a-ast.  “Soon” for students is measured in minutes (more likely seconds) than days or hours.

The Bad: What are the misses that make the biggest difference?

While many low-scoring properties were marked down for obvious reasons – no response to an online inquiry, nobody answering the phone, etc. – properties also suffered for reasons that aren’t so obvious. 

Poor conversation skills

Notably, students were turned off when an agent struggled to carry the conversation. As mentioned, students are young, and they may not know what to ask or how to lead the inquiry. Properties that scored poorly were often criticized in this domain. Agents were marked down for simply answering a student’s questions and nothing more.

Insight: Lead the conversation to help them discover not only your property’s differentiators but the key elements of choosing housing, since they are new at this. 

Getting pushed off(site)

Students were also deterred by their experience with offsite leasing agents. Namely, they were often told an onsite agent would call back, but nobody ever did. One student wrote, “After five phone calls on several weekdays and several times, I was answered by offsite agents. I even asked them to let an onsite agent call me back but I never received a call”. Another wrote, “I had a hard time reaching out to their main office. Every time I called, it went to an offsite agent. Even when I emphasized that I needed the office to call me, they did not”. While offsite agencies may serve as useful backup during busy hours, students don’t appreciate being promised a call that never comes, and such dissatisfaction may bleed into their perception of that specific property.

Insight: Offsite is a growing necessity, we understand, so ensure your hand-off and follow-up process is fast.

Disappointing first impressions

A great tour experience may be fundamental in getting a lease, but it doesn’t mean much if the student never actually gets to that point in the process. Our student secret shoppers are paid to go through the full tour process, even if their initial inquiries were disappointing. Many of our shoppers have shared that they would not have actually set a tour with some properties if they didn’t have to.

A courteous, welcoming first impression may not be as glamorous as a great tour, but they are the key to getting students through your doors in the first place. One student relayed, “I really enjoyed talking to [the] leasing professional. He seemed interested in me and my needs, plus went into detail about the apartment and its amenities. I appreciated the enthusiasm he displayed and would definitely want to sign here or take a tour based on the phone call”.

Insight: Assess your first impression and the conversion rate from initial touch to tour. A high percentage of students are “unsold” in the first minute.

The Bottom Line

Students are a unique demographic and need to be treated accordingly when it comes to enticing them towards your properties.

  • They value the way agents make them feel over what they specifically say.
  • They look for agents with confidence, the ability to ask probing questions, and the willingness to provide additional important information.
  • They don’t always know what they want or how to ask for it, so they may need a bit more help expressing it.
  • They start grading the property during the initial points of contact, well before the tour.
  • They are deterred by poor performance online or over the phone.

Each student may have their own needs and desires, but these themes consistently emerge in their search for a home away from home.

Learn how The Black Sheep can help you evaluate your properties here.