The purpose of tech is to make life generally easier for its users. This entails making it convenient for people to access certain goods and services usually from the comfort of their digital devices.
The role of tech has largely been to aggregate the providers and buyers of these services into a big pool such that it could facilitate a seamless exchange process. In that sense, technology is a marketplace and it behoves this marketplace to offer the best quality of service possible not only to retain buyers but more importantly, to guarantee its own integrity and credibility.
But this hasn’t been the case with Rent Small Small, a Nigerian property-technology company that connects people looking for accommodation in Lagos with apartments in a quick time.
Founded in October 2018 by Tunde Balogun, Rent Small Small seeks to provide an easy way for people to access furnished accommodation at an affordable paying arrangement. The startup serves as an intermediary between properties owners and space seekers, within 48 hours.
With the overwhelming stress that goes with house-hunting in Lagos, Rent Small Small promises its users “peace of mind”.
Sadly, what users appear to be getting is anything but peace. According to findings, not only has the startup fallen very short of its promises to its users, its own staff members feel that the company is simply ripping off users. My key sources are Google reviews and exclusive emails sent to the company by aggrieved and embittered (ex) users.
Of infections, mental stress, snakes and a report to the FBI
For a start, kindly note that to rent an apartment on Rent Small Small costs between N50,000 to N600,000 per month.
A cursory look at Google reviews tells a gory story of very dissatisfied customers who have taken to the platform to air their grievances. From pictures of vermin-infested apartments to unkempt surroundings. The reviews themselves are eyesores.
But many of these tenants decided to take the Google route after their formal complaints were ignored by the apartment rental company. And the Google reviews are nothing compared to what this reporter found in emails exclusively obtained.
The emails, dating from November 2019 to January 2022 and totalling more than 50, paint the picture of a company whose culture of poor service has left a heavy trail of aggrieved users on its track.
One user, for instance, complained that he has been forced to bath with expensive bottled water since he moved into an apartment managed by Rent Small Small.
“Have you guys thought to reimburse me for the countless times I used to bottle water/pure water to bath as a result of constantly bad water!!! Have you guys thought to reimburse me for bed sheets, towels, clothes that I condemned for the better part of last year when the water kept flooding into my apartment as a result of terrible terrible plumbing? I could go on and on but I will stop here,”A part of the email seen reads…
Water appears to be a constant complaint in many of the emails examined. Either there’s an abject lack of it, or if available it is usually brownish and sometimes putrid. In fact, in one of the emails, the sender claimed that the bad water gave his wife infections both on her skin and her private parts.
“Do you know the trauma my wife and I face the daily cause of your services? I have proof of my whites that was destroyed by water…even to the point of the water affecting my wife’s privates and skin infection, not to talk of daily expenses buying water,” the email reads.
Another emailer said his pregnant wife contracted an infection due to the bad water and this has made her delicate situation even more precarious.
“My wife fell sick and we expended a lot of money to treat her and the root cause of the sickness was bad water that led to her having an infection. Ladies and gentlemen, my wife is pregnant and we all know how delicate pregnant women can be and I should be smiling?” this email reads.
Another tenant complained that he was almost bitten by a snake in an estate managed by Rent Small Small which he described as ‘a dump’. Here is an excerpt from his email:
“You call this a service estate and there’s no light during the day for more than a month now. The entrance of the estate looks like a dump of forbidden ground. Just the other day I was almost bitten by a snake within the estate grounds because your company has decided to be cheap and not clear the estate grounds. Even now no tenant dare come out at night without a torchlight in the other hand because the streetlights don’t work at night even when the gen is on and everywhere is surrounded by bushes serving as an abode to the strangest reptiles,” the email reads.
The poor service standard is said to be so bad and commonplace that an American citizen who had a very terrible experience with the company was said to have filed a complaint with the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and with the Nigerian Police, after lodging a formal report via mail to the American Embassy.
Of leaking roofs and a litany of problems
The other major list complaints about Rent Small Small apartments include places with leaking roofs.
From my findings, clearly, many tenants complained about their apartments having been flooded during the rains. Some others also complained that substandard materials were used in their facilities.
In fact, one of the customers complained that the apartment he was offered was using an illegal power connection while another user was rendered homeless after she was ejected from her former place and wasn’t able to move into her booked Rent Small Small apartment.
In an email, one of the customers claimed that the company’s service has negatively affected her physical and mental health.
An excerpt from his email reads:
“The fact that your services are extremely poor and the power of negligence that you guys portray is very very much alarming. I decided to hold off on the rent for this month till you guys are pushed to come here, so you can see the mess your customers live in. We are legit living in a freaking health hazard, both my expensive clothes, shoes and books have been damaged because of this and my physical and mental health seriously affected.”
These are only a few of more than 50 ‘bad’ emails this reporter was able to access. Even a mail search of the words ‘unhappy’, ‘sad(ly)’, ‘scam’ etc reveal very sad stories of highly dissatisfied users.
While responding to a query on the matter, Rent Small Small’s Head of Marketing, Maryann Okoli noted that the company’s model demands accountability from property owners. She, however, admitted the company has a role to play in ensuring optimum standards and one measure it has taken, supposedly at great additional cost to the company, was the introduction of an insurance scheme on properties.
“To further ensure that there are no recurring issues of this sort, we have also introduced an insurance scheme on properties to be paid by landlords that cover the cost of maintaining their properties on our platforms,” she said.
While this reporter can’t confirm the existence of such a scheme, the submission still begs the question; if the insurance scheme on properties would be funded by the landlords, how then is it of additional cost to Rent Small Small?
Of how the company cares about money, not customers
One recurring thread in all the emails seen is Rent Small Small’s aloofness and unwillingness to fix the problems which its tenants had complained about.
Noticeably, the company refuses to refund the tenants their money in the face of these poor services, even if when tenant finally spent their own money fixing the problems, they don’t get a refund. Not even the securities deposits which were supposed to be given back at the expiration of an agreement were refunded.
On the other hand, the company which has largely ignored pleas by tenants to fix their apartments would suddenly find its voice when it’s time to demand its monthly rent. Even when tenants had to fix the issues themselves, the company still demand full payment.
This has led many tenants to conclude that the company is only after money and not customer satisfaction. Some had even gone ahead to describe its business as fraudulent. One case that describes just how reluctant the company could be is the case of the American citizen mentioned earlier.
The user had lodged an official complaint to Rent Small Small and then to the American Embassy in February 2021. After claiming to have been living in a hotel since paying for the company’s services due to the “substandard status of the property”, the user decided to terminate their contract.
A copy of that mail is attached below:
But it turned out the company refused to refund the user any of their money even though they never lived in the apartment. At least not until June when the user threatened to file a case with the FBI, and the police, and then dropped negative reviews on the app. These were what prompted the company’s CEO to issue an apology and offer to pay back.
To make this worse, Section 6(c) of Rent Small Small’s rental policy clearly states that if a tenant (licensee) terminates an agreement before its expiration, the tenant will have to forfeit all the balance of the rent as well as the securities deposit.
But as witnessed in this case, the CEO was willing to exempt this user after being arm-twisted into it.
While *Dami, an inside source who works closely with the founders insist that the policy is what the company banks on to avoid paying its tenants their balance after not keeping to its promise, it’s surprising that the company was willing to make an exemption for the American citizen. Could it be that deep down the management understands what it is doing is wrong?
In its response to my query, Rent Small Small’s Head of Marketing, Maryann Okoli says the company is very open to feedback and does not toy with anyone, no matter their nationality, race or colour.
“We want to state categorically that the feedback we received is the engine of every reform and improvement we are constantly rolling out,” she said.
However, Dami insists that this is not truly the case because the management never takes the suggestions proffered by team members to fix customers’ complaints. Dami said that this is the reason the problems have persisted.
“Even during team leads and management review meetings, there are conversations about what went wrong and what can be done better. Team members always give suggestions from their own personal experiences and from the experiences of the tenants. But in the end, not much is done about these suggestions. I feel like the questions are asked so let it not be as if they didn’t ask,” Dami said.
Breaking down how the management views these problems, Dami said if the problem is the fault of a member of staff or tenant, the management goes into a frenzy. The staff would quickly be issued a query while the tenant would be penalised according to the provisions of the agreement.
“But if it is the fault of the company or management itself, say for instance a leaking roof, the CEO would not even be bothered about it. He would simply ignore it. If the CEO sees a call from a tenant who has been complaining, he would simply stop picking up the calls.”Dami
Describing how Rent Small Small conducts its rental business and how tenants get into these troubles, Dami explained that the company acts as an agent which takes the prospective user to various properties. The tenant could find one they like but could spot problems which they point out to Rent Small Small. The company promises to have them fixed by the time the tenant is moving in but once they sign the agreement and payment is confirmed, the company stops bothering about the tenant.
“They tell you ‘don’t worry we will fix it’ but they never get around to fixing it. So you have to move into the apartment and you start calling them to come and fix it and eventually spend your own money to fix it. They could also tell you they will fix it but if you’re supposed to move in on the 15th for example, by the 13th you’re asking if they have fixed it. They will tell you not yet but they will do so. On the 15th they haven’t fixed it. On the 16th the same thing. You can be there for one month and your rent has started reading but yet they haven’t fixed the problem. Then they can hurriedly fix it before your next rent is due so that they can demand the rent,” Dami says.
This situation is clearly captured in one of the emails. The tenant, who has paid for a Rent small Small apartment before she was evicted from her previous apartment, suddenly found herself homeless despite having paid for an apartment with the management promising to fix up the apartment. Nearly 2 weeks in, she was still yet to move into her apartment.
In its response to my query, Rent Small Small describes itself as a company that is on a journey to redefine the rental ecosystem. However, if a tenant who has used its services still wishes they had used regular agents of the rental ecosystem, then the company might need to redefine new routes for its journey.
Of employees forced to fix repairs with their own money
Rent Small Small’s lacklustre attitude has left a lot of angry tenants in its wake. Naturally, these tenants, having failed to get the management to comply, would lash out at the Facility Managers. Facility Managers are members of Rent Small Small’s staff who work with the title of Field Experience Officers.
To avoid the embarrassing vituperation that usually comes their way, Facility Managers have, many times been forced to fix tenant problems with their own money.
*Chidi, a former staff who had a lot of interaction with the tenants told this reporter that despite direct complaints from him, the company seems to have this policy of not responding to very urgent problems until the tenants start “becoming loud about them.”
“The real issue I had then was that getting money to run (the facilities) was very hard. Most of the time, since the money is not forthcoming, I end up having to use my own money to do those things because it’s me that the customers will blast,” Chidi told me.
For emphasis, Chidi earns N90,000 at the time he left the job. He started out on an N50,000 salary before enjoying an increase to N80,000 and then to N90,000. Shortly afterwards, he would be fired in very harrowing circumstances.
Responding to this claim, Rent Small Small described it as false, absurd and outrageous.
“The alleged claims of facility managers incurring costs of repairs is not just false, it is absurd. For a business with processes in place and contracted vendors, we find it outrageous that such claims are made. While there may be delays in the time between repairs being made and complaints resolved, which is due to the non-responsiveness of property owners, we do not fail to meet those gaps whether on the side of the property owner, or the vendor,” the company’s marketing manager told me.
However, a Rent Small Small WhatsApp group chat exclusively obtained shows a Facility Manager berating the management for its negligence which has forced him to pay for repairs with his own money.
Unfortunately, the company has still not refunded him (as of the time the message was sent) and as seen in the screenshot, the facility manager was practically begging for his money to be refunded.
Of cheap, substandard materials
When the company finally decide to respond to complaints, usually after the tenant refuses to renew their rent unless their apartment is fixed, tenants insist it rather resorts to cheap and substandard materials which never last.
Chidi affirms that the company is always opting for cheap and substandard materials. He also said several of the artisans whom he confronted about the substandard materials claimed that the company didn’t give them enough money for the repairs and they just had to make do.
Dami affirms this claim, insisting that the Rent Small Small CEO is a huge fan of quick fixes.
“The CEO, Tunde, believes in quick fixes and this prompts him to use substandard materials in fixing the problems with apartments. When we try to talk to him, he would always tell us there was really no problem as the tenant has already signed the agreement. He would also remind us that it isn’t his duty to fix the apartments in the first place so he doesn’t really have to do it,” Dami says.
Responding to this claim, Rent Small Small seems to suggest that the problem of substandard materials is a general one.
“Quality is a key challenge beguiling the real estate sector. We recognise that poor quality and substandard materials are used during the construction of most properties in Nigeria. This is one of the challenges we face as players in this sector, who have to rely on property owners as we do not own the properties we list on our platform,” its Head of Marketing says.
She said the company conducts a rigorous screening and verification process to ensure that all properties on its platform are in excellent condition.
However, with the barrage of complaints in its inbox, it seems Rent Small Small’s screening and verification process might not be nearly as rigorous as it thinks.
Of campaign of false reviews
With so many people seeking redress and not finding it through direct contact with the company, it was only a matter of time before they started dropping negative reviews online. At first many of these reviews appeared on Google Maps since the company didn’t have an app yet.
But the company launched its app mid-2021 and among the first reviewers was the American citizen mentioned above. Her decapitating reviews must have thrown the company into commotion and the response was a campaign to seize the narrative and write their own reviews.
“After the woman dropped the damaging review, the management decided to look for a way to tackle it. So they sent out a memo to all staff members that they should be leaving positive reviews so as to counter the negative ones. It was like a campaign. And that’s why if you check, the positive reviews are mostly around the same time,” Dami told me.
A look at the positive reviews not only shows they were dropped ‘around the same time’, but many of them were also dropped on the same day; June 11, 2021. This was one day after the woman threatened to drop the negative reviews (June 10). Furthermore, cross-checking through the names on LinkedIn revealed that the reviewers were mostly then staff members of Rent Small Small.
Kelvin Yakubu, for instance, was a Field Experience Officer at Rent Small Small.
James Okpowo was a Facility Manager at Rent Small Small.
Osaz Cruz was a Growth Marketer at the company.
All of these point to the fact that a campaign orchestrated by the management to portray the business as an awesome one was well underway at that time.
Rent Small Small refused to respond to this particular claim.
Rent Small Small says it is a company on a journey. However, the answer to where that journey is leading depends on who you ask. To many of its tenants reviewed in more than 50 email messages, the company has led them to a bitter end.
To some of its staff and Field Managers, the company has left them along the way with bad memories they would rather forget. A former staff declined to speak to this reporter because they had to undergo therapy and the last thing they wanted is to relive their journey with Rent Small Small.
To the management, Rent Small Small is journeying to a great place. Indeed, the company’s Head of Marketing reminded me that the company’s operations is just 3 years old and that “3 years is a short time to begin to see the kind of change we envision.”
While I wouldn’t dispute Rent Small Small’s vision and how much time it estimates to make it work, the reality is that the only visions its tenants see are starry nights through porous roofs, doctor visits through infections, and false reviews to make itself look good, and a company they thought had their best interest at heart but which, according to them, just doesn’t give a care.
*N.B: Names have been changed to protect the identities of members of staff that spoke to us
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