How we listen to students at Unite Students

13 Aug 2021
By Mike Lewis, Insight Manager at Unite Students
Mike Lewis, Insight Manager at Unite Students, shares how we collect student feedback to improve the service we provide to our residents.

When you have around 75,000 customers in a service industry business, you could be forgiven for being slightly daunted by the prospect of customer feedback. Those customers put their trust in you to look after them day in, day out, and they use the services under your roof countless times. 

At Unite Students, customer feedback has previously been seen as something that’s nice to have, but not used to its full potential. However, in a competitive market, and one which is primarily aimed at Generation Z – who are fiscally conservative, expect a frictionless experience, and are savvy to reviews and ratings – listening to customers’ wants and needs has never been more important.

If we’re going to base our decisions around the wants and needs of our students, we need to know what they are. After all, what’s worse than being told by others what you should want?

Our customer survey programme is made up of a number of elements to track a student’s experience with Unite Students, from when they arrive with us in September through to the following spring. In the autumn and spring we ask all of our students how things are going, focusing on the basics but also on their wellbeing – something that this year has taken place against the backdrop of Covid – as well as the community feeling within their accommodation and, perhaps most importantly, where we are letting them down. We’re able to follow live feedback when students check in, which allows us to remedy anything that isn’t quite right and help students to feel at home and settled from the off. 

Alongside our 2020/21 customer surveys, we also recruited 12 students to follow over the course of the year and track their experience. The group were interviewed individually twice during the year and kept engaged through a WhatsApp chat group prompted by questions that gave us rich, real-time insight into how their needs changed during their stay. Having such a flexible approach meant we could allow our research to be led by what was going on around the students, or by delving deeper into some of the themes emerging from our larger surveys.

One of our major successes from 2020/21 was the reintroduction of our customer panel. This panel is made up of students who indicate their willingness to take part in research either through surveys, focus groups or interviews when they complete the check in survey. In 2020/21, the panel consisted of approximately 3,000 customers from a variety of backgrounds, enabling us to get a pretty representative view of how our students are feeling.

Over the past year we’ve used the panel far more than in previous years, engaging them 11 times for a variety of purposes, and for the information of teams from across the business, including operations, development, and even finance.

We’ve asked our panel to weigh in on a range of topics including post-university living options, the MyUnite app, our approach to debt management, bicycle storage space, events being run over the spring term, and security staff wearing body-worn cameras within our buildings. Response rates are generally strong, with some surveys gaining more than 45%. Emotive topics such as the body-worn camera survey elicited a higher response rate.

It’s still a little early to be able to show the full impact the panel has had on decision-making. But a body-worn camera trial is underway in Liverpool and Manchester, and our spring festival events were shaped around feedback from the panel.

The success of the panel and the wider survey programme this year means we now have plans to crank up our activity in 2021/22. The almost endless touchpoints we have mean there’s still a wealth of feedback we’re missing out on. As our capability to capture more real-time feeling increases, so will our ability to place students at the heart of everything we do, and really understand how our accommodation offering helps contribute to their overall university experience.

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Mike Lewis is an Insight Manager at Unite Students, specialising in customer and employee insight.