Interview: How our contact centre influences students’ experience
2 November 2023
From living with us to listening to our current residents – Contact Centre Manager Alice Bone has seen it from both sides at Unite Students. In Alice’s own words, the contact centre is a place of innovation and rich data that “tells the story of the students that live with us.”
Read on to find out what role the contact centre plays in student wellbeing, how the data helps us create a better living experience for our residents, and what trends Alice has seen in her nine years in the contact centre.
Q: What brought you to Unite Students, and how did you end up managing the contact centre?
A: My first experience of Unite Students was living with them at university, through an agreement with the University of the West of England in Bristol. This was in 2008; the accommodation at the time was basic but lots of fun. I had a fantastic experience and I’m still friends with so many of the people I lived with.
During my degree I worked a part-time market research job that was based in a contact centre. I’d always thought I wanted to be an artist, but I found that job fascinating, particularly the data and insight. After graduation, I wanted to see where that type of work could take me, and there was an opportunity to work in the contact centre at Unite Students – and of course I was already familiar with the brand.
It massively caught my interest, hearing from a complete variety of people and seeing the inner workings of an organisation I’d already had the experience of living with. We were constantly adapting to the expectations of students, university partners and city staff. It’s been a pleasure to work here for the last nine years; now I’m leading this amazing team, who this year have delivered the contact centre’s best performance on record, and putting everything I’ve learned to good use as those expectations continue to change.
The contact centre has two functions – a service function and an emergency control centre (ECC). How do they both operate, and what are the key differences?
The service team deal with everything; right from the moment a student starts thinking about Unite Students right through to the very end of their journey where they might need a reference to live with another landlord – that can be some months after they’ve left. They can help with things like account management, and they actually do a lot of work with guarantors, parents and carers as well. There isn’t much the service team hasn’t encountered.
Then our Emergency Control Centre are there for live operational support. That can be simple things like scheduling routine fire alarms or triaging maintenance requests to make sure what’s been logged through our app is in line with how urgently we need to respond to it. Or it can be incident management – from minor incidents, like noise complaints and lockouts, to major or crisis incidents. The ECC deals with not just our teams and students, but family members checking on a student’s welfare and wanting reassurance, and sometimes councils, members of the public and universities.
So the ECC has a much more reactive work set, whereas the service team might be more proactive at times. We’ve recently made some great gains in performance and have been able to be more proactive, like looking at student accounts that we think might need our support and calling them rather than waiting.
Where the two disciplines are very distinct is that the ECC operates 24/7, 365 days a year. Then our service function has a separate operating schedule; typically that’s 8am – 8pm Monday to Friday and 9am – 5pm on Saturday, with adjustments for peak times to make sure that we’re meeting that increased need.
How has the contact centre evolved since you’ve been working in it?
Since I’ve been in the business, the evolution has been from it being transactional to more holistic. Now we think about the bigger picture and centre the wellbeing of students and our operations teams.
We can also tell our story in a much more sophisticated way. When I joined in 2014, we picked up the phone, answered calls and emails, but there were no data insights or storytelling as part of that. Now that’s evolved, we can represent the student voice for our organisation. We can use data to tell the business what students have been in touch about and automatically track the sentiment of those interactions. We’re able to track our peak times to the minute and forecast ahead with a high level of accuracy.
In the first quarter of the year, we expect a medium level of contact. In the second quarter, it tends to drop a little bit and peak around Easter as students return for their exams. The third quarter has a really intense volume of contact – we’re dealing with A-level results, people checking into our buildings and settling in. The final quarter of the calendar year is quieter, as students are getting used to living with us as a new academic year gets underway. It’s like a handover period, students and parents going from interacting with us to interacting with our city teams.
We have a lot of unique data. That’s what makes the contact centre one of the most exciting places to work; we can really influence the student experience, but also talk with real confidence about what we’re doing. We can say to the organisation, “Please don’t change this thing – students love it!” or “This needs more attention; we’re getting the same type of call over and over again.”
There’s a real appetite at Unite Students to use the student voice to drive decisions, instead of assuming what we think students want.
How has the contact centre influenced the student experience at Unite Students?
Any contact centre’s primary agenda is to understand why people are contacting you and eliminate or address the reasons why they got in touch. We work closely with other teams to do that.
So, for example, check-in makes up 15% of our queries in July to September. We know from our data that parents often get in touch to check rent payments and their child has everything they need. They’re really looking for that final reassurance before their child moves into the property.
This year, having worked with the communications team on student welcome comms, we saw a 10% reduction in queries. It’s because we’ve shared across the things that students want to know from us: car parking facilities; check-in slots; what to bring with them; and drip-feeding that information through August and early September.
It’s always important for us to recognise success and when our influence has had that positive impact, but also to continually challenge ourselves to think about the next stage. This year, our reflection is that, while check-in slots help our operational teams manage the flow of students arriving, it tends to be the day before check-in where students and parents get that final panic. We had a real saturation of queries just checking at the last second that everything was OK.
What are some of the other trends that have caught your eye from the data?
Since we moved to a 24/7 staffing model in our buildings we’ve seen a huge reduction in noise complaints and lockouts, which have halved. Those enquiries make up about a fifth of our workload. Overall, our emergency control centre volume has decreased 40% annually. The volume decrease doesn’t mean that fewer people are encountering issues, or that we’ve suddenly magicked those things away – but it does mean that clearly students are getting the assistance they need from our teams working in our properties, and therefore don’t need the emergency control centre to support in all instances.
We’re still here to help, understand what’s happening and coordinate for those teams. But our city teams can directly reassure students, without them needing to pick up the phone and get in touch with the contact centre.
You mentioned that student wellbeing has become much more of a focus over time for the contact centre, both for students and their loved ones. We’ve recently introduced a 24/7 wellbeing helpline through our Student Assistance Programme – how does that join up with the contact centre?
Welfare management has been a huge topic for us for years now, really increasing over the last couple of years. We already have a really well thought-out wellbeing programme – all of our city team members have a welfare focus in their roles, supported by a dedicated student support team. We’d previously provide signposting to support services and then refer them to our city teams as needing a bit of extra support.
The new helpline allows us to connect students to professional support in the moment. It gives them instant support should they need it, over the phone. We don’t have to wait for a colleague in our property to pick that up; we know we’ve left them with something tangible whilst we’re organising the right levels of support elsewhere in the business.
The helpline is also something that we can offer in interactions that might not be directly related to welfare. So, if we’re speaking with a student that is worried about making their rent payments or has found themselves in a difficult situation with flatmates – or isn’t enjoying university and wants to talk to us about what their options are – it’s an additional layer of reassurance we can give.
What are some of your favourite stories from where the contact centre has helped students?
The other day I had a single phone call where I spoke to five different people in a flat – all with very different queries, but who were passing the phone from one person to another. One student had a desk chair without wheels, and we spent about four minutes talking about that and what could be done. We got it sorted.
Then a couple of the others had questions about rent instalments. And then another said there was no space in their fridge’s freezer drawers, and wanted to know if they could get another freezer in the flat. I said, “Have you had any conversations with your flatmates about how you might share the space in the existing freezer?” I helped them work out the situation amongst themselves and they left the phone call happy.
That one call alone shows the breadth of what we encounter in the contact centre, but it was also a nice, grounding moment for me where I thought, “We just helped five people in a single call.”
All we do all day long from start to finish is to help – whether it’s talking to somebody about the curtain colour in a room they’ll move into seven months time, or someone who’s having a crisis. Every interaction, whether by phone, email, webchat, or social media post, is a moment where we’re building trust in our brand through those positive interactions with us.
You’re so passionate about the contact centre and what you do. Are there any common misconceptions about contact centres that you’ve noticed?
My first ever job at 16 was selling fascia boards and guttering over the phone from a very fusty office in Birmingham, and people often assume that’s what contact centres are like – a phone on your desk, making outbound calls while cycling through an old-school copy of the Yellow Pages.
In reality, contact centres are an exciting industry full of innovation, especially in technology. They’re the forefront of how people interact with a brand. So, we’re thinking about how young people are using social media to interact with each other and brands, how AI is beginning to influence the way we interact, and how we manage our channels.
The insight we can extract from our interactions is massively powerful, and through contact centres, you not only solve problems but understand customers’ behaviour preferences. It’s how we get ahead of the curve, looking at upcoming trends and seeing how expectations and behaviours are changing.
Understanding not only why people get in touch, but how they get in touch is really interesting. Between July to September, our most popular channel was email – 37% of our interactions – closely followed by phone (36%) and webchat (23%). Social media made up just 4% of interactions. That probably bucks a lot of assumptions that people would make around how students, parents, carers, people are interacting with us..
We’ve got such a unique and interesting view from the contact centre – we get to be in the background of everything. We see the full breadth of a student’s journey and a field operations team’s experience, but we also see the kind of success of our messaging and how that translates in phone calls, emails, web chat and social media. We have a lens on it all.
Find out some of the ways that Unite Students and other HEIs are innovating for 2023/24 in our ‘Inspirations and innovation’ episode of Accommodation Matters: