Designing a better student experience

Changing the experience students had to be easier, more supportive and welcoming.

Client: Unite plc
Type of project: Tone of voice, Service Training
Sector: Housing
Region: UK


Going to university can be an unnerving (and exhilarating) time for students. Moving away from home, meeting new people, a newfound sense of freedom and, for some, a few regrettable evenings involving cheap alcohol and road cones. Unite Students was the UK’s first private provider of purpose-built student accommodation – having provided homes for over 600,000 students.

Unite we looking at the way they delivered their service to see how they could improve the experience. In particular looking at how they met the needs of students and parents – both of which tended to have different expectations and hopes for what Unite would provide.

They’d recently rebranded and, as such, were looking to operationalise the new brand position through it’s service design and the ways it’s staff treated their customers.

What needed to change

A need to upskill teams of all types: They recognised that their teams – whether front-line staff or those working in their call centres – were sometimes finding it hard to deal with the unique situations they were faced with when looking after students and their parents. Difficult situations like a falling out among flatmates, or someone not keeping up with rental payments.

Making their promise authentic: Unite were keen that the rebrand didn’t just become window dressing. That it was felt through the whole service and customers could see and feel the difference. From existing research there were areas of the service which could be improved and, for the brand to be authentic, these needed to be analysed and improved.

What we did

Going back to uni…

Alongside Unite’s existing research we wanted to get under the skin of how it felt to be a student living at a Unite prooperty. That meant going back to uni. We used a range of service design approaches to shadow, interview and follow students to o understand how staff were responding to the kinds of problems they had.

We also worked with front-line teams to analyse where we could improve things and how we could support them in delivering the service. We put our objective scoring system into action to identify what UNITE’s teams were doing well and where there were opportunities for us to help change their approach. From this context-setting exercise, we worked out that we’d need to develop a two-pronged training programme concentrating on culture change and skills.

Changing the service experience

The overall aim of the programme was to encourage staff to live and breathe the company’s new values, and to give them the confidence to deal more effectively with difficult situations.

We complimented broader ideas around customer experience and service delivery with key pain points highlighted by the research. This included more human-centred approach to communication. We launched the new approach through a series of workshops and interactive events.

Rather than boring everyone to tears with dry theory, we kept the workshops focused on real life situations, using fun games and actual examples to help the skills stick. We explored communication from a range of angles: spoken, written, body language, even the art of listening.

To ensure that the whole organisation got behind the training objectives, every customer-facing team was involved.

Reducing complaints and conflict

Central to the programme was teaching staff how to deal with difficult situations, particularly in conflict resolution. We encouraged teams to put themselves in the shoes of their customers, thinking back to the concerns they and their own parents had had when they went to university or college, such as making friends, safety and security, and a homely environment.

We then coached staff in how to make small changes to their approach to help them communicate in a professional tone of voice without being corporate or reading from a script. This would help them respond empathically to problems, establishing a rapport and creating a more caring customer experience for students and their parents.

UNITE had also asked us to train their own training teams, so the final stage of the project focused on teaching UNITE’s internal training staff to coach their own teams, Rubuss-style.

Following our training with UNITE, we were delighted to receive some kind words from the organisation’s Brand Director, who had this to say about our training programme:

“UNITE is a complex organisation with a huge range of stakeholders, and Rubuss has really spent time understanding the business. The clarity and lack of pretence in their brand work has made getting our new values across simpler. And their comms training has been very different from the sort of training our teams are used to – it’s much more likely to engage and enthuse.”

With their new and improved service skills, UNITE’s teams are now better equipped to deal with the unpredictable nature of caring for students and their parents. In practice, that’s meant that the organisation’s rebrand has been so much more than a paperwork exercise – it’s transformed the company’s approach to customer experience. And that’s exactly what we’re here for.

In summary

  • Following a rebrand Unite wanted to look at ways to improve their service experience and support front line teams.
  • We developed a new, customer-focused approach to service design, student care and improving the customer experience.
  • We rolled this out through a range of workshops, training and events.