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DNA results are turning customer-service reps into therapists

In the business of consumer DNA testing, customer service is sometimes a lot more like emotional support because of the life-altering surprises that can sometimes surface

By Kristen Brow  /  Bloomberg

Parents in October help their children to operate a claw crane machine in Taipei. DNA testing is revealing some unhappy truths about a child’s relationship to its parents.

Photo: AFP

It was a one-line chat reply from an AncestryDNA customer-service rep that ripped Catherine St. Clair’s life apart.

St. Clair, 57, is her family’s resident genealogist and had sent her saliva to Ancestry for testing. So when her brother Mike showed up as a “first cousin or close relative,” she assumed it must be a glitch. Even stranger: The test showed that someone she had never heard of was a much closer genetic match than Mike.

She contacted the company through the Web site’s chat feature. Calmly, a representative named Pam explained centimorgans, a unit for measuring genetic linkage. Siblings, Pam said, normally share about 2,600 centimorgans of DNA, while half-siblings share 1,800.

“She said, ‘Go click on the little icon by his name. It will tell you how much you share with him,’” St. Clair recalled. “And when I clicked on it, that’s when the floor fell out from under me.” Mike wasn’t her full brother. They didn’t share the same father.


In the business of consumer DNA testing, customer service is sometimes a lot more like emotional support. Though genetic tests are frequently marketed as family-friendly entertainment, they sometimes wind up surfacing life-altering surprises. And when those surprises show up in someone’s test results, the first move is often a call to customer service.

“We don’t really play the role of therapist, but rather listen and try to be sympathetic and empathetic, getting them to process things,” said Kent Hillyer, head of customer care for the genetic-testing firm 23andMe.

At 23andMe, those types of calls are so frequent that preparing for them is integrated into the company’s months-long training program. The most common issue, said Hillyer, is when a customer’s presumed father doesn’t show up on a test as the genetic dad. But sometimes mothers or siblings are a surprise, too.

“How most of those conversations start is people come to us to verify the accuracy,” Hillyer said. “Somebody has known something their whole life and then this company is telling them something different. It’s tough. And then it’s like, ‘Hey, I’m heading to a Thanksgiving dinner. Can you help me out with this before I go have this conversation with my mother?’”

In training, new employees do mock phone calls and role playing to prepare for such conversations

“We practice empathy and sympathy,” said Hillyer. “A lot of it is just listening. We always try to steer the conversation toward the data, tell them that this is science,” he added.

At Ancestry, Kathy Luke, vice president of member services, said a special team of representatives handles sensitive queries.

“There are certainly cases where a discovery might be quite unexpected,” she said. “We take our responsibility toward our customers — and the potential impact of complex discoveries — very seriously.”

“We practice empathy and sympathy. A lot of it is just listening.”


Such emotional calls can take a toll on employees, too. That’s perhaps inevitable when technology interfaces with such sensitive, personal information. Earlier this year, a former content moderator at Facebook went so far as to file a class-action lawsuit claiming the social-media giant didn’t go far enough in protecting them from the mental trauma caused by screening imagery of things like rape, torture and suicide.

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