Sat, Dec 22, 2018 - Page 13 News List

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

At 23andMe, Hillyer often encourages representatives to go for a walk after an intense call, or cracks open a bottle of wine to help them decompress.

“We kind of do these internal therapy sessions,” he said. “Here, maybe more so than most places, you have to be really supportive of each other.”

Lindsay Grove, a customer-care representative at 23andMe, still remembers one call in particular years later, a dad who took the test only to find out that his child was not, in fact, his child. At first, like most, he was just trying to figure out whether the results were accurate. So Grove explained the science behind the data. The customer then became somber and quiet. He questioned whether he should talk to his wife, and, if he did, how.

“You could hear the emotion in him, and hear his processing and wondering what he would do next,” she said. “That process of figuring out what to do next is very difficult for customers.”

The next step for St. Clair, who got the big surprise from Ancestry, was reaching out to the relative who showed up more closely related to her than her brother. She sent a message through the company’s Web site.

“I shared 2,172 centimorgans with her,” St. Clair said. That was just a little more than she had shared with her brother. A customer-service representative told her that meant the mystery relative was either a half-sibling, an aunt, an uncle, a niece or a nephew.

St. Clair and the mystery relative talked on the phone. It turned out they were, in fact, half-siblings. Her mother had worked for her newfound-sister’s dad in 1960, around the same time that St. Clair was conceived. Both of her parents died years ago, so it was too late for St. Clair to confront them about the discovery.

St. Clair went on to start a Facebook group for people like her called DNA NPE Friends. NPE is short for “not parent expected.” It now has more than 4,000 members and is one of several such groups. Recently, St. Clair began the process to register it as a nonprofit, advocating for emotional support for the thousands of people who take DNA tests and find out their family isn’t exactly the family they expected.

“It’s so deep, the way this affects our role in the family and our relationship to our parents,” she said. “It is traumatic.”

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