Lessons from Centrelink: 7 steps to undoing anger caused by automation


Psychologist Eve Ash offers seven tips for handling complaints from angry clients, which can easily spike when automated systems behave in unexpected ways.

Around the world there have been debacles caused by automation. A Michigan government agency wrongly accused 20,000 people of fraudulently seeking unemployment benefits. Imagine the angry clients!

Centrelink started the year badly. An upsurge of complaints about its over-zealous, frequently inaccurate robo-debt collection methods might hopefully spell an end of misplaced bureaucratic faith in automation — and prompt a review of who really should be targeted in the quest for recouping dollars.

The Age‘s economic editor Peter Martin described the debacle as a worrying reversal of the “innocent until proven guilty” premise on which our laws are based. It’s certainly a misapplication, or non-application, of good governance principles.

Looking at this mess from the perspective of Centrelink’s staff, there are nevertheless ways to overcome the anger towards any organisation left mopping up afterwards.

Public service and serving the public

Bureaucratic SNAFUs are not necessarily the fault of the many staff, but if you are on the payroll, you may have to handle the outpouring of anger and complaints. So if you’re employed by a business that has stuffed up, or work for the public service, here are some key strategies to get on with helping to sort the problem.

1. Avoid blame and accusation.

Don’t add to the problem by joining in and prolonging the blaming, don’t exaggerate and draw out the negatives — that is simply adding fuel to the fire.

2. Treat everyone individually

Remember that each “number” who comes before you or who calls you is actually a human being needing attention, despite many having the same issue (with you/your organisation). Listen to them and show empathy.

This may be your 100th response to the same complaint and it is still not even lunchtime, but it is their first time, so be as fresh and receptive as you can for each new person that crosses your path.

3. Apologise for problems resulting from your organisation’s processes or mistakes

It doesn’t matter whether it is a bottleneck, a mistake, a small or large delay, confusion, or lack of clarity. Acknowledge the problem and apologise on behalf of the business. Say:

“I’m sorry this has happened.”

“We are sorry this has caused a problem.”

“We are so sorry for the inconvenience.”

4. Help people — courteously, professionally and promptly

Most people want to be dealt with promptly and treated professionally — it’s not that hard, it’s just polite respectful behaviour. Ask yourself for each new client, ‘How can I help this person, so they feel they are treated well?’

5. Solve problems and find answers

People expect you to solve issues and they need you to help them find a clear path to the answers. Know your products and services inside out and deliver that knowledge in a practical, meaningful way, so confusion is removed.

Don’t assume it is straight forward. It may be to you but not necessarily for someone in a distressed state.

6. Deliver consistency, accuracy and reassurance

People want reliable consistent service. They don’t like your (organisation’s) mistakes and expect accuracy and advice. Most people also like reassurance.

7. Summarise the action plans

It’s refreshing to hear simple steps to achieve a result — and this is a great way to summarise a service scenario. Outline what you will do, and what they need to do, in order to achieve the result needed by both parties.

A service provider who makes an effort to apply these principles, irrespective of their job title, is already making a sizeable difference.

This piece was originally published at Smart Company.