The lady at Medicare hugged me.
Over the last few months I've been dealing with government departments A LOT due to a significant and unexpected change in our family circumstances. We've spent more hours than I dare count dealing with at least 5 different departments across several jurisdictions. These departments are the kind most people want to avoid if they can, and pretty much all of these agencies spend a lot of time in our news cycle due to the numbers of mistakes, bad process and terrible customer service that they provide. This is not an article about how bad they are.
I would be lying if I said that there haven't been problems (there has) or that there have not been experiences that made me question whether or not we are failing some of our most vulnerable people (we are). But amongst all of these interactions I've been reminded time and time again of the significant and caring work that is being done by our public service to make things better.
This week the lady at Medicare hugged me. And it wasn't weird.
I first met the lady at Medicare in the week before Christmas and she couldn't help me sort out my problem. Instead she took the time to empathetically tell me that I needed other departments to process their paperwork before she could help me. She was empathetic because she asked me how I was going, explained that she could see how frustrating the process must be and then she made contact with the other departments to advocate on my behalf. Due to the time of year she encouraged me to try resolving my problem online. She couldn't do anything to fix my problem, but her empathy meant that I left her office and headed into the stressful Christmas period without too much worry.
Because my situation was complex I had thought that the best way to deal with it was to speak with someone in person. I've been a long time believer that online interactions are great for resolving simple customer problems, but that complexity is something best dealt with by humans. I was wrong.
The online Centrelink portal didn't judge me when I told it why it I was there. It didn't give me any knowing glances or frustration because I was eating into it's lunch break. My situation was indeed complex, but the computer knew the rules and how it applied to me. It didn't need to go and check with a manager or to look something up in a reference book. The computer accepted what I told it as truth, adapted to my circumstances and provided me with correct information that would be very difficult for any human to keep in their mind on the odd occasion that someone in my unique circumstance turned up to ask a question. When I was done, it intelligently suggested additional relevant information and asked if I would like to submit additional requests to make sure that I received all the help that I was entitled to.
When I saw the lady at Medicare again this week she remembered me. She asked how my family was. She asked if my problem had been resolved. When I explained that there was still one final thing to fix she called her supervisor to make sure that she could do it on the spot so that I wouldn't have to come back. She explained to me that through her training she understands that her role is about providing good customer service. She again empathised that when people come to see her it's normally because something is wrong and that dealing with so many departments whilst you are stressed is really hard. She clearly understood her role and how these interactions impact on her customers well-being during an already hard time. She also understood that if her help means that I don't have to come back in again everyone wins. As I got up to leave she wished me the best, hugged me and said "now go and enjoy life".
I've learnt through this experience that providing empathetic and human customer service isn't as simple as just employing humans. It requires process, training, good information, systems and much much more. This is a difficult thing to get right but when we do it can make a huge difference to peoples lives and happiness. Technology can help us to provide better more human services, but technology alone won't do the job. Humans give better hugs.