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Centrelink seeks advanced customer aggression training, prepares Watson for the front lines

12 January 2017
Stephen Easton
The Mandarin

As the pressure ramps up on Human Services Minister Allan Tudge over Centrelink’s most recent attempts to claw back billions paid out through the welfare system, the department is putting together a new procurement panel for “advanced customer aggression training” and preparing to roll out front-line virtual assistants.

The request for tenders to join a panel of advanced customer aggression training suppliers went out last year, only just before the rolling #notmydebt public relations disaster hit the headlines and began to build up steam over the summer break, rapidly getting its own website where aggrieved citizens share their tales of woe.

The Department of Human Services requires “more robust, specific and experiential learning options to equip service delivery staff with de-escalation techniques and skills when managing challenging, escalating, and risky customer aggression situations” for customer-facing staff, team leaders and managers, according to the notice.

As well as de-escalation, negotiation and other conflict resolution techniques, groups of up to 18 staff will learn how to “safely disengage from the customer” when it isn’t working, as well as emergency response and post-incident procedures. The department suggests the courses might include role-playing scenarios filmed by the training provider.

Meanwhile, DHS has also been playing around with virtual assistants, so perhaps one day, the worst aggressive customers will be able to do is rage against the machine, literally. One virtual assistant called Roxy, based on Microsoft Cortana technology, is reportedly already answering almost 80% of questions raised internally by claims processing staff while two other separate systems based on IBM’s Watson might begin taking on front-line customer service duties in the next few months.

Customer aggression faced by Centrelink can take many forms and occur through various communication channels. The Community and Public Sector Union has long argued it is far too common and a result of inadequate staffing or mandatory policy and procedures that are not fair to welfare recipients, such as the new arrangements for raising and recovering suspected over-payments.

This week, the union warned of a “perfect storm” when the debt recovery program combines with the annual “avalanche” of student applications for Youth Allowance.

“The serious problems with this debt recovery program are piling on even more pressure, and feeding more aggression from understandably frustrated customers,” said assistant national secretary Michael Tull. “We hold very serious concerns about Centrelink’s ability to cope in coming months.”