Millions of people have taken home DNA test kits, some with surprising, even shocking results. What’s it like to work at a company call center explaining sensitive discoveries to stressed-out customers? “Good Morning America” went behind the scenes with the customer service team at 23andMe to find out.
Jason White, 46, called 23andMe three times to complain about his results. The Shreveport, Louisiana, construction worker told the company that he was struggling to find matches with his family members and asked for a new test free of charge. But through the service he would eventually be connected to a relative he didn’t know he had and he would realize a jarring truth: the man who raised him was not his biological father.
"The operator told me that I wouldn’t be the first one to find out that I had a father or a different family than I thought. She said it’s happened quite often," White shared with "GMA."
23andMe explained White’s story to "GMA," telling ABC’s Kayna Whitworth it is not unique. When customers find new family members, they ask customer representatives "how to contact them, what to say to them," said Lindsay Grove, senior product specialist.
"We’ve had customers tell us they’re on their way to Thanksgiving dinner and they’re wondering how to bring this up," Kent Hillyer, head of customer care, told "GMA."
Representatives are given three months of specialized training in DNA science and practice role-playing to handle difficult conversations. The team also has daily meetings to discuss what customers are dealing with and how to handle it.
Grove told "GMA" that while sometimes she feels like a therapist, "we obviously aren’t therapists so we can’t act as one. But listening and being sympathetic and empathetic is definitely part of the process" of helping customers understand what they’re seeing.
"We have a very collaborative team and I can ask for help at any time," another representative told "GMA." The team constantly participates in stress relieving activities, such as going to the on-site gym, bringing their dogs to work and taking breaks to have coffee together.
"There’s definitely positive interactions as well," Grove said. "There’s also cases where it’s a new relative they didn’t know."
That is the case with White, who connected with his new half-brother, Dan, sharing his love of body building.
"If you ever met a family member you never knew you had, it is amazing," White said.
DNA test kit companies 23andMe, Ancestry and MyHeritage all caution customers online about unexpected results and have specialized teams to handle sensitive situations.
Ancestry told "GMA" in a statement that, "Almost everyone who takes our AncestryDNA test finds something surprising as they embark on a self-discovery journey with us, and for most customers it’s something exciting and enriching."
The statement continued: "But there are certainly cases where a discovery might be quite unexpected. We take our responsibility towards our customers -- and the potential impact of complex discoveries -- very seriously."
MyHeritage told GMA it "offers customer support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week,” and that its support team members “speak over 15 languages fluently, to ensure that most of our global members could receive assistance in their native language."
MyHeritage added that it's support team receives extensive training related to genealogy and DNA, and that the number of people who contact them about unexpected results is small. But, it says, those cases are passed on to DNA support experts to help users understand the science behind the test.
A team of researchers can also offer support for those that were adopted who are actively searching for their biological family. Additionally, its DNA Quest project has donated 15,000 MyHeritage DNA kits to people in more than 70 countries around the world to assist them in their search for biological family.
“GMA” spoke with medical experts who say learning new information about your life will always have a significant impact. It’s important to have support and not be afraid to seek professional counseling.