Seeing change – one phone call at a time

Kiri Marshall grew up in a forestry community that was wary of bureaucracy. Now she is proud to be working in the ACC Contact Centre, changing attitudes and making a difference. Kathy Ombler chats to her.

Kiri Marshall tears up when she talks about her team. To her, they are family. They’re all on the frontline phones together, facing pain, grief, and frustration. But she knows that after yet another hard call, she can spin her chair around and that team will be there ready to support her, give her a hug, or fetch a cuppa.

Kiri (Ngāti Whakaue and Tūhourangi-Ngāti Wāhiao) is a Senior Customer Experience Representative, working out of the ACC Contact Centre in Te Rapa, Hamilton. It’s the largest of three call centres in the country.

“We get thousands of calls a day from across New Zealand. Communications also come in through webchats and emails. We can be dealing with anyone from medical providers who treat our clients to business owners who want to discuss their levies to people with injuries who need to discuss their claim.

“We are the first people they speak to, and that is a responsibility I take seriously. We take them through the things they need to know and ask them the things we need to know so that they can be directed to the correct person.

“We can genuinely make a difference in somebody’s life, and that is a real privilege.”

Kiri has worked for the government agency since 2021. “I have a Diploma in Tourism and a Batchelor in Broadcasting Communications (Radio) and was working in the Rotorua i-SITE when I took maternity leave. Then COVID happened, and when I was looking to return to the workforce, there was nothing in my field of tourism.”

However, there was a job at ACC. “Reading about the values and purpose of the agency made me really interested. The job description stated that they wanted to change the perception of how people see ACC and that people were valued before process. To me, that stood out. If people need support, we can react to their needs. If a person calls and needs urgent transport to surgery, we can help. It meant being able to do things that could change people’s lives.

“Also, I come from a rural community near Rotorua, and my Dad was in the bush. Everyone in our street worked in the bush. There were often injuries and then problems with ACC, along with general mistrust around it being a government agency.”

Working at the Contact Centre has given Kiri a new perspective.

“Now I understand and can explain to my people what is covered by ACC, and if something isn’t covered, I can tell them which agencies they can go to for help. Otherwise, if they don’t get that information, they’d have a negative experience and go away feeling bitter. This has been a wonderful opportunity – to be able to take that understanding home to help my community.”

Kiri started her new role with a six-week training course, but says most learning is on the job. “There’s only so much you can learn by modules. A lot of my learning was by buddying up with someone more senior and listening in. The rest is just being on the phones. There’s no textbook for every single call; you never know what’s going to happen. Even after two years, I’ll think, wow I’ve never heard that before.”

And there are some tough ones.

“We get calls from whānau when a family member has died in an accident. They have to call us to file an accidental death form. Sometimes it’s very soon after the passing. It is really emotional; you can hear the pain in their voice, and everyone around them is also grieving. All you can do is be someone neutral they can talk to, and all you can say is, ‘I’m sorry for your loss’. It’s really hard.”

On many calls, Kiri says it is just listening to people and hearing their stories that’s important.

“People get frustrated. Money is a big emotional pull. It’s how people feed their families and pay their rent, so if their ACC payment stops for any reason, these calls can be tough. People can say mean things when they are emotional and not feeling heard or respected.

“So you give them that opportunity, to explain their frustration and talk through the problem, and sometimes that’s all it takes for us to be able to help them. There can be confusion over what is an injury and what is a sickness, and we can explain this. We can also make suggestions, such as getting an advocate or doing a review. We always try to help, and when you do find a solution, that is really satisfying.”

Offering access to rongoā Māori health, recently introduced by ACC, is a huge thing for Kiri.

“Sometimes Western medicines don’t work for our people, or they are not aligned to our spiritual beliefs. Rongoā Māori is something that I find very easy to talk about with our Māori clients, who might not be familiar with things like physiotherapy or acupuncture. The moment you tell them about options for mirimiri, or herbal healings, they know exactly what you are talking about. You can feel the relief and the trust, and all of a sudden we are speaking the language of the people who may otherwise have fallen through the cracks.

“To know that the organisation is genuinely trying to make a difference for Māori was a consideration for me when I signed up for this role. I wanted to know how we could ensure that Māori weren’t going to be left behind or forgotten.”

Kiri is also impressed with other types of ACC-funded support.

“I work on the sensitive claims line, and support can include therapies like horse riding and painting for trauma, as well as yoga retreats. It’s not just, go see the physio and get back to work. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought a government agency would be funding these things. It makes me proud.

“We are so lucky in New Zealand to have a scheme like ACC – it is unique. I really want to let people know how we can help.”

Not everyone understands the different types and the volume of support that ACC offers, and yes, ACC staff do receive criticism on the phones. Kiri asks for patience.

“We want to help. Be patient with us. We understand you might be hurt, in pain, or frustrated, but we are the first people you speak to and we are not robots following a script. A lot of time it comes down to needing more information, then it’s our clinical advisors who are qualified to make decisions. We don’t make those decisions ourselves – we deal with them using kindness and humanity and try to get them to the right place.

“We treat every person with respect, and we expect that in return.”

She sometimes wonders if they could do more for clients. “I’ve been pretty vocal in asking questions – is there more that we can do? We have our own hot lines if we’re unhappy about something and can channel support advisors to help us if we need support.”

And she has her team – her “family”.

“The Contact Centre has people from all walks of life, and we are all really supportive of each other. We know what everyone is going through. We all have good calls and bad calls, and we take the time to talk things through and build each other up when things get challenging. If we’re upset and something wasn’t quite right on a call, we can communicate that with each other. I have taken some tough calls and owe a lot of credit to my team for their support.

“Quite simply, we show up every day because we want to be here.”

Kiri was surprised to be called a “public service hero”.

“I just come to work each day to try to make a positive difference in people’s lives. You never know what’s going to be on the end of that call. Whoever or whatever, it is my job to look after them, to be their kaitiaki and guide them to the right place.”