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It's not about the call

By Ian Holloway, head of legislation and compliance at Cintra HR & Payroll Services

The National Audit Office’s report on 25 May 2016 entitled “The quality of service for personal taxpayers” attracted the headline announcement that call waiting times were, on average, 15 minutes in 2015-16.

This has reduced to five minutes following an increase in performance in the second half of 2015-16. At the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) on 13 June 2016, HMRC accepted that poor telephone answering affected their quality of service to taxpayers but it was acknowledged by all that call answering times had improved.

I tried to watch as much of the PAC/HMRC discussion as I could and, at times, it was uncomfortable viewing, especially the questions that were put to Ruth Owen, director general for customer service. The call waiting times were discussed and analysed in depth – and it was quite right that they were. I think the length of time hanging on the telephone was brought into perspective when PAC said that in 2015, HMRC’s customers spent four million hours listening to “holding music”, making it the second most streamed music in 2015!

As I said, it is absolutely correct that HMRC should be questioned about poor customer service. However, I would say that good customer service does not simply mean that the telephone has to be answered quicker. A true reflection of whether or not HMRC are providing a good service is whether they can answer the question that the “customer” poses. It may be that HMRC are answering the telephone in less than five minutes now, though that is a meaningless statistic if the information is not correct when the taxpayer or employer eventually gets through. In my opinion, this is a truer reflection of good customer service, though I do not think that the accuracy of the answers was ever brought into the discussion.

I go back to an earlier blog of mine and reiterate that I also believe HMRC’s customers need to look at the way they engage with HMRC.

This is the 21st century and the way we engage with everyone is changing. The telephone will always be needed and I fully appreciate that. However, so much can be done online using the personal tax account.

Having advocated this before, based purely on a conference speech by Phil Nilson, I thought that I would test it myself. I was not very hopeful, I must admit. This was not because I doubted HMRC’s tool – more that I doubted myself. I am not the most technically minded individual and signing to use the personal tax account came straight off the back of an unfortunate digital weekend – without knowing, believing that I was going to be taken to a confirmation page, I managed to pay for something using PayPal in the morning and subscribe to a trial of Amazon Prime in the afternoon. However, I managed to register with the minimum of fuss but with the maximum of security. I am not a very interesting or complex taxpayer, so the information was limited. However, all that was displayed to me was accurate, including my NICs history and state pension forecast. There is even an overpayment of tax that I did not realise I had (for £2.91).

In short and to finish off, HMRC look to be improving their customer service in terms of call waiting times and the focus needs to be on maintaining this. Although, a truer reflection of good service is in the quality and accuracy of the information that is given and, unfortunately, that does not appear to be the focus of attention. Plus, we need to think about how we engage with HMRC. If we can bank online and buy from auction sites, surely many of us can also deal with our tax affairs this way. Personally, I am finding that completing my tax return is much easier and more secure than using eBay.

Posted on 21st June 2016 by Jerome Smail



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