HMRC’s falling performance and how it needs to fix its relationship with agents

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HMRC’s performance has dropped, so what does it need to do to restore service levels?

Accountants and bookkeepers are frustrated by a decrease in the quality of service provided by HMRC over the past 12 months, particularly in relation to HMRC’s Agent Dedicated Line (ADL), the official helpline for accountants and tax advisers.

According to HMRC, the ADL was set up to address ‘complex queries’, but has now gone ‘beyond this remit’. However, the pandemic created a need for HMRC to prioritise services and resources on COVID-19 support schemes and UK Brexit transition, resulting in a reduction in service of the ADL.

Accountants and tax advisers have reported:

  • Increased telephone hold times.
  • Being passed between several HMRC call handlers.
  • Inability to call on behalf of multiple clients at any one time.
  • Overall reduction in expertise from HMRC call handlers.

HMRC stated during virtual meetings with the Representative Body Steering Group held during December 2020 and February 2021 that it was ‘unable’ to reprioritise the ADL at the current time, although it recognised the issues many agents have reported. HMRC is currently working to address some of the specific issues and confirmed during recent meetings:

  • More than 5,000 colleagues are working on JRS/SA/SSP webchat and calls.
  • More experienced staff are being put into ADL.
  • Call handlers have been advised that agents can call on behalf of multiple clients.
  • The call abandon rate has been reduced despite averaging quite high numbers: 300,000 calls a week; 370,000 webchats.
  • Webchat is currently still unable to deal with multi-client enquiries, however.

We’ve asked several accountants what HMRC should do to improve its performance levels over the next year.

Train HMRC staff using ‘real experience’ scenarios to avoid the scripted approach

Lucy Cohen, co-founder Mazuma

Waiting times seem to have increased, with some callers claiming to have waited more than 40 minutes. Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, alongside furloughed staff and regular SEISS claims, hit the service quality over the past 14 months significantly and, due to this, customers may be deterred from seeking financial assistance from HMRC, which may result in errors or penalties.

Clients and agents share similar thoughts that, especially over the past year, HMRC’s helpline often feels scripted or uninformed and, in some cases, like VAT queries, you are passed on to other departments or, more irritatingly, given another number to call. The issue with this is that HMRC departments don’t seem to liaise with each other, so each transfer call is a blank canvas, and you can be left feeling frustrated with an unresolved question. This can be particularly discouraging when simple tasks, such as requesting SA302 statements that merely provide evidence of earnings, become very complicated and time-consuming for all involved.

Next steps: It would be worth HMRC considering internal training with ‘real experience’ scenarios to avoid the protocol script approach. Call operators, particularly on the ADL, should be well informed and equipped to deal with accountants’ queries. Operationally, a liaising of different internal departments with clear communication lines will make easier access for both internal and caller parties.

Verdict: HMRC should retrain staff using ‘real experience’ scenarios to avoid the protocol script approach.

Increase the number of call handlers

Dermot Kennedy, partner at Giltinan and Kennedy LLP

My view of HMRC is that the service of late has been pretty poor. You’re always on hold for a long time.

On the plus side, it has been pretty helpful if you have specific problems with finance and paying bills, but the real issue is getting through to someone in the first place. It’s become worse since the pandemic because HMRC has put all its resources into the COVID-19 response.

When you do get through to a call handler, you’re often redirected to another call handler and you’re often left waiting for 45 to 50 minutes; it’s become atrocious. You constantly feel like you’re hitting a brick wall. The ADL line in particular is just as bad, there are always delays on the line.

Next steps: HMRC needs to put more staff on the phone line and the expertise and advice needs to be sharper. It’s really slipped of late.

Verdict: Increase the number of call handlers and improve the quality of advice offered.

Inform callers of queue position or offer a call-back service

Claudine Norden FCCA CTA, tax manager, Clive Owen LLP

HMRC’s ADL has always been a very useful service, but as an accountancy practice, we would agree that the service is not as good as it once was.

Partly due to the coronavirus pandemic and partly due to advisers being seconded to other departments, we have found that the time it takes to speak to an adviser has increased significantly over the past 12 months. Time spent waiting for a call to be answered can be anything up to an hour at certain times of the day, with a typical wait time of 15 to 30 minutes. 

While ourselves and our clients find the length of time taken to answer a call frustrating, the time it takes for correspondence to be answered is even more so. When calling HMRC recently to chase a penalty appeal sent in late February, I was told that the correspondence had been received and we could expect a response by 22 July, some five months after the original appeal was submitted.

Some advisers do appear to be more experienced than others and unless your query is straightforward, you are usually advised that they will send a referral to the relevant team, which will call you back within five working days.

Next steps: In the not-too-distant past you could ask to speak to an inspector if one was available. This does not happen now possibly due a reduction in staff numbers, but it was helpful to have a resolution to your query straight away. In addition, it would be helpful if there was a way to inform callers of their position in the queue while on hold or instead, requesting a call back within a certain period of time.

Verdict: Inform callers of their queue position or offer a call-back service.

Annie Makoff is a freelance journalist and editor.

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