Note to HMRC - web chats and Twitter are not going to solve your problems

Derek du Preez Profile picture for user ddpreez November 11, 2015
HMRC has been lambasted for its terrible customer service. It now thinks it can fix it with social media and web chats. I very much doubt it.

Last week we wrote about how the UK tax office, HMRC, was being publicly shamed by an influential select committee for its increasingly poor levels of customer service. The committee went as far as to say that HMRC’s customer service is so bad that it could directly be impacting revenue income for the UK.

Given the cuts that are facing the public sector in the UK at the moment, this will be devastating news to many a taxpayer.

However, this week permanent secretary and chief executive for the Whitehall department, has come out and said that the future of HMRC’s dealings with the public and businesses is likely to rely on web chats and social media - because HMRC will “always struggle to give a commitment to a particular amount of waiting time”.

Lin Homer took a grilling from the Commons Treasury Committee this week, which claimed that HMRC would have gone “bust” if it was operating in the private sector.

My message to HMRC is that Twitter and web chats are not going to solve its customer service problems. Why? Well, for a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, the problems customers often have when dealing with tax-related matters are so complex that they need to speak to a person.
  • Secondly, not many people would not feel comfortable discussing their personal tax queries on a public forum, or feel comfortable writing them down in text (even to a government organisation).
  • Thirdly, and most importantly, the problems HMRC is facing is likely due to the ridiculously poor systems that are currently in place for doing things like filing a tax return and for paying VAT. Those systems are so complicated it’s no wonder that HMRC is inundated with calls and complaints. To suggest social media and web chats will save HMRC some pain when it comes to customer service, is simply putting a band aid on the problem.

The real issue is the challenges HMRC faces in shifting away from its multi-year, legacy Aspire contract and moving towards a more agile, digitally focused environment.

The complaints

According to the Public Accounts Committee report released last week, in 2014 to 2015 HMRC responded to just 72.5% of calls. Over the first half of 2015, this response rate had dropped to an embarrassing 50%. This means that one in two calls just don’t get answered.

In the past HMRC has been lambasted by the Committee for having an “abysmal record on customer service”. The department had put in place a target of answering 80% of calls within five minutes, but even this, which is short of private sector standards, has fallen drastically.

The report said:

HMRC has consistently refused to set more demanding targets, however, and in 2014-15 it answered only 39% of calls within five minutes. HMRC did not provide us with any indication of when or by how much its customer service would improve, beyond a vague aim to improve year on year.

It acknowledged that people are more likely to pay the right tax when they find HMRC easy to deal with, but, in the words of its own Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary, “we are still struggling”. We are concerned that customer service levels are so bad that they are having an adverse impact on the collection of tax revenues.

We do social!

Appearing before this week’s Commons Treasury Committee, Homer told MPs that HMRC was “very apologetic” for the “poor service”. She said, however, that the situation had improved over the summer after hiring more staff and urged that she would change the “unacceptably poor” customer service.

But Holmer added that she didn’t think the answer to HMRC’s customer service problem was “simply to focus on telephony”. She said:

My point is that knowing we will always struggle to give to a commitment to a particular amount of time waiting, we believe we’ve got to offer different alternatives.

We are already one of the most digitally enabled departments in Whitehall and we think more and more people will use online services if we provide them.

If they can go online and check things and get reassurance, tell us simple things, we think that’s a far better service than waiting on a telephone. [We] already have a significant number of people that call our telephone line can deal with the call before they’re ever put through to a human being. They can leave the information or check something.

We’ve introduced tweeting, we do web chats, we’re doing online. And I think good service will be giving people a range of ways so that it isn’t just a choice of ‘when do I make the phone call and how long do I have to wait’.

The problem

Holmer’s response sheds a lot of light on the bureaucratic mindset often found in Whitehall. Instead of stating the obvious and saying that HMRC needs to hire X number of people to answer X number of calls more quickly, the trendy solutions of ‘social media’ and ‘web chats’ are thrown out to appease the criticism.

Don’t get me wrong, social media and web chats can be very effective methods of customer service when integrated with other channels of communication across a customer service organisation. But they tend to only be effective when dealing with simple queries (updates to a service that is down) or when they then lead in to other channels (someone on the phone).

Equally, whilst HMRC needs to get better at answering the phones, what really needs to happen is for

Lin Homer
Lin Homer

less people to be calling in. It shouldn’t really be about increasing the supply to meet the demand, it should be about reducing the demand through better service provision at the first point of contact.

This of course requires a complete redesign of services and new digital platforms. Something HMRC is trying to shift to. And faces a number of challenges in doing so. But to suggest social media and web chats are the answer, even in the short term, is ludicrous.

For example, last week I realised that I had filled in one of my quarterly VAT returns in incorrectly. I rang HMRC to find out how to solve this problem. After waiting well over half an hour to speak to someone, who took a while to tell me where I had gone wrong, I was then told I had to send a letter (yes, a letter!!) to someone at a corrections office, who then may or not be able to help me find a solution.

Do we not think that these are the services that if redesigned may lead to less calls? That would be my bet.

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