Hanging on the Telephone

Philip Fisher
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Increasingly, finding a large organisation that is willing to answer the telephone within a reasonable period is becoming a rarity. The inevitable consequence is deeply-felt frustration.

In recent weeks, HM Revenue and Customs has not enjoyed favourable publicity in this respect. First, there was an answer in Parliament suggesting that the typical waiting time was four minutes. This sounds an awfully long time but it was soon trumped by a Freedom of Information Act response suggesting that the real answer is 5½ minutes. At some time, an enterprising journalist might wish to ask the relevant minister about the 40% discrepancy between these two answers.

In reality the situation at HMRC is far worse for the average "customer". The Low Incomes Tax Reform Group recently carried out a mystery shop and discovered that it took on average 29 minutes for a call to be picked up.

It seems only a matter of time before somebody (possibly the Guinness Book of Records) attempts to establish a record in excess of one hour.

This article was not intended to be a piece of HMRC bashing and indeed, they are probably no worse than many other organisations. In the past, your columnist has been astounded at the inability of companies that run telephone services i.e. major utilities suppliers, to answer the telephone at all.

In the last couple of weeks, the villains of the piece have been eBay and PayPal. To be fair to eBay, very few customers will have problems in persuading them to answer the phone since it is nigh on impossible to find a telephone number to ring.

Their sister company, PayPal is equally hard to get hold of, first of all using a series of telephone loops in which you are asked to type in numbers that will eventually take you back to where you started. Given enough combinations it is possible to speak to an individual with what might be a Filipino accent. This person is merely another blockage to any attempt to talk with someone in the United Kingdom to actually knows what they are doing.

One thing that these companies don't seem to realise (or maybe they do) is that by the time that the poor punter gets through to a real person, the complaint has expanded out of all proportion and what would have been a calm conversation 5/10/30 minutes before is often far more heated and confrontational after a long and increasingly annoying wait.

To summarise, trying to speak to anyone in a utility or major organisation within 10 minutes appears to be close to impossible. Once the phone is actually answered, things may be little better as call centre operatives on the far side of the world, hiding their inability to speak or understand our language behind Anglicised names, attempt to assist with problems that they cannot understand.

That statement in the first sentence of the last paragraph should seem amazing to those of us that are service suppliers. I feel terrible if my phone trips over to voicemail and only slightly less so if it gets to a secretary.

The whole service that a Top 10 firm of accountants is able to offer depends on delivery and reliability. I naturally expect that any potential client who cannot speak to me or to someone similarly qualified within a period of seconds would automatically give up on PKF and try an alternative (who will obviously not be nearly as good as we are).

Somewhere, there appears to be a tacit agreement that there is no need to service customers in a decent way any longer. This is obviously going to be easier for those in monopoly positions or where there are only a few players in a market, all of whom operate to the same low service standards.

In the past, before automated telephone systems were introduced, the choice was either to get an engaged tone or speak to an individual based in the United Kingdom. Call centres on the far side of the world were unheard of, so the worst-case scenario was an interminable succession of engaged tones.

Are we really any better off today in a world where telephones do not get answered and when they are, the call centre operatives do not know what they are doing? The comedy when one eventually asks to speak to a manager would be worthy of PG Wodehouse. Typically, this will lead to a promise (guaranteed to be broken) that they will call back within 24 hours.

Perhaps it is time for one or two major organisations to begin to reverse this trend by employing a sufficient number of competent people to answer the telephone. In this way, they would gain many customers from pathetic rivals. Wouldn't it be great if HMRC led the way so that they began to get the kind of press that boosts staff morale and increases "customer" confidence in an organisation that could easily be second to none?

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By Flash Gordon
04th Jul 2012 10:33


I love BT - you have to jump through hoops to get through to a human being when your broadband falls over and then get transferred (or actually just given another number to ring) but they can manage to ring you on multiple occasions to try and persuade you that your life would be vastly superior if you had their faster broadband despite you having told them where to shove it on every previous occasion. I try to be polite but one day........

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to Tim Vane
05th Jul 2012 12:35

The (I thought not-so) secret...

...way to get through much faster is to ignore the complaint (or whatever eupehenism a particular organisation may call it) line that they provide. Instead, find their sales number (clearly not all organisations will have one, such as water companies).


If you call this number, you will find yourself speaking to someone far, far more quickly, and most likely it will be someone in the UK (I can't promise that their English will be any better/more understandable, they might be from Glasgow!).

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04th Jul 2012 13:02

When do they start counting?

I wonder where HMRC actually take their timings from - the point of first entering their system or the point when their system eventually realises that you actually want (need) to speak to a real person and if the information could be found on their website you would have found it.

I timed a recent call to HMRC. It took over four minutes just to get through their tortuous "press 1 for ....., 2 for ......., 3 for .......  etc. Each time I decided which option to choose, I was met with another series of options, and another, and another.

When there were no further options left and the phone started ringing in a real person's office it took just over ten minutes for someone to answer. Total time taken to actually speak to someone - just short of fifteen minutes.

Oh - and I didn't mention that this was my second attempt. On the first, I inadvertantly chose the wrong option and was cut off very quickly with no way back.

Clients ask us why we don't just ring HMRC to sort out problems. We can't afford the ******* time is the short answer.


John Perry


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06th Jul 2012 12:05

A money earner? ...

I apologise for talking about phones in general rather than HMRC answer them but ...

... the forgotten point in all this is that the utility companies get income from the telephone call that you make.  So keeping you waiting for a long time is generating money for them!

Of course this did not happen when where was no one there to answer the phone as you just got the engaged signal.

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