It is quite embarrassing for someone who works in the world of tax to admit that until a recent report was published, he had never heard of HMRC webchat.
That is a real shame since responses to a survey that underpinned the report suggest that, unlike so many offerings from the department, webchat has received a really positive thumbs-up from those who have tried it out.
Across the World Wide Web, the use of webchat facilities is becoming increasingly common. It is a relatively cheap way for companies to reduce telephone enquiries, thus cutting staff numbers, while providing support services typically from countries such as India and the Philippines.
These days, if you need software support or information about the minutiae of terms for your next business or holiday flight, the odds are that you will either use online FAQs or webchat rather than picking up the phone.
Given the success of this kind of support service, many in the profession and beyond might have wondered why HMRC had not thought about bringing in their own version.
It, therefore, should come as no surprise to find out that HMRC did so over two years ago, although the discovery is hardly a high point for their marketing arm since this is one light that it seems to have hidden far beneath a very large bushel. Even on logging into my own self-assessment tax return pages, HMRC Webchat’s existence wasn’t apparent.
At present, rather than offering a floating box on all relevant pages, as is the case with so many ISPs, mobile phone companies and retailers, the HMRC service is primarily visible only as an offering on contact or enquiry pages.
A query to HMRC’s press office elicited the information that there are around 50 offers of webchat built into guidance, personal tax account and other pages covering areas such as income tax, tax credits, VAT, child benefit and self-assessment. These should pop up after a defined period of time. It suggests that the best example is on the tax credits calculator where, as soon as someone gets stuck on a page for one minute (for example), a box will pop up to offer them the opportunity of a chat. This is mirrored on the personal tax account and agent online self-service pages.
The hidden advisers are trained to deal with the full range of enquiries and, if something is beyond them, will suggest the best alternative method of solving the problem.
Even then, if as a sample test showed the constant message is “all webchat advisers are busy at the moment” many will be put off and may never return. Apparently, this occurred because the attempt was made out of office hours, although no working hours were shown on the relevant page. In any event, HMRC really should consider providing this as 24/7 offering, presumably partly supported by workers overseas, which might present its own problems.
One hesitates to suggest it but, in line with every other part of the department, the real issue might be a shortage of staff for this team, although it has managed to deal with an average of 30,000 chats every week.
Going a step further, a helpful facility used by many other providers of similar services is a program that predicts the waiting time, allowing users to cut their losses and try later or get on with other activities while awaiting their personal chatter. Once again, HMRC would do well to follow suit.
A very positive report concludes “HMRC webchat is seen by those who use it as a high quality service and a positive way of interacting with HMRC compared to other channels, such as telephone. Suggestions for modifying the service were largely incremental improvements, and customers’ main concern was that the service should be more widely known that it is”.
This article was originally written a few weeks ago but held back until I had completed my own tax return. It will be brilliant to report that I fell over numerous opportunities for web chat and utilised on several occasions. In reality, despite walking away for a few minutes on a couple of occasions, there was no sign of the promised pop-up.
If any readers have practical experience of using the service, it would be interesting if they could share them.