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HMRC needs customer service lessons

9th Sep 2009
Tax Consultant freelance
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Despite all the talk about being 'customer facing', HMRC's customer service remains shocking, says Simon Sweetman.

It will come as no surprise to anyone that HMRC is still in a mess, but it still sometimes brings me up short.

A client of mine made a disclosure under the original offshore disclosure initiative. There was rental income from the Isle of Man, but as it had been taxed there at 18% there was very little to pay. All the same she got selected as one of the ones to be looked at more closely under a process that was not quite an enquiry but didn’t seem entirely sure what it actually was. This was possibly because she is non-domiciled, and possibly because she was in fact late with her tax returns.

The pseudo-enquiry has plodded on without getting anyone very far, with the usual change of officer in midstream. That is not the point, though.

The 2006/7 return was finally submitted in July (on paper of course) and processed almost immediately. That processing took all the figures from the return except one, but that one was the tax suffered in the Isle of Man on the rental income. This was ‘passed to a higher grade officer to review’ because it was too difficult to be just part of the process. That was on 20 July (although we didn’t know that at the time).

On 12 August my client called, distressed by a demand for tax much larger than I had suggested. A little work on the HMRC website showed what the problem was - the offset for the Isle of Man tax had not been given. I had to make phone calls to the Debt Recovery and to the Self Assessment teams, which was when I found out what had happened. After some discussion it was agreed that Debt Recovery would hold off for 21 days while the ‘higher officer’ bestirred himself.

On 3 September my client called again. She had further paperwork with the same huge figures. In fact this was not Debt Recovery jumping the gun; they turned out to be surcharge notices (with an issue date of 13 August – batch processing again). This led me to check and I discovered that nothing had happened. So it was back on the phone again, where I discovered that the local tax office could not put me though to the right debt recovery office because nobody was answering the phone there, which meant that they could not do a ‘warm handover’ and were not allowed to give out the number. Then the local debt recovery office couldn’t put me through to the right one because they didn’t actually have the right number at all.

In the end I rang the officer dealing with the enquiry who turned out to be (after all) the ‘higher officer’ I needed. “No problem at all”, he said. He would authorise the adjustment and allow relief for the Isle of Man tax that afternoon. It wasn’t on screen the next day, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

What none of this does (despite all the talk about being ‘customer facing’) is take any account of the taxpayer’s state of mind. The trouble is that this is routine rather than exceptional. Today I got a briefing note apologising for the problems caused by centralising work on CT returns, not to mention a release saying that more than half of Britain’s university students do not realise that they have to pay tax if they earn money (but it would be hard to blame HMRC for that).

Now I don’t think that HMRC’s approach to its clients is unusual, and there are serial offenders among big companies whose record is probably much worse. There are so many big companies who don’t answer emails or give you a contact telephone number. However, I suspect the problem is the same: They’re trying to do the job with too few and inadequately trained people.
 

Replies (17)

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By kenfrost
09th Sep 2009 11:29

Quel Surprise!

Hardly "new" news is it?

I have been banging on about "customer" (such an absurd name for taxpayers) care issues for ages.

www.hmrcisshite.com

www.hmrconline.com

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By Paula Sparrow
09th Sep 2009 11:56

But at least with a big company you can vote with your feet when

Recourse for taxpayers is non-existent when faced with such poor "service".

I understand that the term "customer" is now being used in an effort to change the perception of taxpayers held by Revenue staff  -  and I can in fact now see the logic behind the idea - but the problems are entrenched, and it is going to be a very long process which may indeed ultimately fail in its objective, purely because the department is undermanned and lacks the skill base to deal with the changes.

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By MINSTERBUSINESS
09th Sep 2009 12:06

Tax

Earlier this year I wrote on behalf of a client asking for proof of residence for double taxation purposes, it took the revenue over six weeks to answer the letter, during which time my client had been overseas performed and been charged with holding tax due to non compliance of submitting a letter from the tax authority.

Again the revenue were very apologetic but pointed out that they were busy and six to eight weeks was the time it took to answer queries.

j allcock

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By redsq01
09th Sep 2009 12:22

Why expect the Stasi to be nice to you?

At the end of the day the HMRC are a bunch of stand over merchants there to relieve the good citizens of their hard-earned. How can you possibly expect them to be nice to people?

It would help of course if the tax code wasn't 11,000 pages or whatever it is of incomprehensible guff.

Best Gareth D

 

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By stevebritgimp
09th Sep 2009 14:40

Recovery office

I had a client who had a lot of PAYE to pay, but they were in a position to settle.  They received a Statement of Liabilities with an additional figure of about £3K as 'tax', with no date.  I had to ask the helpline what this was, and they said it was VAT.  I said we didn't owe any VAT.  They said the VAT office let's them know if any VAT is due.  I rang the VAT office.  The figure given was VAT that was outstanding at the end of December, but was paid in January.  It was now July.

Again, how does this take the client's feelings into account if they are threatening legal proceedings over something that has already been paid?  As it was, the client was cool about it, as they had funds available and wer happy to pay less, but the all the extra time I had to do chasing around getting different bits of HMRC to agree to each other left me at the point where I was suggesting we bill them.  This is without me mentioning that the client had already paid the Class 1A, but HMRC wasn't showing that, and so I had to ask the client to pay it again, as the original cheque had come off the main liability.

I'm doing the government's job, and won't be getting the fat pension at the end.  We need certainly never worry about a big-brother state - it wouldn't be feasible.

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By clegganator
09th Sep 2009 15:03

I second that!

In the 6 months of being at my current accountancy firm I have been chasing at least two refunds for the entire time I have been here!

The mystery place that is security was one I got alot. When I tried to find out what is part of the security checks I wasn't allowed to know! We even had to put a post our news section to warn client's that nothing we can do can hurry the refunds along!

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By naomi2000
11th Sep 2009 13:17

Management not customer service is the real problem

I do think that the individual HMR&C staff members that we are in contact with are doing the best they can . However, with inadequate  training, low morale, poor computer systems , procedures and staffing levels, that best can't be very good.

I returned from holiday to find that a worried client who had been sent a notice of intended legal proceedings over non-payment of £4.26 .  The client was still on holiday and not in a position to make a payment easily.

The HMRC employee who took our call could not help us because the wrong number had been printed on the computer generated reminder .

The reminder had been sent out in the first place because the wrong flag had been set on the computer.

The "correct" number given to us by the HMRC receptionist lead us to a colleague who could not help us because his call centre screen had limited access.

The problem was eventually solved by the usual ploy of ringing up a known sensible contact in the local office -a course of action which is only open to an agent . A member of the public would have little chance of sorting this out themselves.

 Even though every person we spoke to was trying to help us, my client still received poor service because of the way the tax system is now managed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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By redsq01
11th Sep 2009 13:31

The impossibility of effective management of complex information

Complex information systems such that those that support the HMRC are impossible to manage effectively as they lack the invisible hand of commercial imperative. That's why HMRC and its systems are hopeless and hopelessly expensive, why the NHS database will never work and the latest addition in the form of child protection register will be a disaster.

Your experience demonstrates how despite the diligent efforts of worthy individuals, it is not possible to knit together the processing threads of the simplest interaction for a system built on an infinitely difficult set of rules i.e. the tax law.

With commercial organisations this is just about bearable due to competition and the monetary imperatives to reverse mistakes e.g. move call centres back from india.

No such forces act upon the self-serving bureacracy of the HMRC.

Best G

 

 

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By Anonymous
11th Sep 2009 18:10

Another example from today

Took a call from HMRC re a Ltd Co Client. As is quite commomn now this was Recovery section contacting agent about a CT liability flagged for collection action where they do not have  a direct contact for the "customer". I was a little surprised at the identified 2 month delay in payment of the £1200 liability as client usually very punctillious over dates & payments & they had been remninded in advance of the due date, however, I said I would advise client of the position. Before doing so, I thought I would just check position on the HMRC online system and sure enough, the payment had been made before the due date but had been allocated against a fully paid 3 year old AP & the exact amount due sat there as an overpayment.

I rang the Recovery office back immediately and after two enaged tone calls and a 15 minute "4 Seasons" wait for a human answer to the third, I advised the officer of the position. "Ah yes", she replied after some rumination of her system, "I can see it". "I can give you a contact number to call to get it reallocated"!  After remonstrating reasonably mildly that I would have expectd them to have identified the payment anyway before embarking on active collection action, but that they now had the necessary information and after all they were all part of the same Debt Management arm (or whatever its current 5 minute name is) so, if necessary, passing on the information internally should be straightforward and my further involvement would lead to avoidable additional costs to my client, I was met with what can only be described as, essentially, dumb insolence. Did I want the contact number before the call was terminated or not?

Of course contacting the given number, which turned out simply to be Accounts Office Cumbernauld CT section, took 3 calls to get a reply, albeit resolved once this was done, but why was it necessary?  I was and remain incandescent!!

 

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By plastow
14th Sep 2009 12:08

HMRC Service

It seems that we are all in the same boat. The best advice I ever received about this type of problem was given by a retired HMRC Inspector who told me to lodge compensation claims every time HMRC made an error which resulted in more time having to be spent on a client's affairs. In his words - "the only way to change anything in HMRC is to affect their budget".

I took this advice and several thousand pounds worth of compensation later at least I feel as though I am being paid for my effort. Unfortunately the service has not improved!

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By cathygrimmer
14th Sep 2009 12:39

Hey Gareth

It's that incomprehensible guff that keeps me in a job - don't knock it!!

Cathy

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By Anonymous
14th Sep 2009 16:56

Call centres

Phone Shipley to chase up a refund.  Get told its not on the system.  Phone Sussex tax office, get told its a call centre and they will send an e mail to the actual HMRC person.  Name of HMRC person not available, so don't know who is dealing with it.  Wait one week, phone Shipley.  Find out its a call centre and they need to e mail actual HMRC person.  Name of HMRC person not available, so don't know who is dealing with it.  Repeat process one week later at Shipley and Sussex offices with two call cenres and anonymous HMRC staff.  No joy.  Repeat process again, pointing out both ends that this is my third set of calls.  Eventually get told by Sussex they have released the refund.  Wait one week and phone Shipley.  Nothing on system.  Wait another week and refund on system.  Paperwork arrives about two weeks later.  Repeat process for several other clients during year.  Somehow, havn't torn hair out.

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By Nick E Morgan
14th Sep 2009 17:13

Too much power and not enough responsibility

HMRC have too much power and not enough responsibility.

Nick

www.tax-hell.co.uk

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By adambl
15th Sep 2009 00:11

HMRC service levels

I had a client situation today where we submitted a 2007/8 tax return in June this year (late but only owing to 64-8 not being logged on HMRC SA system by HMRC so we were unable to submit return on-line last Jan as we wished to do); ultimate tax liability is less than £10 and HMRC have issued penalty surcharges Jan and now July. I rang HMRC expecting them to say no worries return in and will be processed soon. To my amazement I was informed that yes return has been received but HMRC can only guarantee that it will be looked at by mid-Jan 2010. After spilling my coffee in anger I asked what our client should do about the ever ruder demand notes from HMRC to which the reply was given 'we are not able to advise you or your client what to do about that'.

I asked to speak to a higher officer as I simply could not believe the responses but I was told you can if you wish but they will say the same thing. 'We have all been told to say this'.

Anyone else finding this sort of 'service' to customers from HMRC?

 

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By kenfrost
15th Sep 2009 11:04

Hackers steal £1M from HMRC

I take it you are all aware of this?

http://hmrcisshite.blogspot.com/2009/09/hackers-steal-1m-from-hmrc.html

Ken Frost

www.hmrcisshite.com

www.hmrconline.com

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By Anonymous
18th Sep 2009 16:02

You lot make me laugh
I've been on both sides of the HMRC/Practice fence and the words kettle and pot are springing to mind here!

It's just a pity I'm not allowed to roll out similar anecdotal tripe in respect of some of the 'august' firms I've had the misfortune to have dealings with.

If you keep throwing those stones you'd better be quick and move from your glass houses!

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By Anonymous
24th Sep 2009 10:19

Multiple metaphors response

I posted one of the accounts of extremely poor service from HMRC above, simply as it was encountered the same day as I read the article. I could certainly cite many more recent examples,some far worse. Like the previous poster I have seen the position from both sides, having been an Inspector for 15 years and in private practice for nearly 10, but I am quite clear in my own mind that that there has been  a real and genuine rapid decline in the quality of service offered by HMRC in recent years and the reasons are not hard to identify. The initial catalyst was the change of focus brought about by the merger to create HMRC followed in more recent times by the move to call centres and the centralisation of tax processing work , both IT and now CT following suit. The disappearance of individual casework officers lies at the heart it- no individual responsibility and non existent personal case knowledge, exacerbated by replacement by staff trained up just in basic admin processes with no wider knowledge or understanding of the systems and processes. Sadly however, I cannot see things ever returning to the previous system as no one now would be willing to support the undoubted substantial extra costs of running a sevice in that way.

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