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Telecoms firm aims to cut the cord on accountants' struggles with HMRC calls

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Software house NoQu has created a solution it promises will “remove the pain” for accountants calling HMRC – but should the problem it aims to solve even exist?

28th Jun 2023
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Take the briefest glance at any accountancy-based forum, group or social media channel and it doesn’t take long to uncover a common issue that’s grinding the gears of the profession – getting hold of HMRC on the phone.

In its most recently published performance stats, the tax office acknowledges it “hasn’t met its customer service standards”, with an average helpline waiting time of 14:51 minutes (hitting 27 minutes for the self assessment line during January’s peak time) and 25.1% of taxpayers unable to speak with an HMRC agent at all.

This has drawn a relatively narrow range of reactions from accountants, from frustration at reduced practice productivity to disappointment at not being able to offer a stable level of client service. ICAEW recently called for an ‘emergency taskforce’ to drive improvements to HMRC’s service standards, reporting that some members had waited for more than an hour before being cut off.

The Revenue’s response has been to double down on its call for agents and taxpayers to use its online services, restrict calls to the Agent Dedicated Line and shut down services such as the VAT registration and self assessment helplines.

Perhaps spotting a gap in the market, a tech company has taken matters into its own hands and created a solution that it promises will “remove the pain for accountants calling HMRC”.

‘My staff waste so much time on hold to HMRC’

Using a combination of proprietary software, telephone switching and outsourced call handlers, NoQu offers a service that does the waiting on behalf of the accountant, then connects them to HMRC once an officer is on the line.

After subscribing to the service, accounting firms are given a dedicated NoQu number to request a call back for a particular HMRC service, which each tax office helpline assigned a different number.

The accountant dials the relevant number to request a callback, then hangs up and awaits a call from one of NuQu’s agents once they’ve got through to an HMRC representative.

The creation of telecoms entrepreneurs Gordon Robson and Robin McIntire and tech consultant Ryan Osborne, NoQu was initially designed to be a consumer-facing app, helping frustrated customers get through to utility or courier companies.

However, after the founders talked the idea through with their accountant it quickly became apparent this was a service that might gain traction with the accountancy profession.

“Our accountant’s comment was along the lines of: ‘My staff waste so much time just sitting there on hold to HMRC’,” NoQu co-founder Gordon Robson told AccountingWEB. 

“The response to our HMRC proposal has been phenomenal,” continued Robson. “The accounting firms we have as customers have happier, more productive staff who are not sitting on hold getting frustrated, and when the accountant does get switched over to HMRC, the agent gets a much happier accountant to deal with than if they’ve been on hold for an hour.”

Currently available as a telephone-only solution, NoQu plans to have the service fully online within a matter of months, enabling a callback request to be made via a web portal. The service will also be integrated with Microsoft Teams.

NoQu’s current subscription packages start at £199 per user per month for up to 20 calls – full details are available on the NoQu site.

Robson acknowledged that more than £2,000 per year may be too steep a price for the average sole practitioner, and told AccountingWEB that the vendor is also developing a “pay-as-you-go platform” where customers can buy individual callbacks. This is likely to be released in tandem with its web portal service.

Ethical considerations

Supporters of such services point towards the innovative use of private-sector technology to solve a specific problem for hard-pressed tax professionals. However, the fact that such a problem exists – and to all intents and purposes is providing the environment for the commodification of access to a taxpayer-funded helpline service – should at least provide the government with food for thought.

Call EnQ, a product launched in America to tackle a similar issue with catastrophic call waiting times at the IRS, caused questions to be raised at Senate level about allowing paid subscribers to “jump to the front of the hold queue” and creating “a two-tiered system for taxpayers seeking to access assistance”.

One big difference between US firm Call EnQ and the NoQu product in the UK is that Call EnQ reportedly uses computerised auto-dialers to bombard IRS customer service lines with calls until it gets through – which is not the model on which NoQu operates.

“A call is being made, the only difference is the person waiting,” NoQu’s Gordon Robson told AccountingWEB. “If you were a tax partner you could ask someone else at your practice to make the same call. We’re just offering a concierge service that’s helping all parties.”

A spokesperson for the tax authority told AccountingWEB it was not for HMRC to comment on which third-party services agents choose to use.

“We encourage agents to interact with us digitally wherever possible instead of calling, to free up our phone line for those who need to talk to us about more complex issues,” said the HMRC spokesperson.

“Agents can save time and streamline the process by using our online services to submit tax returns, update client information and receive notifications."

Replies (40)

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By ireallyshouldknowthisbut
28th Jun 2023 11:38

Good luck with that. Regardless of the eyewatering cost, id be impressed if HMRC will hang about for the call transfer, they often put the phone down on us when I switch from "working whilst waiting" to "taking the call", let along the time it would take to transfer the call.

Thanks (13)
Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
Tornado
By Tornado
28th Jun 2023 12:43

I agree with you here. If you are not immediately ready and waiting (even after 2 hours) with your security details and your query, you will invariably get cut off. HMRC operators will not wait for you.

There needs to be guarantee that HMRC will co-operate with this kind of scheme.

Thanks (8)
Replying to Tornado:
By kenny achampong
28th Jun 2023 14:25

Same happened to me, I paused for about 3 seconds and she just said "you need all the details in front of you" and hung up, after half an hour on hold. Nothing will mend HMRC when they employ the people who they employ at the moment, and that includes at the very top. All we are trying to do is get people to pay the correct tax to the government, and HMRC think they are the ones doing us a favour.

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Replying to ireallyshouldknowthisbut:
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By JacquiMBurns
29th Jun 2023 13:48

My thoughts exactly!

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By kelvindavies
28th Jun 2023 12:24

We would still queue, this software just means we dont have to hear the hold music... We need priority access like the ADL had pre-covid!

I commend ICAEW for at least pushing HMRC to improve service levels in this regard.

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Replying to kelvindavies:
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By Hugo Fair
28th Jun 2023 13:28

It reminds of one of my favourite (true life) stories when I attended an OR course back in the day ...

A passenger survey at a major airport revealed that many (particularly those in 1st class) objected to how long they had to wait ("doing nothing") in the baggage reclaim area - because the luggage hadn't even been removed from the plane let alone taken to the handling facilities.

Solution?
Instead of improving every aspect of baggage handling, it was deemed simpler (and cheaper) to offer passengers a slightly more comfortable 'pick-up' coach to transport them from plane to terminal - and, without telling them, re-route it so that the old 5 min journey now took 25 mins!

And the moral?
Satisfaction soared in the next survey!

So you can fool a lot of the people a lot of the time ... which must be what in their different ways both the Harra and this crowd are hoping.

Thanks (10)
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By Justin Bryant
28th Jun 2023 12:44

Never mind whether this works or not (and good luck to them there). What a disgraceful indictment of our country's (previously really good and efficient/effective) tax service. Heads should roll and all that.

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Replying to Justin Bryant:
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By Hugo Fair
28th Jun 2023 13:19

I'm not sure if you're allowed to use the term "3rd-world" anymore ... but that is exactly what this is.

In most poor countries (indeed in America during the depression) you could pay people to stand in a queue for you ... my son did that only last month in Mexico City (paying peanuts, not literally, to avoid 6 hours of queuing in the heat).

Whatever it is, it isn't very 'British' (if that term also can still be used).

Thanks (6)
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By jonharris999
28th Jun 2023 13:09

I know I keep banging on about this but it's because I just can't believe it.

HMRC:

i) 30m incoming calls per year
ii) 67K staff

= fewer than 2 calls per staff member per working day. Why is there even a problem?

Thanks (10)
Replying to jonharris999:
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By Latinaid
29th Jun 2023 09:42

jonharris999 wrote:

I know I keep banging on about this but it's because I just can't believe it.

HMRC:

i) 30m incoming calls per year
ii) 67K staff

= fewer than 2 calls per staff member per working day. Why is there even a problem?

Well, presumably not all those 67K staff are telephone agents. Some of them must be employed to do things like open the post - oh, wait ....

Thanks (2)
Replying to Latinaid:
Pile of Stones
By Beach Accountancy
29th Jun 2023 13:34

66k are probably in HR printing out pronoun badges...

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By taxdigital
28th Jun 2023 14:03

Pay 45% tax and to get through to the country's tax office staff (who get paid by taxpayers' money) spend another £199 per month. And Aweb thinks this is news? It is a disgrace, to the level HMRC have dragged us, forcing us to look for desperate measures.

Thanks (7)
By SteveHa
28th Jun 2023 14:04

Quote:
Agents can save time and streamline the process by using our online services to submit tax returns, update client information and receive notifications

How ignorant are HMRC? None of us call to submit Tax Returns or receive notifications. We call because there is no online service for the subject of our call.

Are they really THAT deluded?

Thanks (18)
Replying to SteveHa:
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By Hugo Fair
28th Jun 2023 15:04

YES (they are)!

The link kindly provided above by Justin can take you to HMRC's response to PAC: https://committees.parliament.uk/publications/40611/documents/198038/def... ... which contains the following illumination on their (lack of) thinking skills.

"This challenge has been subject to further pressure from inflation and policy decisions, directly impacting the number of taxpayers, and the number with more complex affairs, that we have to serve."

In other words - HMRC now have more taxpayers to deal with, and the taxpayers have more complex tax affairs.

And this somehow goes hand in glove with their core belief that nearly all tax-related queries are simple, so should be dealt with without human intervention!

So which is it?

They appear to be unaware that they're trying to 'have their cake and eat it' - or is it that they simply no longer care and are happy to show a couple of digital fingers to the PAC?

Thanks (12)
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
28th Jun 2023 23:28

If your staff waste too much time sitting on the phone, may I suggest the following.

1) Get all the security information up on a window in front of you.
2) Phone the helpline and get through the menu system
3) Put the phone on speaker (low volume), and carry on doing other stuff while you are waiting.

Anyone that just does nothing while waiting on hold is a fool that deserves to pay £199 per month for their idiocy.

Thanks (5)
Replying to stepurhan:
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By graydjames
29th Jun 2023 09:29

This is very pompous and harsh!

I always do exactly what you have said; however, the combination of the music, no matter that it is low volume, and being on edge making sure that when it is finally answered you respond quickly, to avoid being cut-off (as mentioned above, which has also happened to me), means that one is not at all productive in that time and, worse, liable to make mistakes. Moreover, it doesn't take away the agony.

Thanks (7)
Replying to graydjames:
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By Latinaid
29th Jun 2023 09:44

At least they've reverted to the old music and not the intensely annoying jaunty jingle they (briefly) introduced earlier this year.

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Replying to Latinaid:
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By Open all hours
29th Jun 2023 22:19

The ‘old’ music, what we call Harra’s Lament.

Thanks (1)
Replying to graydjames:
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By bendybod
29th Jun 2023 09:53

And you have to make sure that you've been to the loo and made your coffee in advance in anticipation of the length of the wait. Otherwise you have the stress, after 45 minutes, of choosing between taking the phone in to the loo with you, getting someone else to hover over your phone in case it gets answered or wait on the off chance that it gets answered in the next few minutes.
Not to mention that yes, I do get on with other work while I'm waiting but then I don't necessarily have the correct client's details up when the call is answered - or am I supposed to not go in to any other client's record in that time just in case HMRC bother themselves to answer.

Thanks (3)
Replying to bendybod:
Stepurhan
By stepurhan
29th Jun 2023 13:16

bendybod wrote:
I'm waiting but then I don't necessarily have the correct client's details up when the call is answered - or am I supposed to not go in to any other client's record in that time just in case HMRC bother themselves to answer.

All of the security details are within the client record on HMRC. If you are the agent, you can simply have a browser tab in the background with those client details on. If you're not yet the agent, screenshot the same information from your own files and keep that open in the background. Nothing to stop you opening other programs/tabs for other client work.

But, to get back to the subject of the article, how would this service fix that? You still need the info to hand. You still need to be prepared to answer quickly. You still have the distraction of waiting for the call to go through. The only part that is really being saved is not having to listen to the hold music which, whilst welcome, is hardly worth £199 a month.

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By possep
29th Jun 2023 07:25

This won't work for all the reasons listed above.

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By Chris.Smith
29th Jun 2023 09:22

We are not using the telephone service to;
“using our online services to submit tax returns, update client information and receive notifications."

We know we can do this online, being reminded of it every call is frustrating.

Why does HMRC think this is what we want out of their telephone service?
Surely this isn't data from the Agent line?

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By michael2022A
29th Jun 2023 09:31

I wonder when will HMRC admit that you CANNOT do everything you want to online!
There will always be instances when you need to speak to an HMRC worker to resolve an issue!
Clearly closing the SA number for people with an accountant benefits our clients but it really is outrageus that a "Customer" cannot speak to customer services for 3 months!

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By mentalworx
29th Jun 2023 09:31

It is ridiculous that in this modern world, so much of people's time is spent waiting in call queues for anything. And that's after we've wasted so much time looking for the solution "on the website". I'd love to see how much production time (or just living time) is lost to both. We are able to find out how long we spend on the toilet in our lifetime, how long we sleep, etc.

I always wonder if any organisations with CMS have actually tried calling into themselves. Experienced the waiting, listening carefully for the option that perhaps isn't there, or is there but you're put through to one of the other departments that you didn't select, and they will "see if they can transfer you". Or having to give all your details again after you've already keyed in or said them to the CMS.

Oh, and as for "your call is important to us"...

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Replying to mentalworx:
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By Latinaid
29th Jun 2023 09:47

mentalworx wrote:

Oh, and as for "your call is important to us"...

My pet hate is 'We're really busy right now, and your call might take longer than usual' - which is the standard message you get EVERY time you call. I keep waiting for 'We're actually quite quiet at the moment, so we might be able to put you through quicker than usual'.

Thanks (3)
Replying to mentalworx:
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By bendybod
29th Jun 2023 09:55

Looking for the solution on the website, only to find that the solution is to call an agent.

Thanks (2)
By chariot4info
29th Jun 2023 09:38

This is not a solution as the author indicates, just a band aid on the pain of sitting on the phone hoping someone will pick up before your next scheduled meeting.

HMRC do not want to deal with queries via email and given the amount of spam/hacking emails circulating I can understand this from a public point of view, but how difficult would it be to set up an internal mailbox system between within our agent portals?
You can setup an internal mailbox in a few minutes with microsoft365/ exchange/ sharepoint and would solve 90% of our issues to get a response about a specific client we are authorised for.

Thanks (1)
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By Susan56
29th Jun 2023 09:40

Why has nobody queries those stated average waiting times? They are far smaller than happens in reality. Or have they excluded the calls where we waited for 50 minutes then got cut off by the system?

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Replying to Susan56:
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By bendybod
29th Jun 2023 09:55

They've included the "sorry, we're too busy to speak to you at the moment, please call again, goodbye" calls.

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By Self-Employed and Happy
29th Jun 2023 09:40

Yeah those wait times which one assumes are self published are abosolute b******.

The last 4 times I have called the Self Assessment line in the past month there has been a message saying wait times are over 40 minutes.

It's an absolute shambles, they want people to pay tax yet can't be bothered to put systems or staff in place to make it easy, then they wonder why the tax gap is so large...

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By jeremy28
29th Jun 2023 09:52

I'm interested to see that HMRC think that the phone line is for more complex queries.
I called last week about a zero rated vat issue. After a 45 minutes wait I was cut off. After another 30 minutes I was answered. I was told to look at the Vat notice online. I said that I had but needed some detailed guidance. Lady said she would ask her supervisor and on her return said I need to look at the guidance online, and cut off the call.

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By Mr J Andrews
29th Jun 2023 09:56

Looks like another example of attempting to treat a gaping wound with a sticking plaster.
But reading on, perhaps akin to Private Health cover - for those who can afford it ?

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By Retrocanary
29th Jun 2023 09:59

Look, it's really simple...

*phone rings*

Me: Hello, [Retrocanary Limited], how can I help?

Them: Hello, my name is Gideon, I'm calling from HMRC regarding the VAT return you submitted for Joe Bloggs Sinking Ship Limited, can I please talk to whoever deals with that?

Me: OK, let me just transfer you to the VAT department.

*hit hold, make a cup of tea, do some entries on a trial balance, scan some bank statements, toilet break, hit hold again*

Me: Sorry, they all seem to be on the phone at the moment, but if you give me the VAT number I should be able to help with your query?

Thanks (3)
Donald MacKenzie
By Donald MacKenzie
29th Jun 2023 10:14

As others have said, we CAN do some sorts of other work while waiting for HMRC to answer our calls, but you cannot get too deep into something else or you may miss the call handler picking up. Call handlers are NOT impressed if you struggle to remember why you are calling, or cannot find the UTR etc instantly amongst all your screens and tabs. I use three screens and TRY to keep one open for the call I am waiting for, but I have lost my place by not being ready for them - after holding twenty muinutes or more.
The HMRC "service" is appalling. Their call messages of "We are a diverse team.." "Would you like to take part in our survey..." etc could be designed to annoy frequent callers to their lines.
We cannot get answers online or we would not be calling. The least HMRC could do is answer our calls.

Thanks (5)
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By PAULLEWISFCCA
29th Jun 2023 10:22

I think just boycott HMRC, they are beyond useless and so many times they put the phone down especially when asked to explain their mistakes

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By Wisey
29th Jun 2023 15:07

Wouldn't need any of this if there was an online secure system that allowed us to
1 take people out of SA
2 send corrections
3 check the status of letters or repayment claims with an estimnate of when the work will be dealt with
4 change tax codes

Thanks (2)
Michael Bennett, Owner of Michael B Bennett Ltd
By Michael Bennett
30th Jun 2023 10:43

Sounds like a very expensive solution to a non-problem. Simply dial HMRC on a hands-free speaker phone and do other work whilst waiting for them to pick up.

Thanks (1)
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By LucyCharles
04th Jul 2023 11:04

I spent 3 and a half hours yesterday on two calls to HMRC (different departments) after at least 50 attempts during the last month to get through for the first problem and probably around 20 by me and the same by client for the second.

One related to a VAT exception that I applied for 18 months ago, where I received a response after a year to say I was not registered as the agent. In the same post I received a letter for the same client.... addressed to me as their agent! All paperwork was duly despatched within the 30 day window allowed and 6 months later another letter arrived to say I was not the agent. Having eventually managed to get through, it was confirmed that I am registered as the agent but I would need to write in again.

By the way, meanwhile, this client has had to register for VAT!

The second problem relates to a student loan that finished in the 2021- 2022 tax year. I have a letter dated June 2023 informing me that too much had been collected and would be refunded to my client.
Unfortunately the money was also collected for the whole of 2022-23. For the past three months it has also been collected along with a post graduate loan. My client has called the loan company on numerous occasions but with no success. She is owed nearly £4,000.
I eventually managed to speak to somebody within the student loan department at HMRC but they need to write to the loan company with all of the details (this normally happens in August) and the loan company will make the repayment...eventually.

Neither of these situations can be dealt with online, most attempted calls were 'we are too busy to take your call, please try again'. Both situations are untenable although for totally different reasons.
To add insult to injury, it is impossible to properly charge clients for all of the time wasted on these type of issues.

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By Jabba the Hut
04th Jul 2023 12:22

This doesn't stop the problem that you are ready, everything fresh, all the paperwork ready to talk but you still have to wait an hour. Sod's law you just get halfway through the next complex task and then they answer.

Online even worse, have a client trying to get a Form A1, when she applied 12/06/23 she was told

"We are currently processing requests receive on 17 October 2022, you can expect a reply by 27 January 2024."

That's not even third world, it's out of this world, but on just what planet is that acceptable?

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