Britons could suffer delays up to three hours on hold to the tax office

The tax man was the worst offender in a call-handling probe by the Daily Express. We were left on hold for almost three hours before we were able to speak with a member of staff at HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC).

The total wait time came from two calls to customer services. During the first we were left on hold for 90 minutes – and then gave up.

A second call took 82 minutes to reach an employee. The query took a total of six minutes to conclude.

The delays and frustration inflicted on millions of callers by automated switchboards is laid bare by our investigation.

We tested the call-handling of organisations in the public and ­private sectors to record how much callers’ time was being wasted. And it revealed that customers trying to get hold of some of the country’s biggest firms and institutions lose hours while on hold.

READ MORE 6% savings rates drag millions into HMRC net – use this £5,000 tax break

The move to save money by encouraging more people to go to websites with queries is particularly hitting older customers and those without internet access.

Dame Clare Moriarty, chief executive at Citizens Advice, said the drop in customer service standards has come at the worst time possible as people turn to their suppliers during the cost-of-living crisis.

Rocio Concha, from consumer champion Which?, said: “Bus­inesses and government bodies like HMRC must up their game and stop hiding behind automated messages. Inter­minable phone calls just to speak to a company must become a thing of the past.”

Martin Brown, at customer services firm FM Outsource, said ­consumers were not the only losers.

He said: “It is generally more expensive to acquire new customers than retain them, so keeping them happy is key. Long waiting times also damage brand reputation.”

Communications director David Taylor said: “Businesses continue to cite Covid as the cause behind busy phone lines. The truth is that most organisations would rather direct customers to websites and impersonal chatbots, purely because it’s a lot cheaper than employing staff.

“Companies routinely now ­conceal their customer service contact numbers in their website. The worst culprits even slap on call charges to customers left on hold.”

A Which? investigation found that even potential fraud victims have been forced to wait for more than half an hour to speak to a member of staff, with many being charged hefty fees to use helplines.

Almost every one of our readers will be familiar with the heart-sinking sensation induced by automatic voice-recorded systems.

Our investigators endured tinny music seemingly designed to drive callers mad while being told over and over again: “Your call is important to us, but we are experiencing higher-than-normal call volumes.”

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The worst performer in our survey was the taxman.

The best was energy supplier E.ON Next, which shocked our investigator by answering the call after just five minutes.

Telephone service standards declined during the pandemic, with helpline staff working from home, say industry experts.

New research from business services specialist Paragon found almost three-quarters of consumers believe that businesses are still using the pandemic as an excuse for poor quality customer service they refuse to improve.

HMRC is a habitually poor performer, with the average waiting time on its self-assessment helpline in December 2022 being 28 minutes. In January it was 27 minutes.

Jim Harra, chief executive and first permanent secretary of HMRC, blames taxpayers. In a letter to Harriett Baldwin, chair of the Treasury Committee, ­Mr Harra complained that taxpayers have a “generous 10 months in which to file their return and pay their tax” but too many leave it to the last minute.

With callers faced with waiting times of more than an hour in March, HMRC was forced to extend the April 6 deadline for buying ­voluntary NI contributions towards the state pension to July 31.

Energy companies, the DVLA, Passport Office, train services and the big banks think nothing of diverting customers to automated call waiting queues.

While First Direct took on average just 16 seconds to put callers through to a member of staff, ­ the worst performing bank in the investigation, The Co-operative Bank, took on average 31 minutes and 40 seconds. Meanwhile, Telecoms regulator Ofgem has repeatedly warned phone and broadband firms, warning last year that call waiting times remain above pre-pandemic levels.

Citizens Advice and Ofgem have reported dropping standards of ­customer service from energy suppliers, including a rise in call waiting times for a customer adviser.

After one hour and 12 minutes on hold waiting to speak to a human being I was just about ready to explode.

At last my call was answered and as I struggled and managed to keep a civil tongue in my head it emerged that the women answering my call was extremely nice and doing her very best to help.

Not only did I not have the heart to berate her about my time on hold, I didn’t mention either that two weeks earlier, I had hung on the phone for an hour-and-a-half, before finally giving up in despair.

Also I was pitifully grateful that someone had picked up the phone at all.

Then she put me on hold for another 10 minutes while she found the right person to deal with my issue, and I started to sweat, fearing I would be cut off.

Eventually another polite-sounding woman picked up. She was patient in sorting out my question about making additional voluntary National Insurance contributions towards the state pension.

Almost too patient. I started to feel guilty, knowing others were waiting. But she diligently answered all my questions and we parted on friendly terms. I checked my watch. Two periods of waiting on this call took 82 minutes. Our conversation took just six minutes.

Just think how quickly I could have sorted this if I’d got through to HMRC in a minute or so. Then I could have got on with the rest of my day, rather than wasting a huge chunk of it stressing at the end of a telephone line.

At least I wasn’t charged.

An HMRC spokesman said: “We’re pleased this customer received such a good service but we recognise they, and others, had to wait.

“We have put more people on the helplines but wherever possible, we encourage customers to use our digital services – including the HMRC app. Many types of queries can be answered more quickly than by calling us.”

I only wanted to check BT was giving me the right broadband speed, but I knew from past experience it would ­be a slow process.

So the moment the helpline’s interactive voice response (IVR) software gave me the option for a callback, I took it. To my astonishment, BT did call me back, within two minutes.

And that’s when my problems began. While I’m pretty sure I was talking to a real live human being, I couldn’t be sure.

They behaved more like the dreaded IVR, laboriously worked through a rigid script that did not cover my problem at all. The customer services operator kept advising me how to stop my internet cutting out, which wasn’t the issue. After 23 agonising minutes, I gave up.

I might as well have been talking to an automated robot for all the use they were. It’s great that BT offers a help service. If only it offered any help.

A BT spokesman said: “We are very sorry that this interaction with our customer service team was not up to the high standards we expect for ­ our customers.

“We will review the call ­ to ensure this doesn’t ­ happen again.”

I’ve spent hours of my life on hold for customer services, so I steeled myself before finally taking the plunge and calling my energy supplier E.ON Next.

I dialled the number, connected my headphones and dug in for a long wait. Less than 45 minutes would be good, I thought.

I was given two options: press one to make a payment “without speaking to someone” or press two for the “energy specialist”.

After five minutes of listening to gentle piano music and being reminded that: “If you’re waiting to speak to someone to submit a reading, you can do this online”, I had a total shock.

Someone picked up. I heard a human voice. It said “Hello”. I flew into a panic, because I hadn’t even dug out my account number. I thought I had plenty of time to do that.

E.ON resolved my query and the whole process took just eight minutes and 58 seconds. Why can’t calling customer services always be like that?

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