I spent 32 minutes on hold to HMRC, and I still think it’s better than an AI

Customers spent 7,000,000 hours waiting to speak to HMRC last year. Here’s what happened when I spent a morning on hold to the tax office.

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Helena Young
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UK taxpayers spent a cumulative 800 years on hold to HMRC, last year. So says a National Audit Office (NAO) report, which has criticised the tax advice helpline for its dismal customer service and poor response time. 

As a small business writer, I am constantly directing company owners to HM Revenue and Customs. It’s a crucial resource for filing your tax return. So I feel somewhat responsible for the sweat, tears, and boredom that our referrals will have induced.

That’s why, armed with just an ergonomic office chair and a business mobile, I decided to see just how tedious a morning on the phone to HMRC can be. 

32 minutes and counting

Upon tracking down the 11-digit passcode (which is buried surreptitiously at the bottom of the HMRC web page) I immediately discover that the NAO report has failed to mention how difficult it is even to get onto a call with HMRC. 

Forget just dialling a number. In 2024, we have to jump through three minutes of pre-recorded hoops in which a robot assistant instructs me to explain precisely what my issue is. In fact, I’m kicked off twice for failing to satisfy HMRC’s version of Alexa. 

Eventually, after answering her questions three, the clock starts. The sun is shining and my phone is playing a staticy jazz number that is punctuated by occasional, desperate pleas from the virtual receptionist. She wants me to end our shared misery and visit GOV.UK.

“Thank you for continuing to hold,” she repeats, “just so you know, there’s also lots of helpful information available on our website.” 

After seventeen minutes, though, the novelty wears off. I am writing an article about low employee morale and the phrase ‘feelings of pointlessness’ is hitting too close to home.

Finally, at 32 minutes in, a polite voice answers. “Good afternoon you’re through to the HMRC helpline, how can I help?” We have reached the end. This must be what Russ Cook felt like when he crossed the finish line in Tunisia.

HMRC hang ups

Mine was an above-average wait time. The NAO says those who have the willpower to wait for an adviser do so for 23 minutes; long enough to watch a full episode of The Simpsons.

I have no idea how many people were in front of me in the queue. Perhaps it was just myself and 500 business journalists, each investigating the HMRC helpline.

More likely, it was many exasperated taxpayers who have been sent wrongly issued penalty notices, at huge financial and psychological toll. 

Or else, it was hundreds of entrepreneurs who need answers to complicated tax and side hustle laws, and to find information on business incentives their livelihoods might depend on. 

Both groups must fit that half-hour call around their day jobs, if bosses permit it, as HMRC’s helpline is only open between 8am and 6pm. It’s as if they don’t want us to pay taxes.

Where has all the customer service gone?

In the government’s defence (not a sentence I commonly type) the issue of long customer wait times isn’t exclusive to HMRC. Instead, it’s a consequence of firms hurtling to embrace new, internet-powered technologies that promise to replace expensive customer teams.

Eager for that day to come, many organisations have already paused hiring for customer reps and switched to online-only support options, such as AI chatbots and knowledge bases

Some are even using underhand tactics to plug resource gaps. The one-man consumer watchdog, Martin Lewis, recently launched a survey to investigate helplines using fake excuses of “unusually high call volumes” to divert callers and artificially thin down wait lists.

To err is human

I can’t fault organisations for being swept up in the AI furore. Certainly, with consumers expecting ever-faster solutions to their problems, there is a need for smart, automated solutions that can help to keep up with demand.

Innovative AI startups are ramping up the excitement. They include PolyAI, a virtual assistant which last week raised almost £40m to develop its ingenious conversational AI. 

The technology is not widely-available at contact centres, though, and won’t be for years. In the interim, Brits are being hit by soulless help desks — and they aren’t happy. In a 2023 survey of 2,000 adults, 38% said they prefer a phone call over email or chatbots. 

HMRC found this out when it tried to terminate the helpline for good earlier this year. Having already shrunk its service team by 5% in preparation for the changes, its plans were swiftly rolled back following outcry from company owners and employees.

In business, there is such a thing as jumping the gun. Ridding contact centres of humans, without having the tech or customer buy-in to backfill their roles, is a great example of this. 

When they arrive, AI-powered advisers will no-doubt revolutionise the customer service game. Until then, we’re on track for a clunky transition period soundtracked by muzak, tapping feet, and dial tones. Will it be worth it? We’re all on hold, waiting to see.

Written by:
Helena Young
Helena is Lead Writer at Startups. As resident people and premises expert, she's an authority on topics such as business energy, office and coworking spaces, and project management software. With a background in PR and marketing, Helena also manages the Startups 100 Index and is passionate about giving early-stage startups a platform to boost their brands. From interviewing Wetherspoon's boss Tim Martin to spotting data-led working from home trends, her insight has been featured by major trade publications including the ICAEW, and news outlets like the BBC, ITV News, Daily Express, and HuffPost UK.

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