Customer Service at HMRC - Successes and Challenges

24th Nov 2015


Minutes of the meeting of All Party Parliamentary Group on Customer Service - 5-6pm, Tuesday 24 November 2015 


Steve Reed (chair)
Amanda Milling
Baroness Hayter
Kevin Foster
Lord Scriven


Dorothy Brown, Director Personal Tax Operations at HM Revenue and Customs 
Joanna Causon, Chief Executive, The Institute of Customer Service


Alison Bright – Department of Work and Pensions
Sidonie Kingsmill – HM Courts and Tribunals Service
Robin Williamson – Low Incomes Tax Reform Group 
Stephen Hardwick – HM Revenue and Customs
Oliver Rawlings – The Institute of Customer Service
Mike Petrook – The Institute of Customer Service

1. Welcome by Steve Reed 

Mr Reed welcomed participants to the meeting and opened the session - everyone present was passionate about customer service and was interested and committed to improving customer service levels across the UK. He noted how topical the meeting discussion was, so much so there was a paralleled debate in the Commons chamber on part of HMRC’s current transformation plan. 

2. Joanna Causon - Chief Executive, The Institute of Customer Service - Context: Customer Service in public services vs other sectors 

Joanna Causon set out the overall outlook for customer service in the UK. The latest UK Customer Service Satisfaction Index showed that customer satisfaction appears to have stabilised following two years of decline.

National public services are 11 out of 13 sectors in the UK Customer Service Satisfaction Index scoring significantly behind the leading sectors.

Joanna said that there are major challenges facing the sector particularly around the need to reduce costs given lower budgets and also the often fragmented nature services. However, she highlighted that there were big gains to be made in terms of increasing the health and wellbeing of citizens by improving their experience with public services, making services more effective by reducing problems for their customers and taking costs out of services by preventing problems and dealing with ones that arise more effectively and quickly. In addition, achieving an integration of services would help to reduce costs, whilst improving the overall customer experience.

The key for the sector was to  focus on consistent service across all platforms, investment in customer insight to transform their service, using a balanced set of measures to assess success, and benchmarking against other sectors. The way to achieve these was to ensure good quality leadership and to build a customer focused culture with engaged employees. 

3.  Dorothy Brown, Director Personal Tax Operations at HM Revenue and Customs - Customer Service at HMRC 

Dorothy explained that she has responsibility  for the personal tax side of the business – the part that deals with individual citizens and their issues with their tax. In this respect HMRC has 52m customers, received 65m phones calls and 12m post items a year and then internally generated further 8-10m actions from this work. She had 14k operational staff of which 5k work on phone enquires. 

She said that HMRC has been on a journey for a number of years and was shifting to focus on customers – i.e the people who are paying taxes – rather than being just a revenue 
collection organisation for the treasury. Achieving a consistency of service was a key challenge as well as maintaining this.
The HMRC’s recently announced ‘building our future’ programme was key to delivering change and would provide the right infrastructure. 
Dorothy highlighted that progress was being made, for example tax credits were now done online. They are working on the personal tax account which would allow people to view their tax information and do some simple self-service online. This would prevent some of the phone calls for more hygiene factors such as change of address and allow HRMC staff to focus on dealing with complex enquires. 

Dorothy noted that whilst people wanted on–line access for areas that were relatively straight  forward  they also still wanted to be able to phone in and have face-to-face meetings when they needed it. This was particularly the case with more vulnerable customers.
On skills Dorothy noted the importance of the training and reskilling agenda. The front line officers at HMRC have extensive knowledge of tax but she wants more of a focus on supporting the team with customer and coaching skills to be able to really support and understand customer needs.
As a conclusion Dorothy said that to be successful you cannot design an organisation through a focus on your own delivery, it must be designed from the customer perspective. 

4. Q&A chaired by Steve Reed

Incorporating the user perspective 

Steve Reed asked what mechanisms were used to ensure the customer perspective was being considered. Dorothy acknowledge that it was hard to ensure all voices were heard but that their strategy was focused on working with customers to design services and they worked with representative organisations to do this . For example, the unit for people who need extra support was designed with a variety of organisations representing vulnerable groups. 
Lord Scriven asked specifically about co-design and Dorothy commented that they use customer insight specialists and increasingly use customer groups and organisations. She noted that all redesigns go through a cross-cutting group of people from within HMRC that draws together all the people that deal with issues related to that the relevant customer group. 

Accountably and lack of choice for customers

Steve Reed noted the need to focus on the customer was an issue across the public sector and one of the big problems specific to the public sector was that customers were not able to go elsewhere when service was bad. Dorothy noted that for HMRC scrutiny by Parliament was very important to ensure it was customer focused as was the oversight of the 
Adjudicator’s Office to whom customers could take complaints. She also noted that they were getting much better at using complaints as a feedback loop to improve services.

Customer centric communications

Baroness Hayter highlighted that much of HMRC’s literature was difficult to understand. She questioned how much user testing was happening to ensure it was simple and easy to understand. Dorothy acknowledged that some of the literature was too hard to understand and use and that they were in a long process of redesigning much if it. For example, they knew customers wanted the ‘numbers up front’ – i.e. what they earnt and paid rather than the process elements like tax codes. She noted that much of the correspondence customers received was automatically generated by their systems and that this all still had to be sent out to customers because they were essential communications. However, they were prioritising redesigning the correspondence received by the most people as this would have the most impact. She also noted that the aim was to prevent notices having to go out in the first place.
Robin Williamson noted that he had seen some examples recently of HMRC literature that was excellent in terms of clarity. He cautioned, however, that tax was complicated and that there was a danger of over-simplifying communications to the point that they became less useful because they did not give accurate information. 
Joanna Causon noted that whilst tax issues and the communications needs of HMRC were complex so are many banking and financial service products and services and the processes around them. She highlight that the leading organisation in the UK Customer Service Satisfaction Index was a bank (First Direct) so that getting this balance right was possible. In addition she was keen to stress that this was not just about communication it was about creating the right overall customer experience. 

Amanda Milling noted that many areas of the private sector had been focused on the importance of simple and clear communication of their service for a long time as they had recognised that it reduced phone calls and complaints. She suggested that HMRC speak to a number of the banks and the banking regulators.


Lord Scriven noted the importance of personalisation to customers and asked about the extent of personalisation in the new personal tax account. Dorothy said that they were still designing the personal tax account and stated that they had not yet considered the extent of personalisation that people might want but that this was something she would take back to be considered.

Joanna Causon noted that the degree of personalisation now required was a challenge across many sectors and there were questions around the extent that this can be meaningfully achieved, however it was something that needed to feature more in all organisations as there is a growing expectation from the consumer for this.  

IT systems

Kevin Foster noted the Public Account Committee’s interest in declining customer service at HRMC and raised the issue of complex and old IT systems. Amanda noted that many banks had legacy IT systems and still managed to improve customer service. Dorothy noted that that she did not think legacy IT systems was the problem for HMRC and that culture played a significant part in achieving the right customer experience and that a lot of work was being undertaken on this to ensure the overall customer experience was delivered.

5. Close

Steve Reed summed up the session by reiterating that the purpose of the APPG was to improve understanding amongst parliamentarians about customer service improvement issues to help inform their work. He highlighted three key issues they meeting had raised: customer voice/power, co-production of services with customers and personalisation of services.

Joanna Causon closed the meeting by reiterating the need to look across sectors in order to draw lessons from the best performers and that measurement was vital to drive a consistent service. She emphasised that cultural change was key to delivering improved customer service and that this was achieved my measuring service and rewarding employees properly according to this. 

Download Minutes - Customer Service at HMRC

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