Midnight Friday marked the official end of the 2017 tax-filing season as that’s the final deadline for individuals with self-employment income (and their spouse or partner) to file without getting hit with a late-filing penalty. As of earlier this week, more than 27 million returns had been filed this season, nearly 90 per cent of them electronically.
If you’d had occasion to call the Canada Revenue Agency over the past few months, you may have had some trouble getting through on your first call. According to the CRA, this past tax-filing season, 74 per cent of calls made to the CRA’s Individual Tax Enquiries lines were answered (45 per cent by an agent, and 29 per cent by automated service) compared to 37 per cent for the 2015 tax-filing season (30 per cent by an agent, and 7 per cent by automated service). More callers can now wait in queue, which has reduced the number of call attempts needed to reach an agent from an average of 3.3 attempts in 2015-2016 to an average of 2.1 for 2017-2018.
While this is certainly an improvement, the CRA says that “it will continue working to further meet the evolving expectations of Canadians.”
You may recall that in the fall of 2017, the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) issued a scathing report on the performance of the CRA’s call centre. The object of the audit was on whether the CRA’s call centres provided Canadian taxpayers with timely access to accurate information.
This week, the CRA tabled the government’s formal, written response to OAG’s report. The CRA accepted all the recommendations in the report and reiterated the government’s commitment to improving the service that the CRA’s call centres offer to taxpayers. Specifically, the CRA is implementing a three-point plan to ensure the OAG’s recommendations are adopted: It will focus on modernizing technology, improving agent training and updating service standards.
The OAG report found that call centre agents answered only about one-third of calls to the CRA’s call centre. It found that the CRA actually blocked more than half of the calls it received (about 29 million out of 53.5 million) because it could not handle the volume. (Blocked calls were those that did not reach either an agent or the automated self-service system.) Instead, callers were given either a busy signal or a message to go to the website or call back later. This meant that each caller made an average of three or four call attempts per week.
In response, the CRA announced it is transitioning to a new telephone system that will connect callers with agents more efficiently while informing them of current wait times. Callers will be given a choice to either stay on the line, choose a self-service option or call back if the expected wait time is too long. The new technology to implement this is expected to be ready in 2018.
One of the most dire findings of the OAG report was that when call centre agents responded to the OAG’s tax questions, they gave wrong information nearly 30 per cent of the time. This meant that the actual rate of agent errors was significantly higher than even the CRA’s own test results.
The OAG made 255 calls to CRA call centres to assess the accuracy of the information provided by its agents. They used 17 questions, some of which were the same as those used by the CRA or other external studies to assess the accuracy of information provided by call centre agents.
The questions asked were general in nature so agents didn’t need to access a specific taxpayer account. While the CRA’s internal assessment found inaccurate responses between 6 per cent and 20 per cent of the time, external tests showed inaccuracy rates of from 24 to 31 per cent, while the OAG’s tests found that responses were inaccurate almost 30 per cent of the time overall. The OAG posited that one reason for the high rate of incorrect responses could be gaps in training.
In early 2017, the CRA’s training program was redesigned “to better prepare newly hired agents, and to assess their readiness to leave the training environment and respond to calls.” These programs were piloted in the fall of 2017 and have since been rolled out across the country for all new CRA hires. The new approach tests agents’ “readiness and proficiency” before they leave the training environment and start handling live calls from the public. More than 700 call centre agents have now been trained using this approach.
The CRA also announced that is preparing to implement call recording for the purposes of individual agent coaching and support. This new approach to quality control replaces the existing method whereby an assessor sits beside an agent, listening to the call using a dual headset.
To strengthen the accuracy of responses provided by call centre agents, the CRA has created a new quality assurance team. This new team will review and assess the quality and accuracy of the information provided to callers and identify opportunities for continuous improvement.
Updated quality control test: 2018
Finally, one of the OAG’s recommendations was that the CRA should conduct its own quality control test which it did over ten business days in mid-February 2018. It was conducted by a team from CRA headquarters in which a random sampling of agents were called, posing the same 17 questions that the OAG had used in its review. Each question was asked to 13 different agents, randomly selected, for a total sample size of 221 agents.
The results show that 64 per cent of the calls were answered by the CRA: 44 per cent directly by an agent and 20 per cent by the CRA’s automated service. Of the 36 per cent of calls that went unanswered, 19 per cent were calls directed to an automated service whereby the caller presumably gave up and hung up within two minutes while 17 per cent received a busy signal.
When it comes to the accuracy agents’ answers, things are looking up as it appears that 78 per cent of responses were accurate, which is a marked improvement over the OAG’s results.
Jamie Golombek, CPA, CA, CFP, CLU, TEP is the Managing Director, Tax & Estate Planning with CIBC Financial Planning & Advice in Toronto.