HMRC helplines – dealing with the automated system

Published on 28 October 2014

HMRC’s helplines now use an automatic system when you first get through – a recorded voice asking you various questions. HMRC have produced some suggestions to help taxpayers get the best from the system. We have reproduced them below along with further suggestions from LITRG.

The automated ‘voice recognition’ system on HMRC helplines attempts to cut calls going through to their advisers and reduce waiting times by asking you what your call is about. It may then direct you to online guidance so that you can read up on the answer for yourself, or it may ask you some security questions and eventually put you through to an adviser.

We have tested the system twice – first on its introduction in late 2013 and again in the summer of 2014. Our experiences have been mixed and we have particular concerns for some people, for example those with impaired speech or without English as a first language. We are therefore pressing HMRC to develop the service further.

In the meantime, if you are struggling with the system, HMRC offer these basic suggestions:

  • Try to call when there is not too much background noise. Calling from a busy train station or when the television is on for example, could distort the information heard by the speech recognition application.
  • Talk at a steady natural pace, do not rush, shout or speak too slowly. The system has been widely tested on all regional accents so there should not be any need to force pronunciation.
  • To give dates, clearly say the date, month and year. For example, ‘twenty first July nineteen eighty nine’ or ‘Fourteen zero nine nineteen sixty seven’. Similarly, to say amounts, speak clearly and normally. For example ‘twenty-five pounds and thirty pence’.
  • When prompted, please state reasons in a few words. For example ‘SMP’ or ‘Maternity pay’ is sufficient. There is no need to say ‘I am calling to query the period which applies for statutory maternity pay’. Condensing your reason for calling into a short phrase or statement can be easier said than done, so you may want to prepare a few words before you dial the number (and have an alternative just in case the system does not pick up your first attempt).
  • The system will recognise common abbreviations and acronyms. For 'PAYE' both 'p a y e' and 'Pay as you Earn' will be recognised. If your call concerns an actual form then you can name it – P2, P800, SA302 – as the system should recognise these also.
  • The system will offer confirmation of what you have said. It will 'ask again' if it is unsure or needs further clarification. If the system is still struggling it will revert to a push button menu for ease, for example press 1 for self-assessment, 2 for refunds and so on. There should always be a ‘something else’ default option which you can use if none of the categories are appropriate.

Based on LITRGs experiences in testing the system and in contacting HMRC more broadly, we can offer you the following additional hints and tips to help you get through:

  1. Some times of the day and year are busier than others and you may encounter a queue once the system puts you through to an adviser with music whilst on hold. Most of HMRC’s lines are open 8 to 8 weekdays and 8 to 4pm on Saturdays. If you can avoid: 
    – the lunch hour, 
    – just after 9am, and 
    – evenings, 
    you should find the waiting time shorter. Try calling at 8.15am, between say 2 and 4pm during the week, or for some lines, you could try Saturday.
  2. If you call just before the lines close at 8pm, you may well get through the voice recognition only to find yourself disconnected.
  3. Get all the details that you may need ready before you call, such as: 
    – National Insurance number, 
    – self-assessment tax reference, 
    – employer reference number, 
    – tax credits reference, 
    – copies of the most recent letters you have received,
    – details of any dates you may have started or stopped something (for example, the date you stopped work).
  4. If English is not your first language or you have difficulty using the telephone for another reason, you could ask a friend or family member to help you. The HMRC adviser should then also allow that person to assist you with the rest of the call if necessary.
  5. You may be offered web guidance relating to your query, so have a pen and paper handy as you may want to jot information and web addresses down.
  6. Having a pen and paper will also be useful if you are offered another number to dial or if the system gives you some immediate advice (such as ‘if you have received a P800 showing you are due a refund there is no need to do anything – we will send you a cheque within 14 working days’). Listen carefully and make a note for later.
  7. You will be able to interrupt the system with your answer to progress your call a little bit quicker, but you will not be able to skip the website information.
  8. ALWAYS write down the time and date of the call and the name of the adviser you spoke to. It is wise to note also key actions that you or HMRC agreed and any due dates too.
  9. If you have a speech impairment, are deaf or hard of hearing you can use a text phone to contact HMRC by text relay or by text phone. If you think you may need the help of an adviser at a face-to-face meeting, you can go to: Arranging an HMRC appointment online.
  10. Depending on the nature of your query, you may also be asked some security questions by the system in order to verify your identity. This should mean you do not have to do it again when you get through to the adviser. If you would prefer to just do this with the adviser then you can say ‘don’t know’ to any security questions.
  11. If you call the employer helpline, you will be asked if you are a business, agent or something else. You should be aware that in this context ‘business’ means employer and is the correct option to press even if you employ someone domestically in your home, for example.
  12. You can now email HMRC about various matters and avoid using the telephone altogether – for example, to tell them a change of name or address. Also, if your tax code for the present year may be wrong, you can contact them by email.
  13. You can of course still write to HMRC, but it will take longer to get a reply. When writing, make sure you quote your tax reference number (National Insurance Number or self-assessment reference number) and head your letter with the subject, for example ‘TAX CODE QUERY’ (this will improve the time is takes to process your query). Keep a copy of the letter for your records. You can also use the ‘Where’s my reply’ service to find out broadly how long it will take to get a response HMRC.

The good news is that once you have got through to HMRC, they are usually friendly and genuinely want to help.

Good luck!

(28-10-2014)

Contact: Meredith McCammond (please use form at /contact-us) or follow us on Twitter: @LITRGNews