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ATO admits callers are 'chopped off'

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is trying to fix two "annoying" features that clients face when they attempt to call for advice when its staff are too busy — a persistent busy tone or being "chopped off" the line without an explanation.
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Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer on

The Australian Taxation Office (ATO) is trying to fix two "annoying" features that clients face when they attempt to call for advice when its staff are too busy — a persistent busy tone or being "chopped off" the line without an explanation.

When call centre queues for any of the ATO's tax divisions — for example, income tax, superannuation or business — become 100 deep, call centre managers decide whether or not to turn on the "busy tone" — a measure that effectively turns customers away.

"We put our busy signal on and I know it's a very annoying thing for a lot of our clients ... but if we don't do it, we have such huge levels that we start to impact back into the [public] networks," the ATO's deputy commissioner for client contact Jane King told IT Radio's Smart Call.

According to King, the ATO handles between 50,000 to 150,000 calls per week. To manage these levels, it maintains at least 1,400 operators. "Our peak work is anywhere up to 2,300 to 2,400 — around that level," she said.

The decision to turn on the busy tone is not a rule but a "guide", according to an ATO spokesperson. Another deciding factor for the busy tone is whether customers are waiting for more than 10 minutes.

However, the busy tone is not the most annoying feature of the ATO's call centres. The worst feature, according to feedback, is when callers are cut off without warning after several minutes.

"I guess one of the biggest complaints we've had is that people don't get a choice. That we just chop them off and that's it," King said.

The ATO is aware of the irritation this causes, and is rolling out a new call-back system, which asks waiting clients if they would like the ATO to contact them rather than having to wait in line.

"We have been rolling that out for our whole network in time for tax time.

"We'll have the option to say to our clients, 'Look, there is a wait time ... would you like to wait or would you like us to hold your place in the queue and we'll ring you back when you reach the top of the queue?'," said King.

CIO Bill Gibson recently nominated this technology as one of the ATO's most "innovative" investments in technology.

"It means that I can go off and do something else and then the ATO will call me back ... I don't need to take the call then. We will call back a second time and/or a third time. And so it can be when you are ready to talk with us, not just when we are ready to talk to you. And that has been very, very well received," he told ZDNet.com.au.

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