Politics

Canadians calling CRA facing longer wait times, getting unreliable answers, CFIB audit finds

Months after the Canada Revenue Agency promised that a new phone system would fix the problems plaguing its business call centre, wait times have increased — and 40 per cent of the answers employees give are wrong or incomplete — according to a new report.

Study found answers from CRA employees were inaccurate or incomplete 40 per cent of the time

It is taking longer for small businesses to get answers when they call the Canada Revenue Agency. (Africa Studio/Shutterstock)

Months after the Canada Revenue Agency promised that a new phone system would fix the problems plaguing its business call centre, wait times have increased — and 40 per cent of the answers employees give are wrong or incomplete — according to a new report.

The report by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB) found the number of busy signals and dropped calls to CRA's business inquiries phone system was down, but the average time people spent on hold waiting to speak with agents was much longer.

"You had to wait on line so long to get an answer from CRA, and once you did get an answer, only about 60 per cent of the time was the answer actually complete and correct," said Corinne Pohlmann, the CFIB's senior vice-president of national affairs.

The audit report, by authors Tina Barton and Michelle Auger, is based on 200 calls made between June 3 and June 28. It's the fourth such audit the CFIB has conducted on the CRA's business inquiries phone service, and the first since the CRA introduced a new phone system last year in an attempt to improve the service.

Stuck on hold

The last time the CFIB conducted an audit of the service, in 2016, it took an average of two minutes for a caller to reach a frontline agent. This year, getting through to an agent took 15 minutes on average, with the longest recorded wait being 40 minutes (the caller in that case gave up and ended the call).

Callers to the business inquiries line speak first to a frontline CRA agent; if that agent can't answer a caller's questions, the call is redirected to a senior CRA agent. This year's audit found it took about an hour on average to get in touch with a senior agent, while the longest wait on hold for a senior agent was two hours — up from 15 minutes in the 2016 audit.

While CRA's new service standard for its call centre says 65 per cent of callers should reach an agent within 15 minutes, the CFIB's newest audit found that only happened 59 per cent of the time.

The report gave the CRA's business inquiry service a D, down from the C- it got in the last audit.

The CRA did see a big improvement in the number of callers able to get through to the call centre. In 2016, the CFIB found that 28 percent of callers couldn't reach the call centre at all, because of busy signals or blocked calls. In 2019, that rate had dropped to 9 per cent.

Too many wrong answers

But the problems with the service don't end when callers finally manage to get through to a human being.

The new audit found that, of the 101 calls that were resolved over the audit period, 60 per cent ended with callers receiving complete or above-and-beyond guidance, while 28 per cent received incomplete information and 13 per cent received incorrect information from CRA agents.

The questions the agents got wrong most often dealt with the rules for consultants who work across the country applying the GST or HST. The audit found that 23 per cent of those calls saw CRA agents provide the wrong answers to callers' questions, while in 30 per cent of calls the answers provided were incomplete. Agents got those questions right 30 per cent of the time, while in 17 per cent of cases the agent went above and beyond in answering the question.

Corinne Pohlmann of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business: "Small business owners don't have time to sit and wait on the phone." (Canadian Federation of Independent Business)

Those weren't the only questions some agents got wrong. While the audit found that 81 per cent of agents gave the correct answer to a question regarding car allowances, only 64 per cent answered an Employment Insurance question accurately and only 50 per cent gave correct and complete answers on capital cost allowances.

"It is concerning that in some situations agents gave incomplete or incorrect advice to nearly half the callers (40 per cent overall)," the authors wrote. "This can impact the decisions a business owner makes, causing them to take the wrong action, miss out on credits they may be entitled to, or risk facing financial and legal penalties for non-compliance.

"Businesses deserve to have a greater rate of certainty when calling the CRA for guidance."

The auditors rated 51 per cent of the completed calls as "good" in terms of professionalism, while 28 per cent were "deemed acceptable." But 21 per cent were rated as poor — twice as much as in previous years, the audit said.

The audit also assessed the information available on the CRA's website, saying the agency should be using plainer, easier-to-understand language.

Pohlmann said the problems with CRA's call centre are frustrating for small business owners who just want to get on with their lives.

"Small business owners don't have time to sit and wait on the phone," she said. "They would like to get an answer when they call."

Pohlmann said the report recommends the CRA improve its business inquiries service by providing better training to its employees, encouraging business owners to use the online My Business Account portal to communicate electronically with CRA, and deploying technological fixes such as a callback service to reduce the amount of time callers spend on hold.

Etienne Biram, spokesman for the CRA, said it has launched a plan to improve call centre service.

"The CRA is already working on improvements, such as informing callers of the estimated wait times for transferred calls, and a callback feature for callers to keep their priority in the queue without staying on hold," he wrote. "We are also making continuous improvements to our web content, and will soon introduce a chatbot to help make it easier for Canadians to find information online."

Elizabeth Thompson can be reached at elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca

About the Author

Elizabeth Thompson

Senior Reporter

Award-winning reporter Elizabeth Thompson covers Parliament Hill. A veteran of the Montreal Gazette, Sun Media and iPolitics, she currently works with the CBC's Ottawa bureau, specializing in investigative reporting and data journalism. She can be reached at: elizabeth.thompson@cbc.ca.

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