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Who keeps you on hold for more than an hour?

Landline phone

So the polling’s over and the results are in. Your feedback on HMRC’s response time to telephone enquiries suggest you’ve been on hold for longer than you’d like. What other firms keep you waiting?

It doesn’t look good, with 30% of you (1,166 people) reporting a wait of 46-60 minutes and 28% (1,087) left hanging on for over an hour! Only 1% said they got through in less than five minutes.

On hold to HMRC

DaveW was on hold for an hour and a half:

‘I’m still listening to the “thanks for waiting – one of our advisors will be with you as soon as possible” message 61 minutes after first hearing it! The tune is driving me mad! Do I hang up after wasting over an hour of my life? Or do I wait for them to cut me off? I’m paying for this call – should I cut my losses? They’re still thanking me for waiting though!

‘After 68 minutes 30 seconds – I hear a human voice! Nice man very pleasant (but he couldn’t help) so he passes me on to a Customer Service Advisor – NO – WAIT – too late – on hold again… After 1 hour 33minutes and 15 seconds I speak with ‘John’ – nothing to worry about – the fault is at their end! Oh happy days.’

Mikey, who was on hold for 58 minutes, was very pleased with the service he received when he did get through:

‘Was so worth it in the end. They were super-fast and knowledgeable. Must have been on the phone about two minutes and I was sorted. It’ll take some time to fully forgive them for the wait. But I’ll heal: we all will heal.’

HMRC assure us it is taking steps to improve:

‘We have just completed the recruitment and training of 3,000 staff who will answer calls and letters. We’re also trialling a web-chat service so that simple queries can be answered by contacting an adviser online.’

Who else keeps you on hold?

Let’s hope things get better soon, but are HMRC alone? Do other public organisations keep you waiting for ages, or are there refreshing examples which show it doesn’t have to take forever to get through? How do banks, retailers and broadband providers compare with government bodies? Who stands out for good service and who deserves a wooden spoon?

Is making a phone call the best way to get in touch anyway? Would you rather send an email or use web-chat? Malcolm R suggests a call back option would be more productive:

‘Some well organised outfits allow you to leave your number and then call you back when they have an “advisor” free, instead of leaving you hanging on. Why can’t HMRC organise something like this for their “customers”.’

Given that we seem fated to spend so long ‘on hold’, is there any way of making the experience less dismal? Do you like snatches of classical music or does Barry White make the minutes fly by? Is it less annoying to be told that ‘your call matters to us’ or that ‘you’re number six in the queue’? Of course, you can always entertain yourself by commenting here on Which? Convo.


Callbacks are useful if they are optional. If I’m with a client and we need to talk to HMRC together it’s much better for me to remain on the line, as the office phone system is byzantine and there’s no way for someone to ring me back directly.

Inclusive calls from landlines to 01, 02 and 03 numbers are for the first 60 minutes of the call.

Hang up before that otherwise you begin to be charged a per-minute rate for the rest of the call.

There is not much we can do with inefficient companies other than voting with our feet but with HMRC and other organisations which we have no choice but to deal with, urgent action is needed.

Let us hope that the second attempt by Which? produces a result, otherwise we will have to push the government for action.

With further staff reductions predicted, it’s going to get worse not better. We need a lead from responsible and powerful institutions such as the accountancy bodies, Taxpayers Alliance and “Which?” on how to develop coping mechanisms to conduct the business we all have to with dysfunctional bureaucracy .

One stratagem is a “signed for” letter stating the impossibility of getting through on the phone describing the default action you have taken and asking for guidance on whether any further or alternative action is needed. One doesn’t expect a reply but producing a copy of the letter when some future fine or penalty is imposed is surely an excellent defence. Sad that it comes down to playing mind-games such as this, but perhaps necessary.

My latest experience of awfulness is IKEA online. Following a botched delivery I’ve had to make about 6 hour long phone calls to their awful customer services (I now hate ABBA) over a period of 2 weeks and each call has had to go back to the start of the problem and each time they spectacularly fail to understand the issue (or keep track of it). Have no ended up dealing with their Facebook page and have an email address.

After 2 weeks chasing they now expect me to stay in on a Sunday all day so they can collect the order and then will refund me weeks after that. Overall they will have taken over a month to even get close to resolving their mistake.

I will be avoiding them from now on. Cheap furniture isn’t worth the incompetent customer service.

Gordon says:
4 September 2015

I had 52 minutes on hold to HMRC last week. Again the representative was helpful and friendly when I got through, but the extent of the short staffing is CRAZY.

I’m glad to hear most staff or incoming and new avenues are being tested. Recognising you have a problem is the first step to fixing it…

Peter says:
5 September 2015

Many large companies do not seem to publish email addresses on which they can respond to normal queries – so it isn’t currently an option. Several times I have had to dig through fine print at the end of a web page to find any email address at all – when wanting to complain.
(Google goes the other way – their policy is not to have telephones.)

The worst organisation in my experience is the NHS. Specifically Leicester General Hospital. You’re in queue waiting to be answered for at least 30 minutes and then, when they do pick the phone up, they simply drop it on the desk and you can hear them talking in the office to each other until they put the receiver back and cut you off!

John Bennett says:
5 September 2015

The answer is simple. Take on more staff to do the job. Manufacturers cannot produce without staff. Service industries should do the same. Sadly “service is a dirty word these days”

TroTTer says:
5 September 2015

I have Virgin Media cable broad band and TV. Virgin are slow to answer the telephone, (20mins.) but once through they solve problems quickly and professionally. I could not get BBC 1 on my TV. All other channels were OK. They resolved the problem from their end after about 10 minutes of fiddling.
By the way, their broad band speed is not what you pay for and loading onto their site often takes ages.

This just shows how useless the voice telephone has become. The other less mentioned problem is that staff are usually people on minimum wage who know very little and have little ability to sort out problems. It isn’t the individuals’ fault, but the organisation’s, in using a call centre as a sort of buffer to cause customers to give up and stop complaining about a bad product or service.

Mr Drew’s idea of a “signed for letter” is brilliant, but of course if this gets as far as a court of law, lawyers tend to stick together and some legal argument may well be found to negate it. However, there is still a record that can be put before the “court of public opinion”. The other problem is that most people in these jobs don’t have brilliant reading and writing skills, or the organisation as a whole doesn’t have a procedure for replying to letters.

The light at the end of the tunnel is the fact that the government does seem very keen on getting everyone to use the Internet, and web based forms could be used, for example, with HMRC – if the facility is introduced. These get past the fraud problems associated with email.

Which? could campaign for all government departments to offer web based forms for “customer” communication. Even if many people won’t use them, those that do will lessen the load on those useless telephone call centres.

Another campaign would be to make it mandatory for companies selling or even advertising on line to have web form communication with their customers.

I find it very irritating that some companies have vehicles all sign written with their web address on them, but if you go to the web site all there is, is some rubbish about how marvellous they are plus a call centre number. No email, no web form contact, and some don’t even have a snail mail address. I expect that they have been conned into paying thousands for the web site and sign writing, which probably puts off more potential customers than it gains.

Recently I was waiting for 75mins to speak to Domestic and General to report a problem with my Bosch Oven! you have to get a reference number to call Bosch to report the fault & arrange an engineer, I’d waited so long that Bosch call centre was closed so had to wait until the next day. I waited only 5mins for Bosch, whom were quick and efficient thankfully

The fact that you can only communicate with Domestic and General by call centre telephone is a good enough reason not to use them.

If I owe HMRC money (which was the case when I tried to clarify a point
relating to my late mother’s estate) and they fail to answer within a
reasonable time (ie. less than 5 minutes), I take the attitude that I
have ‘taken reasonable steps’ to try to pay the correct amount and it’s
up to them to prove otherwise. I gave up on the phone, looked on the
web for an answer (which I found from an independent source – nothing
useful on HMRC’s website) and filled in the return accordingly. The tax
return was accepted.

I once left my details with a company for a callback, assuming that ‘when an advisor is free’ meant when the first one finished their current call. I wish I could remember who it was – 2 days later I was still trying to ring them to complain about the lack of any callback, and the person I finally spoke to was really snotty about it. As I say, I can’t remember who it was but I never did business with them again.

This just goes to show how liberal with the truth people are when at the other end of a voice telephone.

Some people on this list have said that it is legal to record a telephone conversation when at least one of the parties agrees. Assuming this is so, then people who use the telephone a lot might be advised to install a permanent recorder that records every call, so if there is a dispute about the veracity of anything said, there is a record.

If making a complaint, I would recommend that playing back the call first to make quite sure of what was really said. It is often easy to hear what you want to hear.

I have tried leaving my number for a call back. When I got through the next day and mentioned I had not had a call back I was informed that this is ‘within 2 days’!
If you are offered a call back you should be informed of the time-frame.
Inevitably I am out when called back. So unless the call back is within a reasonably short period of time it is a sop and worthless.

As to
>Inevitably I am out when called back.

This shows how useless and out of date synchronous voice telephony really is. An email in reply would be ready and waiting for when the customer gets back.

Luke says:
17 June 2016

The people that can least afford these calls get punished by the DWP,
It is rediculis that people on benefits have to cough up so much,especially when the DWP are at fault by causing the benefit delay in the first place !

As ever, engineering solutions are better than enforcement (law etc).

Bandwidth now seems to be the cost of a telephone call, not a direct connection between A and B. Maybe the answer is for subscribers to have an MP3 player connected to their telephone instruments with their choice of music loaded into its memory. Whilst waiting in a queue no data needs to be send between the parties to the call, therefore the bandwidth is zero, and the cost should be zero. The caller’s telephone plays locally sourced music. Once the company being called answers, a pulse signal is sent to the customers’ telephone which stops the music and starts charging the customers for using speech bandwith so that the parties can converse.

What would be a lot less complicated is for the company to offer a callback service, but this is only helpful if the system can somehow give an idea as to how long the customer will have to wait before their phone rings.

Marie says:
3 June 2022

I am sick and tired of higher telephone bills thanks to companies including banks that keep me on hold for almost three hours. If a company keeps you hanging then they should be the ones to pay our telephone bills.

I think my record is 45 minutes, so that’s not good, Marie. Perhaps companies should be required to offer a call back service, as some already do.

……and public services. If you have tried to phone DWP divisions or HMRC waits of well over 30 minutes have been commonplace for me, as has contacting my health centre. The recorded announcement “we are currently experiencing long delays……” has been going on for far too long for it to be “current”. Perhaps we need regulations on the way public bodies deal with calls with, as wavechange says, a callback if waiting times are likely to extend beyond a certain time – say 5 minutes.

Fortunately I, like many, don’t pay for the time spent on the phone. So when I phone one of these dilatory organisations I arrange another task I can get on with – cooking a meal, put the washing on, compose some essential contribution to a Convo 🙁 and put the phone down nearby on loudspeaker.

Absolutely. It’s not just companies that often keep us waiting.

What I hate most is that those companies that have a repeated message saying “Your call is valuable to us…” After half an hour it sends the wrong message to me.

If I am not offered a call back service, I press the volume button twice which takes me into hands free. There is another button on the side of the phone to further amplify the sound. I can then get on with doing something else with both hands free until a response is forthcoming.

I would add, I do have one hour ‘free’ written in my telephone contract. I would hang up and try again later before going over this time as the charge for exceeding it would be enormous.

Crusader says:
3 June 2022

One thing that really matters here is not just how long they keep you hanging on, but what they play while you’re waiting. In my recent experience far too many companies and other services are now using some absolutely appalling excuse for “music”, so bad that as soon as I hear it I have absolutely no choice but to instantly abort the call. And if I try writing to them about it I just get arrogantly ignored which suggests a dreadfully condescending attitude. The sooner far more severe selective noise sensitivity like misophonia is properly recognised as a serious disability and taken far more seriously the better, as at the moment the more general attitude of our society is still stuck in the stone age and they just won’t be told that some folk are far more extremely severely disabled this way, but instead they’re far too quick to “play down” such conditions and keep insisting that no-one else has any worse experience than the normal crowd do which is completely wrong, for some folk it’s absolute brutal torture and not just merely “irritating” or “annoying” etc. Our society’s attitude MUST change just it has for other disabilities. It’s just like the supervisor in the new bus station near me where he insists on keeping the radio in his little kiosk connected to the PA system and forcing it on the public and when I complained to him face to face he just kept robotically repeating that “there is no exclusion” and wouldn’t be told, so I’ve got to take it further. So it looks like with some folk they just arrogantly refuse to recognise any disability which they can’t see or which is not popularly recognised etc. and that attitude stinks. And of course it’s a serious breach of the so-called “equality” act as is using excruciating noise while putting folk on hold on the phone. And I don’t know why the act is called the equality act when it doesn’t even begin to provide any such thing as there’s still far too many jobsworths out there who are still stuck in the first century and still see some of us as “plebs” which furiously enrages me.

Interesting that this conversation has revived after so many years during which nothing has been done.
Individuals can refuse to use companies which only communicate by synchronous voice telephony.
Government agencies like HMRC, health centres and the benefits offices should be made to offer alternative more efficient means of communication which queue messages and not people.
It should be everyone’s social duty if they see any sort of queue not to join it unless it is an extreme matter of life and death.

This Convo call back service has taken 6 years, John. Glad you weren’t hanging on.

We’ve made regress.

Being kept on hold remains a problem but the present game is to remove contact phone numbers and expect us to use online chat, tweets and Facebook. It’s pathetic.