According to the Australian National Audit Office (ANAO) audit report released on Tuesday, almost a quarter of the 57 million phone calls made to Centrelink last year went unanswered.
The report also revealed that Australians waited an average of almost 17 minutes for calls to be answered and around 13 million customers simply abandoned calls because they were tired of waiting.
It was also noted that the average wait times reported to the government did not reflect the actual experience of many Centrelink customers, with 30 per cent claiming to have waited on hold for 30 minutes or more before speaking to a service officer.
These wait times have significantly increased in recent years from an average of 3 minutes and 5 seconds in 2010–11 to the current average of 16 minutes – which is the benchmark agreed to with the government.
The auditors calculated that Australians waited the equivalent of 143 years to speak to a Centrelink service officer in 2013-2014, only to hang up before their calls were answered. Add to that another 13.7 million calls that did not even make it to the point of being put on hold, after they were knocked out of the system or received a busy signal.
The Audit of the Department of Human Service’s (DHS) ‘Smart Centre’ system confirmed that the lengthy wait for calls to be answered is the number one complaint against the welfare agency.
The auditors attributed the lengthy wait times to the lack of public servants answering telephones, as well as the ‘performance and reliability’ issues of other customer service channels, including automated voice and online systems. Centrelink stated that to reduce the wait times to around five minutes it would have to add 1000 staff at an annual cost of $100 million.
Centrelink faces the challenge of managing high call volumes for the agency’s services during a transition to improved self-service systems. An example of the success of the new systems is its mobile app, where transactions have increased from 8.6 million in 2012–13 to 36.1 million in 2013–14.
The department’s long term strategy to move most customer transactions from a personal service basis (conducted by telephone or face-to-face) to a self-managed basis (conducted mainly over the internet) should enable better customer service by allowing support staff to focus on more complex services and customers most in need.
In the interim, the telephone remains a significant tool for customers seeking clarification of Centrelink processes and assistance with alternative service channels, whilst digital services refine their ease-of-use and reliability.
On a more positive note, the Auditor-General did recognise the fact that the department was making progress in revamping its customer service by diverting millions of transactions each year to its improved self-service options. It also recommended that Centrelink review its telephone services to inform customers of alternative support channels and warn them how long they may have to wait for a call to be answered.
Read the Australian National Audit Office report.
As I’m sure many of you will agree, it goes without saying that the Department of Human Services (DHS) needs to address these lengthy wait times for telephone calls to be answered.
Admittedly, Centrelink may have a limited amount of resources available and can only do the best with what it has been given. But if it’s a choice between funds being diverted to pay for putting on more staff to answer calls and reduce call wait times, or cuts to welfare and pensions, which would you choose?
The new self-service systems are indeed, quite admirable, and most of the time, quite effective. But what of those who are not internet savvy, or who prefer to deal with support officers face to face or over the phone, or those who don’t even own a smartphone?
Centrelink’s website can also be tricky to navigate, but once you’re in the right section, it seems to work quite well. Still, the telephone is always going to be a preferred tool for many of Centrelink’s customers, especially seniors.
I’m going to play devil’s advocate here and say that there are probably many unemployed twenty-somethings who quite possibly aren’t making the best use of their time anyway, and if them waiting on the phone for 30 minutes is the price to pay for receiving benefits, then so be it. If Centrelink can somehow filter those types of calls, it would go a long way to decreasing call wait times. But that’s probably more of a gripe than a solution.
This issue greatly affects those for whom time is more precious – seniors, retirees and those earnestly seeking employment – and waiting around for a support officer to answer a query about their benefits or employment options can be incredibly frustrating.
Refining the usability and reliability of Centrelink’s self-service options should relieve these call wait times, but that transition process is still in its relative infancy. Unfortunately, all that customers can do in the meantime is wait.
How have your experiences with Centrelink’s telephone services been? Have you waited for lengthy periods before your calls have been answered? If you haven’t already, would you be inclined to try the automated systems instead of using the phone? And, if you have used Centrelink’s online services, how was your experience?