'Talking to angry customers can be challenging and you can end up taking it personally. But your job is to solve the query'

A huge diversity of people and roles make up the modern civil service. Ioana Sur shares what it's been like on the HMRC front line during the pandemic

By Civil Service World

02 Aug 2022

Ioana Sur, customer service advisor, Cardiff

When and why did you join the civil service?

I came to the UK in 2010. Before joining HM Revenue and Customs I worked for the technology firm HP as a technician. When I was ready for a change, I put my CV on several sites and then had an offer from one agency. It sounded very different from what I’ve done before. But I applied, was offered it and I’ve been with HMRC since 2017. 

What do you do and how does it help citizens?

At the moment I’m doing web chat, but normally I would be taking calls from customers: employers, taxpayers, self-assessment, Pay As You Earn, agents, accountants – you name it. I deal with the tax side of things, so normally people who have a problem with their tax code or their self-assessment. It can be complex work. The training was quite hard at the beginning, I must say – there was so much information. So rather different from what I was doing before, where people would ring up and say there was something wrong with their printer!

HMRC customer service officials are on the delivery front line. How many of your calls are from angry people?

Well, that’s the beauty of the job. Most of the calls are angry people! Firstly they’re angry because they often have to sit on hold before getting through to us, but secondly because various errors mean – for example – they haven’t received their repayment and they’re in hardship. So I try to put myself in their situation, and also to treat every call as if it’s the first of the day. It can be challenging and on occasion you can end up taking it personally. But your job is to solve the query and to help them and, overall, I really enjoy my work. To get somebody who’s very upset and then, after you’ve solved the problem for them, to hear their tone completely change by the end of the call – it’s very satisfying. 

The fact that the national guidance is always changing also means it’s never a boring job!

“To get someone who’s very upset and then, after you’ve solved their problem, to hear their tone completely change by the end of the call – it’s very satisfying”

How did your role change over the pandemic? 

During the pandemic I was taking calls about the furlough scheme, the Self-Employment Income Support Scheme  – huge new programmes we had no previous experience of. And obviously the normal tax calls too. It was challenging, but the communication and support from various managers was great, so that feeling of being in a team where everybody is trying to do a good job was still there. 
 I did find it quite hard doing the job entirely from home. When you’re in the office and you have situations with upset customers, you have a colleague to discuss it with. When you have to take calls from home, you only have your partner, or your cat, or your dog, and the frustration can build up. So I actually felt that the pressure was more intense taking calls from home.

What’s a surprising thing about your role?

One thing I would mention is that sometimes colleagues complain about the guidance – that it’s not supportive enough or there isn’t enough information there. But I’ve worked with the guidance for the last few years, and it is definitely possible to get it changed. Actually, every time you submit a suggestion of how it could change, and then it changes as a result, you get a certificate. I’ve managed to get 38 certificates in five years! So as frontline employees we can help the guidance evolve and become more user-friendly, and that’s satisfying too.

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