The objective of the audit was to assess how effectively and efficiently the ATO managed contact centres as part of its overall service delivery strategy. To form an opinion against the audit objective, the ANAO adopted the following high-level criteria:
- contact centres are effectively integrated with other ATO client communication channels, such as the online and on-site channels;
- contact centres are supported by effective business and administrative arrangements;
- contact centres provide a high level of client service; and
- contact centres are managed efficiently.
The audit principally focused on the ATO’s handling of incoming telephone calls by contact centres.
The provision of high quality and accessible services to clients underpins the ATO’s promotion of compliance with Australia’s extensive systems of taxation and superannuation. A key component of the ATO’s approach to engaging with clients is its network of 13 contact centres that, in 2013–14, handled 10 million inbound telephone calls—representing almost half of its 20.7 million client contacts in that year. While the ATO is aiming to make online contact with clients the preferred communication channel by 2020, contact centres are likely to remain an important channel for large numbers of clients in the absence of any action to reduce the demand for these services.
Contact centres are a major communication channel for clients to contact the ATO and have generally been managed effectively. Overall, the arrangements established for telephone contact provide clients with ready access to a broad range of call services, with the handling of inbound calls resulting in relatively high levels of overall client satisfaction over many years. The ATO has generally sound organisational arrangements to manage calls, although an overarching client communication channel strategy is yet to be established. While not being in a position to readily demonstrate the efficiency of its contact centre operations, there is evidence to indicate that the ATO has achieved value for money from the use of outsource providers and it has also maintained a strong focus on monitoring and reducing the costs of its own contact centres.
Until 2012, the ATO had a distinct client communication strategy in place covering the four key channels—contact centres, correspondence, online and shopfronts. This strategy has not been updated or replaced since reaching its nominal expiry date in 2012. While a draft digital strategy was prepared in July 2014 for online services, this strategy focuses on the ATO’s digital presence and does not provide or reference a detailed plan for the provision of high quality and accessible services through other channels, including call services. Accordingly, there would be merit in the ATO developing a strategy that more fully encompasses all service channels and provides a plan for transitioning to the preferred online channel environment. As the management of the four service channels is assigned to a number of groups and BSLs across the organisation, there is also scope for the ATO to adopt organisational arrangements that better support the coordinated delivery of client engagement services across the channels.
To efficiently handle call volumes and effectively address the needs of clients, the ATO directs calls to staff with relevant skills and knowledge. In general, calls of a specialised nature are handled by ATO contact centres, with the more straightforward calls increasingly being directed to outsource providers. Outsourcing has been particularly effective in enabling the ATO to manage significant fluctuations in call workloads, particularly during ‘Tax Time’ from July to October each year. The ATO has also made effective use of technology, including in managing periods of high call volumes, such as providing opportunities for callers to receive a call back when their call reaches the front of the queue.
As well as relatively high levels of overall satisfaction with contact centres, client satisfaction surveys indicate reasonably high levels of satisfaction across most of the major elements of service, including the time taken to resolve a query (84 per cent in 2013–14) and the overall quality of information provided (86 per cent in 2013). The main exception has been a reasonably significant level of dissatisfaction with call waiting times, with only 57 per cent of respondents satisfied with the length of waiting times in 2013–14. At present, the ATO’s call answering service commitment for its general information line only relates to Tax Time. Using service commitments that measure the extent to which the ATO meets call wait times throughout the year would better enable it to manage call wait times and enhance client satisfaction.
In recent years, the ATO has taken a number of steps to improve the efficiency of its contact centre operations. These steps have included changes to the skill levels of contact centre staff and better support for CSRs to improve first contact resolution rates (that is, the percentage of calls resolved by the CSR who first answers the call), with the ATO reporting a first response resolution rate of around 80 per cent over the past two years. These results need to be viewed with some caution, however, as not all calls included in the rate have been satisfactorily resolved. For example, calls that cannot be answered because a caller is unable to establish proof of identify are treated as being resolved when, from the client’s perspective, the matter has not been resolved as they need to call again. As well as improving its measurement of first contact resolution rates, there is scope for the ATO to implement a consistent methodology for calculating call handling costs.
To improve the ATO’s management of contact centre operations, the ANAO has made two recommendations aimed at better coordinating the management of the four key client communication channels, including contact centres, and improving reporting of contact centre performance.