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HMRC internal manual

Complaint Handling Guidance

Dealing with complaints: Top ten tips when dealing with complaints

i. Always try to put yourself in the customer’s shoes, and see the problem from their point of view. This is often easier said than done. Because you deal with the department’s business every day of the week, every week of the year, your knowledge and understanding is likely to be far more extensive and comprehensive than that of the customer. It helps sometimes to remember your early days in the department, and recall how everything seemed so foreign and unfathomable. So bear that in mind, but be careful not to sound patronising.

ii. Accept that the customer is concerned about something and see what you can do about it, but make sure that you fully understand what the customer is unhappy about before you respond. It can sometimes be a good idea to summarise the complaint in your own words. This shows that you understand the customer’s concern and focuses your response.

iii. Be aware that sometimes customers say they want to “appeal” against a decision, when what they really mean is they want to have their case reviewed by a higher authority. Also, customers may say they want to complain when really the appropriate avenue is an appeal or review. Ensure that you direct the customer to the correct route.

iv. Your aim should always be to settle the complaint as thoroughly and quickly as possible. Whether or not you find anything wrong, acknowledge and address the customer’s concerns. Apologise if there is something wrong, explain where we went wrong (and why, if we know) and what we are doing to put things right. If you find nothing wrong, acknowledge the customer’s concerns but explain that we have acted correctly and why. Ensure that your response covers all the customer’s concerns and check that it is accurate and technically correct.

v. Check that similar mistakes in the past have not been overlooked. Ensure that you carry out a thorough examination of the case. Your examination may disclose errors on the customer’s part. If you do discover customer error:

  • point them out only if they are material
  • do not attempt to counterbalance our mistakes by pointing out small errors by the customer
  • do not use them to “score points” off the customer
  • remember that any mistakes by the customer do not necessarily justify our mistakes
  • apologise for errors on our part.

vi. Use plain English, avoid jargon and be polite when responding. Go to the Language and Tone site to access a wealth of tips, help and advice.

vii. Give the customer the appropriate escalation route in the event that they remain unhappy with our response. That may be to the next complaints tier within HMRC or, if you are responding following a second tier review, to the Adjudicator.

viii. Never write comments - even in pencil - on the customer’s letter. Subjective comments can unfairly prejudice people who later look at the file. Additionally, under the Data Protection Act customers are allowed to see the content of their files, and any comments on the customer’s letter, however well intentioned, could be misconstrued and aggravate the complaint.

ix. If there is a complaint about a delayed repayment, liaise with the relevant business area to see whether the repayment claim can be dealt with in the same timescale as the complaint. The business area may conclude that a provisional repayment may be appropriate in some limited cases, but remember that our aim is to settle the complaint fully within 15 working days.

x. You can find further advice at CHG850 on preparing replies to complainants, and CHG1300 for preparing reports for the Adjudicator or the Ombudsman.