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HMRC internal manual

Debt Management and Banking Manual

Customer contact and data security: telephone contact: sensitive call handling: times of distress (including illness)

Customer distressed

Due to the nature of the work you do in Debt Management you will sometimes find yourself speaking to customers who are extremely distressed about their debt situation. This can often be for many reasons (including illness), for example:

  • it is their first time in debt
  • they have received a letter warning of enforcement action
  • they are concerned about a Field Force visit or court hearing
  • they are affected by personal problems that have cause them to be in debt
  • their business is insolvent
  • they do not understand how they have got into debt
  • they are concerned that they have no money to support their family
  • they are on the verge of bankruptcy which will have an effect on their future finances
  • they are at risk of losing their home or having to sell it
  • they feel that it is not their fault that they are in debt.

This list is not exhaustive but these reasons may cause the customer to act irrationally and respond emotionally and sometimes they may even threaten to hurt themselves if further action is taken, especially if they feel as a result of this action their family stability is at risk.

We need to adopt the correct approach using our PDRS training and treat every customer with empathy and tact.

Where the customer has already advised that the distress is due to an illness then using your PDRS, with empathy and tact, ask the following questions:

  • what is the nature of your condition?
  • does it affect your ability to manage your financial affairs - if so how?
  • does it affect your ability to deal or communicate with us - if so how?
  • does anyone help you manage your finances, such as a family member - if so what arrangements are in placed for this person to deal with us on your behalf?

Where the customer informs you of this:

  • acknowledge the information. A simple statement along the lines of “Thanks for telling me that. It will help me deal with this matter in the most appropriate way” will suffice
  • request the customer’s consent to record information about this, confirm that they understand this and ask for their permission to use any information to enable us to handle the case properly. If consent is denied explain that we will be far better placed to help them if we have all relevant information otherwise this may compromise our efforts to provide the best customer service or even deal with them in the most appropriate manner
  • inform the customer that the information will be stored in a note on our system and shared with other HMRC staff that can access that system. Explain that it will allow us to deal with the case as efficiently as possible, and be more responsive to their needs. It will also save them having to repeat this information to any other members of staff at a later date when speaking about the debt in question. Once you have the customer’s consent record an Action History Note against all open Work Items and also make a note at the top of the Notes / Assets screen on IDMS and ensure that this note remains at the top of the page if / when further notes are recorded.

Occasionally, you may need to temporarily suspend collection of the debt as you feel the customer’s circumstance warrants it. Depending on the case set / take the next action as applicable for your office and that individual case. For example, within DMTC you would refer the case to the DTO / Campaign SPoC office to review and take the appropriate action.

Member of staff feels affected by the call

Occasionally you may also find your self dealing with calls that you find personally distressing or upsetting, such as:

  • the customer is severely or terminally ill
  • the customer has experienced a death of a very close family member such as their partner or child
  • the customer’s marriage has broken down
  • you are speaking to a customer who has suffered an accident
  • the customer has had a mental breakdown
  • you are speaking to a customer who has been affected by a natural disaster such as a flood or fire.

You may also find that merely the fact that they the customer is distressed causes you to be affected by the call.

It is sometimes difficult to detach your personal feelings from a difficult call in order to secure the money they owe and so Debt Management invests a lot of time in its people to train them with the necessary skills in order for them to deal with sometimes upsetting situations.

It is important to remember that you should not feel responsible in anyway for the debt situation the customer is in and your job is to help the customer based on their individual circumstances and work out a solution that results in payment of the debt according to their needs.

Everyone reacts differently to distressing situations, often based on personal experience, and you may need some time to recover after taking an upsetting call. If you feel that you have been affected after taking a distressing call, then you should discuss this with your manager so you can discuss your feelings and agree the most suitable course of action.

You feel the customer is at risk

Sometimes when a customer becomes very distressed and emotional they may threaten to harm themselves, leave a child unattended, and so on.

You are not responsible to contact anyone else in response to these types of threats, for example, contacting the police. Wherever possible, you should try and calm the caller down using your Debt Management telephone skills training but if you feel you are unable to achieve this, you should try and pass the call to your manager.

If the caller hangs up before you are able to pass the call or calm them down then you should discuss the appropriate course of action with your manager.

Noting the record

It is important that you record the call factually and do not enter your personal feelings or opinions onto any notes system. It is permissible to detail the behaviour of the customer.

Following a call such as this you may need to take a few minutes (and / or speak to your manager) before putting notes on the record. And depending on the case set / take the next action as applicable for that individual case.

For full guidance on noting the record, see DMBM900500.

Where the distress is due to the customer’s bereavement see DMBM510450.

Also see DMBM510470 relating to vulnerable customers - mental health and debt.


Some customers may prefer to handle their dealings in these circumstances with the department through an agent, representative or third party (including a voluntary organisation), and our normal guidance regarding authority and security should still be followed - see DMBM511600 about contact with third parties.

Where a customer is unable to directly deal with their own affairs they may decide to provide a third party with authority to act on their behalf. A power of attorney is a legal document whereby a person (the ‘donor’) gives another person (the ‘attorney’ or ‘donee’) this authority - see IDG30430 Disclosure when there is power of attorney.