Your life on hold: Centrelink cuts create call centre hell

annoying person calling


Welcome to call centre hell — for customers and service provider alike.

That’s the bleak picture an Australian National Audit Office report has exposed of the experiences of millions of Centrelink customers calling into the welfare giant, where on-hold times have ballooned from around 3 minutes to an average of more than 16 minutes — and that’s if you can actually get through.

In a document [pdf] that is set to become the official ‘how not to’ guide for resourcing customer service, the ANAO has revealed that more than a quarter of the calls made to Centrelink’s ‘13’ and ‘1800’ numbers never even made it through to the switch and got a busy signal instead.

The National Auditor found that of 56.8 million calls made to Centrelink dedicated numbers in 2013-2014, “13.7 million calls were unable to enter the network, that is, the calls were blocked and the callers heard the ‘busy’ signal.”

Imagine what would happen if that was a bank.

Talkback radio has for the past few years been ablaze with complaints about huge Centrelink waiting times as customers try to grapple with the consequences of ever shifting welfare reforms, but now the official statistics are in on how long the waits can really be.

Centrelink managed a miserable average waiting time of 16 minutes and 53 seconds for its customers, a figure that is likely to underplay even longer times many customers have endured trying to get through to a human.

(If you’ve ever wondered how government on-hold music is selected, this Government News investigation reveals all)

Worse still, for the 43 million calls that didn’t get the busy signal, the ANAO estimated that “around 30 per cent, were abandoned; that is the customer hung-up without resolving the reason for their call.”

And while Centrelink and the Department of Human Services are making inroads into getting customers to help themselves via online channels, apps and interactive voice response, the bottom line appears to be that there are simply too few staff and resources to deal with the call volumes that still flow when complex issues need to be resolved.

The Audit report said that although Human Services “currently meets its agreement with Government through its Key Performance Indicator (KPI) for telephony which is answering calls with an average speed of answer of 16 minutes” the welfare behemoth said that those benchmarks were “dictated by the funding available for the department to meet its obligations.”

“The department has estimated that to reduce the KPI to an average speed of answer of 5 minutes, it would need an additional 1000 staff at a cost of over $100 million each and every year.”

But even arriving at an agreed benchmark of a 16 minute wait time has raised eyebrows in other government agencies as to how such a length of time could be acceptable to both a minister and customers.

The Audit Office noted the single benchmark may not be the most meaningful either.

In New South Wales, where Service NSW is leading the charge to make dealing with government easier, it is understood that agencies have been set a target of 80 per cent of calls to be picked up within a minute with callers advised of wait times after just 2 ½ minutes.

Callers in NSW are also offered a call back option within the estimated wait time — with not one but two attempts mandated to be made to them in that period.

Apart from avoiding ‘sweaty-ear-syndrome’ a key reason that government and corporate contact centre operations are opting for call backs is that there has been a huge increase in the number of inbound calls coming from mobile handsets over fixed lines.

The displacement of landlines by mobiles is a critical issue for people on restricted and lower incomes because long waiting times can result in inflated phone bills or calls that cannot otherwise be made if outbound calling restrictions are imposed, as usually occurs on prepaid accounts.

That issue was also canvassed by the Commonwealth Ombudsman in an investigation into an escalation of complaints against Centrelink in 2014.

The malaise of long hold times is also a widely acknowledged cause of customer hostility towards call centre staff who have no control over waiting times.

The union that represents Centrelink’s call centre staff, the Community and Public Sector Union, wasted no time in placing the blame for Centrelink’s predicament squarely at the feet of the government and ongoing public service staffing cuts – made by both sides of politics.

According to CPSU National Secretary, Nadine Flood, the ANAO report merely validated what the union and its members have been warning the governments about “for years”.

“You cut staff and services will suffer. This is what years of so-called Efficiency Dividends that cut jobs looks like — longer wait times for clients and more stress for the staff who are on the receiving end of frustrated clients waiting longer,” Ms Flood said.

“These cuts started under the previous [Labor] government and Prime Minister Abbott has only made it worse. To listen to the government, you’d think the public service is some sort of huge, bloated bureaucracy on easy street. This report on Centrelink shows that is a million miles away from reality.”

Or maybe a million minutes, if you’re calling in.

The CPSU’s main beef is that demand for Centrelink’s services is continuing to grow while its workforce shrinks.

“In five years, Human Services has cut almost 5,000 jobs in call centres and in-face service centres and yet in the same period staff are answering roughly three million extra calls a year. The demand goes up as more people call, with our population up by 6 per cent or 1.5 million. The maths just doesn’t add up. We know that, our members know that and the Audit Office has finally confirmed that.”

The Audit Office has also acknowledged that the sheer scale and volume of Centerelink’s call centres put them in a class of their own.

“In 2013–14, the department handled 43.1 million telephone calls for Centrelink services — an average of around 800 000 calls per week — at a cost of some $338 million. The large volume of calls handled by the department is unique in comparison with other Australian call centres in either the public or private sectors,” the ANAO said.

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13 thoughts on “Your life on hold: Centrelink cuts create call centre hell

  1. At 8.15am on the 22nd May, current wait time is over 60min on the youth and student number. I have never had a wait 60 minutes since January to May 2015 and most times it is 60minutes for the first point of contact and 60 minutes wait time to speak with an operator in youth, so average 2 hour wait time. My sons have had an application in for student allowance since 29 January 2015 and it is still being processed.

  2. I am an aged pensioner and I found that the phone service to centrelink is absolutely shocking. Every time I try to call centrelink there is an engaged tone or the waiting time is so long that at the end I hang up. I am very dissatisfied with centrelink .

  3. Three weeks ago I received a letter from Centrelink informing me that my DSP had been suspended. When I rand the DSP Support(?) line I was placed on hold for 63 min, then the call dropped out. I rang again, this time after 42 min I spoke to a human, who informed me that the reason my DSP had been suspended was because they had not received a reply to a letter which they sent me. I informed them that I had received no letter, and asked to resolve the problem telephonically: this could not be done. I asked to speak to a supervisor: “COMPUTER SAYS NO” , I went further up the food chain and still the same reply. I informed them that a better method of informing me re my pension would be: “Since you have not replied top our letter dated such and such, if we do not hear from you by such and such a date then your pension may (will) be suspended. They told me that once the problem had been resolved in writing that my pension would be backdated. To this I replied, “And how do I eat next week?” I then went to the complaints section and was transferred to a wonderful woman, who not only resolve my problem, reinstated my pension immediately, and told me in future to go through her section.

  4. Actually these cuts started with the Howard government and have only gotten worse as the years have gone by. But don’t take your frustration out on the operator, tell someone who has the power to change things. Tell the people who make the policy not the ones who administer it.

  5. I would actually not mind the hold time….. if I could actually get through! I live in an isolated area and cannot drive due to my disability, therefore rely on phone/ internet, my payments have been cut, presumably because they do not have some required paperwork which I sent to them way over a week ago. So now I’m stuck with trying to call. For the last week I have attempted a couple times every half hour of their opening hours and EVERY TIME have gotten the engaged signal. What am I actually supposed to do, I remember in the past I have at least been put on hold

  6. Wait a second…. it would cost $100million each year to employ people to do a better job. So in effect, if this were to happen that’s another 1000 people employed, generating wealth in the economy (through general spending, taxes etc) so that other people can employ more unemployed people.

    Also, if they employ people who are partnered with someone else receiving a centrelink benefit, the centrelink benefit of the second person would cease due to the employed partner receiving too much income. So, that’s 2000 people off centrelink.

    So, by employing more people, to take more calls, and answer more questions for people that need help and services to get back on their feet – essentially providing a service to assist them in getting a job, they would be doing the country a service. Instead, we have a shocking rate of unemployment, unemployed people who can’t get the services they require to get a job and people are made poor as a result.

    Well done government.

  7. the powers to be in human services, need to reform all of centre link and stop cut backs, centre link has gone to the dogs, long wait times, centre link staff not helpful saying to use internet to do stuff( with half the time it not working) I was told to fill out assets. form…but wasn’t sure if I had filled out properly…when I went to hand it in to centre link I asked the woman if she knew if I had filled it out properly, and to my surprise she said she didn’t know and would send it in anyway, my argument is where has the customer service gone, cost cutting just slows down things and pisses customer off, centre link you need to stop f##cking things up and do it right for once

  8. 1). it’s been hard to get through and extremely long wait times for many years. it’s been hard for many to find work for many years- hence the need for centrelink payments.

    2). It’s Cheaper for the government to pay someone benefits than to Employ someone to answer the phones. Maybe this explains the number of welfare recipients.
    They cut jobs and can’t legitimately blame people for needing centrelink benefits. They should create a suitable, supported jobs for very disabled person they deny the payment to. But will they? It’s the moral solution.

    3). There’s a need for jobs, including part-time/casual, that are committed to helping the employee learn and adapt and consider personal circumstances, rather than just short-term contracts and no support, for everyone including young people and mothers.
    (Unfortunately though connections or ass-kissing gets you up the ladder and backstabbing team members and male-confidence are rewarded.)

  9. If you think that’s bad, I was on hold from 3.30pm. I was redirected once and apparently marked as priority. The time had passed 5.30pm and I still was on hold but the worst part was that Centrelink had shut so the phone call hung up automatically.
    I am now on the phone to them for the second time this morning, already been half an hour and no call back option was offered. I have better things to do seriously.

  10. centrelink want you to use their on line sevices but quite often they don”t work or for some reason they dont recognize you, and at other times it tells you that your online voice recognision has expired, it would be nice if they kept you up to date as to this sort of thing and let you know that you have to keep registered for this to stay current and let you know how often one must register.

  11. Who do I send my invoice to for the 2hours 45minutes of my time that they have taken with me being on hold? I would have been able to ask the operator upon them answering, but instead I was cut off 🙁

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