Waiting on hold is always aggravating. But calling the Internal Revenue Service can be especially frustrating because you are nearly guaranteed a long hold time, assuming you can get a human being on the line at all.
In the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30, a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report noted that the IRS provided “the lowest level of telephone service […] compared to prior years, with only 38 percent of callers who wanted to speak with an IRS assistor able to reach one.” This lower level of service occurred despite a fall in demand, and average wait times still topped 30 minutes. Rep. Kevin Brady, R-Texas, responded to the report by observing that “[r]eaching an IRS employee often seems as unlikely as winning Powerball.” Much of the lack of service is due to inefficiencies at the IRS and to budget cuts, as Larry Elkin detailed in a blog post last year.
It is in this environment that enQ has arrived. A newly launched service, enQ promises to let users “cut the queue” and get in touch with an IRS agent for a fee. The concept is familiar to amusement park patrons. Disney has their FastPass and Six Flags offers THE FLASH pass. When applied to the IRS, however, I don’t find the concept very amusing.
The idea of having someone else wait on hold for you is not, in itself, an innovation. Several companies offer some form of this service. Virtual Hold Technology was founded in 1995 and pioneered the idea of having a call center call a customer back rather than forcing them to wait on hold.
LucyPhone, founded in 2010, allows customers to call a company and then hand off the call if they are put on hold. The service calls the customer back once a customer service agent picks up. A competitor, FastCustomer, is an app that works in a similar way. Unlike enQ, both LucyPhone and FastCustomer are free for consumers to use. However, the IRS has explicitly instructed its agents not to accept calls from LucyPhone, FastCustomer or similar services.
While there are other services trying to reduce or eliminate hold times for customers, enQ is different not only in its focus, but in its methods. Callback-based services do not actually decrease the time between when you initiate a call and when you speak with a representative; they just free you to do other things while you wait. That is nothing to scoff at, but enQ proposes to take it a step further. The company initiates a call to the IRS before it has a customer to hand off the call to. It then offers to sell its place in line. The fees reportedly range from $1 to $7 per call, depending on how long your estimated wait will be when enQ hands off the call.
From a potential enQ customer’s point of view, this sounds great. Much as some airlines allow frequent fliers to call a separate customer service line or credit cards sometimes have shorter waits for holders of elite level cards, it might at first seem intuitive that those willing to pay a premium can reduce or eliminate hold times. But in fact, those short hold times come at the expense of all the non-enQ customers, who have been sitting on hold for 30 minutes or more. And unlike an airline or a bank, the IRS is a government agency. Imagine how other people would take someone slipping $50 to a person at the front of the Post Office line to take their place in the middle of the holiday rush. Then imagine discovering twenty other people in line didn’t even need to mail anything; they were just hoping for someone else to come along and pay to take their spots. And although I made a comparison between enQ’s service and the passes offered at amusement parks, there is a key difference. In most cases, the pass holders reserve a time to come back to a ride to skip the line. So there is a mechanism to limit the impact that pass holders have on the wait times of others in the line.
EnQ’s founder claims that the volume of calls it initiates is so small it won’t appreciably impact IRS wait times. Right now, that’s probably true, since the company has only been operating since early February. However, if the service gains popularity, there is no reason to think enQ won’t scale up to meet demand.
IRS wait times are a real problem that government officials should address, but enQ is poised to make the problem worse by clogging up the queues. I, for one, will pass on what they are selling.