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“Can I Pay You Please…”

| December 14th 2012


I have recently enjoyed yet another interaction with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs Service (although I feel, if Her Majesty had any say in it, she would probably not wish to have her name associated with it any longer).

At various intervals during the year I receive unintelligible letters from HMRC asking me if I have filed this, that or the other.  My accountant – an extremely helpful individual – usually advises me if I need to worry about anything.  However, I recently had a letter stating that as I had not paid an outstanding amount, despite three letters sent to me, the matter was now in danger of being referred to a debt collection agency.

I was a little taken aback by this as, although my children are by no means the best behaved in Wales, they have not yet taken to eating our post.  As such, I was unsure how I could have missed three letters.  Expecting the bailiffs at any moment, I duly phoned the number provided.  At my first attempt I was cut off, however, my second attempt enabled me to speak to a human being.  This kind person then transferred me to the correct department, where the phone was answered actually very swiftly.

Having discussed the letter, the kind and helpful person on the other end of the phone was able to offer a plausible explanation of why I owed the money.  However, she was unable to offer any explanation as to why my first knowledge that I owed any money was by way of a threatening letter.

Despite this, I then moved on to trying to pay off my debt to the Crown.  I was a little perturbed to note that I had been charged interest for my tardiness.  I explained that, as I had not been informed until this point that I owed the money, I was reluctant to pay the interest accrued (£1.69 – but it is the principle of the thing!).

The polite and kind lady said that a different department dealt with that, but they could not make a decision until I had paid off the original amount.  Effectively, I was to pay the amount owed, minus the interest, and then keep my fingers crossed that the interest was wiped from my debt.

The saga then continued – I wanted to pay by credit card.  This, the kind and helpful lady stated, would incur an additional transaction charge.  “How much?” was my reply.  “I don’t know”, was hers.  This was getting exciting!  I asked the lady to make an educated guess as to the transaction cost – would I need to sell my house, or would I need to miss my bar of chocolate at lunchtime?  Her educated guess was between £2 and £3.  As my will was sapping at this stage (perhaps that is the point) I agreed to pay, and we both waited with excitement to see how much the charge would actually be – it turned out to be £1.58 (two bars of chocolate).

As I have stated many times in my articles, it is the system that is at fault here, not the kind people on the phone.  The phone number on the letter sent me to the wrong place; the lady did not have access to the correct IT systems to tell me whether my interest would be written off, and the system did not deem it necessary to tell her how charges are calculated on credit card payments.  She was very patient with me, despite the system within which she worked.

Where I have worked in income systems, such as rental income, council tax, etc., a common theme emerges.  The system is created in such a way as to make it very difficult to pay!  HMRC is set up in a similar way.

The most effective way to combat this as a leader is to look at your system from the outside-in.  What does it feel like to try and interact with the system as somebody trying to pay?  Watching leaders undertake dummy payments in the systems they have created is fascinating – they cannot believe how difficult the system is to navigate.

To ensure you create a system that works (for example, gets things correct first time), ask the people using the system, “What Matters to you about using this system/service?”.  In the case of income collection systems, you hear the same thing over and over again: “Make it easy for me to pay”.  This is very sound advice.

Making it easy for people to pay, keeps them happy, and your costs down.  Indeed, when talking to people who are not paying, you hear stories of enormous difficulties in trying to pay, which have led people to not pay, or delay paying, from a point of principle.

So, rather than look at the spreadsheet of outstanding payments, spend the morning speaking to people who are trying to pay you – ask them “What Matters?”.  In the afternoon, try to make a payment in your system.  Once you have your list of things that make it hard for people to pay, sort them out.

Finances are difficult enough at the moment – let us not make it harder.

Change Thinking.  Change Lives


Simon Pickthall worked in the public sector in Wales for many years before forming Vanguard Consulting Wales.  He has been fortunate to have worked with many leaders in Wales to help them understand their organizations from a Systems Thinking perspective –  and improve them as a consequence.  Simon was privileged enough to work on the Munro Review of Child Protection, and is committed to helping the public, private and third sectors deliver social justice.

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