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Dan Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, calls service levels at the CRA ‘abysmal’ but says the agency has worked to improve things.

Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Two months. Five phone calls.

That's what Jeff Bembridge says it took to complete a straightforward transaction with Canada Revenue Agency in late 2015. Mr. Bembridge, who owns a 30-year-old pizza joint and two other restaurants in Amherst, N.S., says he had overpaid his payroll deductions and wanted to transfer the credit to pay off a tax instalment.

Common sense? Sure. At least that's what the first CRA agent said over the phone, Mr. Bembridge says.

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But then the letters started coming. It turns out the money was never allocated to the outstanding balance. Not only that, but other CRA agents gave him differing advice on how to clean up the mess. After sending letters of his own, jotting down codes and spending hours on the phone with three other employees, Mr. Bembridge says a final agent took care of the problem in mere minutes.

"[The ordeal] took two months, and they still charged me interest, fines and penalties," Mr. Bembridge says. "Even though they had the money in the bank that I'd overpaid."

Mr. Bembridge is certainly not the only business owner who has complained about advice CRA has given over the phone. Although the agency has improved its processes in recent years, a quick look at other media stories and online message boards reveals accounts of business owners receiving unhelpful advice, being disconnected in the middle of a call or not being able to get through in the first place.

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business confirms that contacting CRA by phone is a hot-button issue for small businesses. The group compiles a Canada Revenue Agency Report Card, and in its most recent report, from 2015, 19 per cent of small businesses said they had received differing, conflicting or wrong answers to their questions at least once in the previous three years. (Half of professional accountants said they shared that experience.)

Dan Kelly, president and chief executive officer of the CFIB, says that although many business owners hire accountants for tax time, they sometimes call CRA themselves if they are seeking a quick answer or want to avoid more accountant fees. He calls the service levels "abysmal."

"It has gotten to the point where many people, including accountants, will call the CRA's call centre seven times and take the majority answer," he says.

Not that the agents answering the calls are entirely to blame, says Aaron Wudrick, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation in Ottawa.

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"I have some sympathy for people in the CRA. It's very difficult to become an expert and take calls on a help line when they're coming from all angles," he says. "From where our group sits, this problem is an indictment of how complicated the tax system is."

The CRA has worked to improve things, Mr. Kelly says. More agents are giving callers their employee identification codes (although many, such as Mr. Bembridge, don't bother to write them down).

The agency is also working to create a more user-friendly website written in plain language, says a spokesperson with the CRA, so people don't have to call in the first place.

Tips for calling the CRA

If you need to call, here's how to get the information you need.

  • Be patient: If you get a busy signal, press redial repeatedly until you get through. The CRA receives about 60 million calls each year and states on its website that it’s committed to leaving callers on hold for no more than two minutes. The trick, however, is getting in the queue in the first place. Avoid calling Mondays and during mornings, although some business owners say they have found success by calling the moment the lines open.
  • Be prepared: Before calling, have your social insurance number, business number and most recent tax assessment beside you. You’ll be asked to answer questions based on these in order to verify your identity, says Lili Li, a CRA spokeswoman.
  • Ask for the agent’s identification number: Agents are required to give it automatically when you call, but not all of them do. According to a recent Canadian Federation of Independent Business report, only 31 per cent of agents provided business owners with their first name and ID number. Ask for it and write it down; you might need it later.
  • Take meticulous notes: That’s the recommendation of Bruce Ball, national tax partner with BDO Canada LP and a chartered professional accountant in Toronto. Again, not only so you can refer back to them, but as a way to cover yourself if the situation goes awry. “If there’s a problem later, especially if there’s interest and penalties, you’d have a much better chance of getting them reversed if you have detailed notes and the identification of the person you talked to,” he says. Want to go one step further to avoid he-said-she-said? Record the conversation, and inform the agent that you’re doing so.
  • Don’t call at all: In other words, let your accountant or tax lawyer do the work for you. Not only will you be able to concentrate on what you do best – run a business – but professional accountants can give more in-depth and personal advice than a CRA agent can ever give. “You get what you pay for,” says says Aaron Wudrick of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “When you call the CRA, you’re getting free advice.”

Where to call

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  • Canada Revenue Agency phone: 1-800-959-5525 (Canada and United States)
  • Hours: Agents are available for business inquiries Monday to Friday (except holidays) from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in your local time zone. If you are calling on a cellphone or via VoIP, such as Skype, and your service provider is in a different time zone, you might get a message saying the CRA office is closed.
  • Online instead: Sign up for the online service My Business Account. This secure service allows you to send your question in writing and receive an answer in writing, too. Expect answers within 10 days.
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