Small business owners are getting incomplete and sometimes inaccurate answers when they call the Canada Revenue Agency for help, according to a new report that calls for better service to help companies comply with Canada's complex tax rules.
The report, released Thursday by the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, says some issues have worsened since it last did the survey in 2012, amid regularly changing tax policies for small business owners.
The federation placed 224 calls to the CRA business inquiries line between the end of June and mid-July, 2016, armed with four common questions asked by business owners such as how to apply for GST/HST when providing a service in another province and how long companies need to keep old tax records.
Of those calls, 157 got through to a CRA agent and only 69 per cent of those callers received complete answers, the CFIB survey shows. Of the 31 per cent that didn't receive complete answers in 2016, 23 per cent received incomplete information and 8 per cent of it was incorrect. The results are down from 76 per cent complete responses in 2012.
The CFIB says the disparity was partly due to an increase in the number of callers who couldn't reach an agent, or 30 per cent in 2016, up from 20 per cent in 2012.
"The CRA must work to improve the accessibility of their call centre to ensure that business owners can speak to an agent when needed," the CFIB says in its report, which was released as part of its Red Tape Awareness Week, which highlights "unhelpful government policies" that are considered barriers to productivity for small businesses.
Monique Moreau, vice president of national affairs at CFIB, says the new survey results are "concerning" and highlight why so many business owners – and sometimes their accountants – feel the need to call the CRA more than once to get answers to the same tax questions. That's inefficient for both the government and the small business owner, she says.
"It's not answer shopping; it's making sure they get assurances," says Ms. Moreau. "Business owners just want certainty, to be able to feel confident when they hang up the phone … that the information they're getting is correct. It allows them to comply with the complicated tax act."
Gabrielle Loren, a chartered professional accountant and partner at B.C.-based accounting firm Loren Nancke & Co. and former CRA employee in the 1980s, says she and her staff often call the CRA more than once to confirm answers to clients' tax questions, especially when they're more complicated.
"There can be interpretation issues," says Ms. Loren. "The tax act isn't black and white all of the time."
Ms. Loren says the training agents receive is "inadequate," which is likely the cause of information being incomplete or inaccurate. The problem for small business owners is that they rely on the answers in their tax planning and budgets.
The CFIB report gives the CRA an overall grade of C- in its latest survey, with higher marks for agents for providing their names and identification numbers as well as waiting times, but lower marks for accuracy of information provided and the high number of calls that did not reach a CRA agent.
The CFIB is calling on the CRA to boost its customer service, including accessibility and training of its agents to be able to respond accurately to questions from callers.
"Most business owners would be prepared to wait on hold if they knew that they were going to get the correct answer on the other end, and only had to call in once," Ms. Moreau says. "Canadians are doing their best to comply and the government should be doing its best to help them do that."
In a response to general questions about its service for small businesses, the CRA said its agents do not provide tax planning advice and "expects all information provided by agents to be accurate."
A spokesperson said the most common complaint the CRA hears is about accessibility of its service, which the agency is working to improve.
"We recognize that some taxpayers encounter busy signals when calling the CRA and we are looking into ways to improve accessibility," the spokesperson said in an e-mail.
The CRA says it monitors and collects data on its telephone services daily "to ensure they are efficient as well as cost effective." Its own statistics show it regularly meets its goal of answering 85 per cent of calls to the business inquiries lines.
The CRA also says it has a "quality assessment program" in place, which has included the monitoring of more than 500,000 calls since 2008.
It said the government's mandate includes "reviewing access to CRA services so that people who deal with the CRA are treated like important clients rather than simply as taxpayers."