Frustration abounds for immigration call centre users
Critics say improving customer service would be a start at the immigration department’s call centre in Montreal, which handles 5.2 million inquiries a year.
Michel Pottier is fed up with having to put his life on hold — because he’s constantly being put on hold.
Pottier, 35, has been a regular caller to the immigration department’s call centre since 2012 because of extensive delays in the sponsorship processing of his American wife, Lindsey.
The teacher from Cole Harbour, N.S., says he usually has to wait at least 30 minutes to talk to an agent each time — if he’s lucky enough to get a live person.
“Most conversations lasted five, 10 minutes and the agents could not really answer my questions but only asked for my email to send me a standard information template,” said Pottier, who is currently working in England to be with Lindsey, a graduate student in London.
“While their information was generally not inaccurate, it was however anecdotal and vague. The service was generally useless or hollow and only served to amplify confusion and worry.”
For people with inquiries about immigration applications, the 300 call centre agents in Montreal are the only channel of live communication to address their concerns as the department moves towards a paperless online operation. But those with case-specific problems say they find the service unhelpful to say the least.
The call centre is at the forefront of customer service at the 5,000-employee department while immigration applicants count on these call centre agents for guidance and information, though those with case-specific problems say they find their assistance unhelpful to say the least.
“Their ability to actually administer advice only scratched the surface. They have no authority to comment on or even review in detail specific cases, so they are generally flying blind,” said Pottier, whose wife has yet to get her spousal sponsorship approved. “The immigration department needs a complete overhaul. The call centre is really just a symptom of an ailing government department.”
With an annual budget of $13.5 million, the call centre handles 5.2 million client contacts, via phone or email, with questions pertaining to anything from citizenship to permanent residence.
About 40 per cent of callers choose to use the automated service rather than asking to speak to an agent. While the year-to-date call handling time is six minutes and 35 seconds, on average a caller has to wait 12 minutes to speak with a live agent, said department spokesperson Faith St-John.
“In an effort to ensure clients have the information they need when they need it, the department strives to make as much information as possible available online where it can be accessed 24/7,” St-John noted.
“For case-specific information, many clients have access to a personalized online account that includes information such as the current status of their application. Unfortunately, not all of our services are currently available through this online account, though the intent is to roll-in all lines of businesses in the next few years.”
Navigating the call centre’s automated menus can be frustrating and confusing even for native English speakers like Australian Matt Dean, 34, who also has a spousal sponsorship application underway by his wife, Jaime Kuruvilla, of Edmonton.
“The menus you need to navigate at the beginning are torturous. Menu after menu of automated information that 90 per cent of the time is not what I’m looking for and have had to write out a map of the sub-menus for myself for when I know I will need to call them again in the future,” said Dean, who works in geographical information systems.
“They make it really hard to get through and talk to an agent, but once you do, sometimes the line is so busy that they can’t even put you on hold. I have been cut off in the middle of it for no reason. ‘Please call back later’ is the response and then ending the call. Super frustrating,” added Dean, whose application was submitted last September.
Robert Benavides, 44, a Peruvian who came to Canada in 2008 on a work permit as an engineer, recalled his wife, Alexy, in tears on the phone in January pleading with a call centre agent to explain why the family’s application, filed in May 2014, was taking so long, without any update.
“We were checking the immigration website everyday but there’s nothing other than the acknowledgement of the receipt of our application. The agent refused to open the file and said we had to wait because it had not exceeded the average processing time yet,” said the Calgary man, who is on implied status since his work permit expired in January 2014.
“My wife was crying and begging the agent. It’s just inhumane and insensitive the way they treated her. Keeping us in the dark was just so hard for us.”
St-John, the immigration department spokesperson, said each call centre agent must go through a comprehensive 23-week training course, including modules on its lines of business and shadowing of experienced agents and supervised calls.
And if agents do not have an answer to a question, they can access an internal program specialists unit for support, she added.
An immigration department’s client survey last year identified difficulty in getting information about an application and resolving issues by phone caused the most frustration among callers and dissatisfaction with its service.
Toronto resident Adrian Colussi said immigration applicants are justified in expecting better customer service from officials, given the processing fees involved in the applications.
He and his wife, Natia, from Georgia, have already spent $1,400 on her sponsorship application and the extensions of her temporary status in Canada since last April.
“The impact of these problems can be huge. As soon as people see problems, they contact their MP’s office. But immigration shouldn’t be passing the buck to the MP’s office,” said Colussi, 43, a writer and film producer, who was forced to contact the call centre because he wasn’t assigned a “unique client identification” to track his wife’s sponsorship application online.
Number of agents working at immigration national call centre in Montreal
The call centre’s annual budget in 2015
The length of the training course for each agent
6 minutes, 35 seconds
Average call handling time
Average wait time to speak to a live agent
Number of inquiries received per year