How to Avoid using a “Courtesy Disconnect” as the IRS Calls it.

Tomorrow is the IRS tax filing deadline if you live in the US. If you call for help and their system is overloaded it will hang up on you, which they call a ‘courtesy disconnect’. Which brings me to back to a recurring topic on this blog and others which boil down to mistakes in IVR design.

If you haven’t seen the clip of This Week Tonight about the IRS take a look. The ‘courtesy disconnect’ segment starts around 2:23. But read on below for some suggestions for dealing with an overloaded system. Due to language this is clip is not safe for work:


So it’s understandable that near the tax filing deadline the IRS would have a higher than normal call volume. Something that can happen to any company which should be planned for and tested prior.  Not being in the US I have never called the IRS and have no first hand experience but after searches and reading a number of articles it sounds like they are hanging up after a person has been waiting for a time. Of course the IRS can get away with this as their customers can not leave and go elsewhere. But if they wanted to improve customer relations they could implement this differently. I would suggest any of the following to improve similar situations:

  1. Max Caller Limit on Queues. This ensures the limiting is done prior to the caller waiting and any caller over the limit will hear a message to call back at a later time.  Of course one has to be careful here if the queue times out and sends to another we could end up in a situation like the IRS is doing and hangup up after a caller already waited. So it should only be on the first queues a caller can enter.
  2. Enable Queue Callback Feature. This is where the caller in the queue is offered to leave a callback number and is later called back, usually keeping their position in the queue. Be sure to combine this with option 1 as having thousands of callers leave a callback number but never get a call is just as bad as a courtesy hangup.
  3. Common Questions and Answers. Often callers have the same question and if the IVR can provide these answers it can save the queue and staff answering those calls.  This is especially useful in cases for general status which could be due to a temporary outage of a service for example.  These can and will cause an influx of callers all asking the same question until that’s resolved.
  4. Higher Staffing Levels. Not easy as it often requires hiring new people and that takes time.  However in this case it’s known this time of year will have increased call volume so having more staff to answer the calls is the simple, although not cheap, answer to improve the situation. Just ensure your system is capable of scaling to the needs and the hardware can power it. Alternatively go for a hosted system to avoid the hardware costs for a yearly surge which I am sure drops significantly the rest of the year in cases like this.