Everything for the customer
Every month, thousands of phone calls and e-mails arrive at the National Customs Helpdesk (NHD). The employees there handle most of the customer questions themselves. In the event of a major malfunction, the NHD and its chain partners will do everything possible to get a challenged system up and running again. “We really do it for the companies that depend on our automation”, says team leader, Jan-Jaap Hoegee. “We understand their frustration.”
Thanks to digitization, it all goes very fast: anyone who submits a declaration normally receives a confirmation of receipt or return message within a few seconds. If that speedy response is not forthcoming, people will immediately be on the phone, says Hoegee. “But that does not immediately mean all hands on deck at our eleven-person help-desk. Sometimes it is just a small technical bump – for example, a message that we have received but which, for some reason, is stuck in a queue. We can fix something like that on the spot. It also happens that our systems are functioning properly but a declarant has failed to fill in certain fields. This produces an error message. And if we all receive calls from customers who use the same declaration software, this is also an indication that the problem is not on our side. Perhaps an update from the supplier is causing the customer’s system to be temporarily out of use.”
Solving and analysing
Occasionally, it really all goes wrong. Hoegee: “Take AGS, for example. Ultimately, 41 percent of the questions are about this declaration system. In our call centre, we monitor all customs processes via large screens. A counter indicates the average speed of a return message. As soon as it collapses, there are no more return messages and, at the same time, all kinds of phone calls come in and waiting times shoot up; then we know that there is a problem. Usually, our own observation of a malfunction is confirmation of that flow of customer signals. At that moment, we have actually already started the analysis: how did the problem arise and how can we prevent it from happening again? The first priority of our eleven employees is, however, to get AGS up and running again as soon as possible. Just as with other systems, there is a contingency plan in which the incident process is described: which parties are involved, who is in charge?”
“We look at whether we can remedy the malfunction ourselves; if necessary, we can set up a table with experts from different disciplines. Our functional administrators have access to the system and can, among other things, pick up the declarations that have ended up in the queue and restore them to the process. Major interventions, such as restarting a system are, however, a matter for the Center for Infrastructure and Exploitation of the Dutch Tax and Customs Administration, with which we have short lines. If it is not possible to solve the problem within the agreed time – at AGS that is four hours – our Information Management and Central Process departments will also be called in and a damage-manager will take over. Generally, malfunctions are usually remedied within one or two hours. It is rare for them to last longer than a day.”
Quite a puzzle
The remedying of a malfunction goes hand in hand with the communication about it. “After the first signals, we report, as soon as possible, that the availability of AGS is being studied on our own site www.oswo.nl/swodouane,” says Hoegee. “Whoever calls gets a voice message in which we mention the malfunction and refer the caller to our site for the latest state of affairs. We are, however, cautious about detailed prognoses, especially if it is still unclear what exactly is going on. Previously, we also did an hourly update. We are now more flexible about this and we will only communicate when there is a change in the situation.”
This message reduces the number of incoming calls so that the NHD has its hands free to search for the cause. Occasionally that is quite a puzzle, as Hoegee knows. “Sometimes our infrastructure is the culprit, other times it is a chain partner. You have to imagine that a declarant sends in a message with his software package. That goes to AGS through the Government Transaction Portal and the Tax Administration Transaction Portal. Thus, there are various systems in a row where something can go wrong. In addition, AGS also retrieves information from underlying applications, such as a customer information system that reviews permits and the customs tariff provision – DTV. If the latter is down, there is also little that AGS can do. In addition, it can happen that DTV and AGS both function well, but cannot ‘find’ each other or, in other words, cannot exchange information. Then the problem lies in the interface.”
“Once the leak is plugged, then the final message is sent out: the system is running again as expected. But even though the technique is working again, you also want to take care of the older messages that were stuck in the queue. That is why we are not finished until all the declarations that were submitted before or during the malfunction, have been returned to the customer.”
He who wants his goods transported from A to B as quickly as possible does not, understandably, want a delay. To maintain the logistics, there is an emergency procedure. In the first phase of a malfunction, the NHD recommends not to use it yet, says Hoegee. “It’s a very labour-intensive medium, in which customers submit emergency declarations in the form of a digital PDF file by email. Customs officials must then open and deal with them, one by one. That means a lot of extra work. Therefore, we first look to see if the problem can be solved within the foreseeable future. If the systems are not back online within an hour, or if the malfunction lasts longer than an hour, then we recommend the emergency procedure. You sometimes see, in such a case, that companies want to make massive use of this, even when it is not actually an emergency situation for the goods in question. As Customs, we take the product as a basis: only shipments such as perishables and live animals require urgency. But companies see this somewhat differently, if only because they also have contractual obligations.”
Regardless of whether or not there is a legitimate appeal to emergency procedures, Hoegee appreciates the logistics sector. “Thanks to our daily contact, we know what’s going on, and we understand the frustrations during a malfunction. At that point, trucks are waiting and cargo flights will be delayed. And the fact that Customs is not responsible for the complete chain does not interest the customer. If he does not get his receive return or release message, he calls us. Actually, I consider it a compliment that companies come to us immediately if something is wrong, and don’t first see if there might be something amiss in their own systems. They know that their question is in good hands at the NHD, that we have a high standard of service. Whereas we now only keep track of the system or process people call about, we will soon be registering questions at the client level. We are also going to start monitoring the progress better. How far, for example, is the second-line handling with the questions we have forwarded? In this way, we continue to professionalize ourselves.”
Available day and night
Per month, the NHD answers around 4,000 phone calls at phone number +31 88 156 66 55, and another 2,000 questions via firstname.lastname@example.org. The average wait time for callers is 53 seconds. Most of the questions are about registering for and the functioning of customs systems, the automated processing of electronic messages and custom reports. The NHD can handle 85 to 90 percent itself; in other cases, they are generally dealing with a major malfunction. Questions about customs technology and general customs information – for example, commodity codes – may, legally, not be answered by the helpdesk. The Customs Information Line (+31 45 574 30 31) is the designated portal for this.
The NHD is available 24 hours a day – even outside office hours (Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Those who call are told that, in case of a national malfunction or emergency situation, they can leave their number and will be called back within ten minutes.