Near the end of last year, I wrote a couple of columns in which readers complained about the service they received from the Social Security Administration. After that column ran, I predictably got emails from people with more complaints. They are usually from people griping about long wait times when they call the agency's 800 number or from people who claim to have received misinformation from an SSA rep. I think I've aired enough of their grievances already.
Instead, today I'm going to look at the flip side of that SSA service coin. Because I also received quite a few emails from readers who told me that their dealings with Social Security offices and representatives had been professional, courteous and efficient. And some of those folks shared thoughts and insights with me that I will pass along to you.
I also heard from several people who currently work for SSA, and they shared their views with me, too. Their potentially valuable advice is included in this column.
So here are some tips for how to improve your experience when you are dealing with representatives of the Social Security Administration.
Many people complained to me about wait times when they call SSA's national hotline at 800-772-1213. More than a few said the wait time was two hours or more. But quite a few readers told me that when wait times are long, SSA always offers a callback service. In other words, you can leave your number and an SSA rep will call you back within a specified period of time. For example, one reader told me this:
"I called the 800 number to file for spousal benefits on my husband's record. I was told there would be a two-hour wait. I was offered the option of leaving my number for a callback, which I did. And almost exactly two hours later, and nice young man called me back. He was helpful and courteous, and we finished my application in less than a half-hour. I couldn't have been more pleased with the service I got."
So, obviously, one tip would be to make use of SSA's callback procedure if you are trying to get answers from the 800 number service and the wait times are long.
And one SSA telephone representative told me that frequently, people who call the 800 number simply are not prepared to answer even the most basic questions. For example, he said one woman called to file for widows benefits, and she didn't have her husband's Social Security number available. He said she spent about 10 minutes searching for the number before she came back on the phone. And he said there were other bits of basic information he needed that she did not have readily available. He estimated the call took 30 minutes longer than it needed to because of the woman's lack of preparation. "This was a half-hour I could have spent helping someone else. And this was not an unusual situation. This is part of the reason why so many people have to wait so long to talk to an SSA rep."
You wouldn't think I should have to pass this along as a tip. But, apparently, I do. Be prepared! Think through your situation before you make a call, and have names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, dates of marriage and/or divorce (if filing for spousal benefits) and dates of death (if filing for survivors benefits) readily available.
Another SSA telephone rep told me I wouldn't believe how many people get on the phone with a huge chip on their shoulder. She said, "They are obviously very angry and upset, many times about a letter they received from the SSA with information they don't understand, and they start yelling at me almost before I have a chance to say hello!" She went on to say, "And the whole conversation just goes south from there, and the call takes far longer than it needs to just because the customer is so irate that he or she can't or won't listen to what I am trying to say."
So there is another tip. If you have a possible problem with the SSA, take a couple of breaths before you call them. And remember that the phone rep you are talking to didn't personally send you the letter you don't understand or stop your benefits if you are missing a Social Security check. They really are there to help you, not to get into verbal fisticuffs with you.
Speaking of letters from the SSA, here is another tip: Lots of times, your benefit amount will change. For example, maybe you'll suddenly find an extra deposit from Social Security in your account. The SSA always sends a letter explaining the change. But the letter always lags behind the benefit change. That's because the benefit can change with the push of a few buttons, but a letter has to be prepared and then find its way to you through the postal service.
So what's the tip? If some change happens to your Social Security benefits, don't jump on the phone right away to find out what happened. Wait a few days for the explanatory letter to show up. There's a pretty good chance it will answer all of your questions.
Many people wrote to tell me to remind readers that so much of Social Security's business can be handled online at https://www.socialsecurity.gov. I was going to start listing all the things you can do online. But the list got so long I decided to do this instead. Go to the website, and near the top of the homepage, click on the "Online Services" icon. You will find a list of available online services that may surprise you -- including getting answers to frequently asked questions, reviewing your records, filing for various kinds of Social Security benefits, managing your account once your checks start and replacing a lost Medicare card. And so much more. So, another tip: If you need some help from Social Security, try going online first.
Finally, another reader had this tip: He reminded people to plan ahead. He guessed (correctly) that many people wait until the last minute to file for benefits and take care of other Social Security business. He said, "I wanted to file for benefits at my local Social Security office. I called the 800 number three months before I wanted my benefits to begin. The first available in-office appointment was six weeks down the road. But that was no problem for me because I was doing things so far in advance."
Tom Margenau’s column, "Social Security and You," can be found at www.creators.com.