The secret to providing customer service to millions on a declining budget

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Image by Steve Buissinne from Pixabay

Imagine having over 150 million clients. Sounds like a great problem to have, except the “service” provided isn’t one appreciated by those clients. And in fact, that service is considered by many both complex and frustrating. Case in point: it has resulted in over 242 million website visits for customer service since the start of this year alone.

You may have identified this mystery service provider as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Established in 1862, it operates under the authority of the United States Department of the Treasury. The agency is best known for its primary function: collecting individual and corporate income taxes. And the new year opened up a new federal tax season for filing 2019 returns.

The United States is about halfway into the 2019 filing period. With returns due by April 15th, that leaves filers (the do-it-yourselfers or their paid preparers) with a little over six weeks of time remaining to complete the task. And with only about one-third of returns received so far, that leaves many taxpayers still working away on their return (or not yet started).

Consider those statistics as they relate to providing service to citizens working on their tax returns. If the approximately 50 million tax returns filed so far this year generated about 242 million visits to the IRS.gov website, that equates to nearly five visits per return. This is staggering, yet good news given that the agency typically also receives over 116 million calls during a filing season. (Though it’s easy to understand why taxpayers head for the website: callers can wait on hold an average of seventeen minutes.) If only approximately one-third of taxpayers have filed to-date, the IRS can look forward to many more inquiries over the coming weeks.

Despite this high volume of contact online and by telephone and the complexity of the topic, the agency has been forced to operate with a declining budget over the last decade. With these challenging conditions, how does the IRS sustain its customer service and complete its mission? A visit to the IRS.gov website shows how it has invested in self-service and information organization to mitigate these difficulties.

Automating common inquiries

A critical component to customer service is fast service from inquiry to solution. Oftentimes, however, the answer might require collecting information from the customer and either contacting another department or consulting another system for the answer. Both can result in delays.

The IRS has recognized this. Common requests like “Get Your Refund Status” and “Make A Payment” are prominently featured as self-service options. With one click, a taxpayer is led to simple forms that request the information required. Upon completing and submitting the form, automation delivers a quick answer or completes the task.

Simplifying form access

Automation works well for typical questions once someone has gotten their tax return started. But what about for those who don’t even know where to begin?

Filing tax returns requires using a form–and there are plenty to choose from, all for different situations. The most typical are featured on the home page, along with their corresponding instructions. For less common forms, a search is available.

Assembling related information

Automating common inquiries and easier access to forms wasn’t enough. The IRS has identified common situations taxpayers have questions about or struggle with, and created landing pages listing the tasks needed to complete them. For the typical questions that might arise within that scenario, links to answers in the form of knowledge base articles are a click away.

Consider the “File Your Tax Return” topic. This is a large task, so the IRS starts by organizing the subject matter into three major components: “Get Ready,” “File,” and “Pay.” Get Ready includes links to articles explaining what record-keeping is necessary prior to starting. File offers information about filing current returns, submitting past due returns, and correcting errors in prior returns. Pay explains options for payment of tax currently due as well as making estimated tax payments.

Improving the taxpayer experience

“’Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes” was originally written by Christopher Bullock in The Cobbler of Preston. Perhaps “having questions about taxes” should be added to the famous quote.

For many Americans, filing taxes can be a complex and frustrating undertaking. The good news is that the IRS, though its resources have been continually cut, is well aware of these challenges and leverages self-service in the form of automation and knowledge base articles and organizes topics and information in a meaningful manner to simplify things. The good news is the agency may be at a turning point. The recently enacted Taxpayer First Act promises improvements, among them modernization and a comprehensive customer service strategy as part of improving the overall taxpayer experience. Though this might not make citizens feel better about sending money to the government, it does offer some hope in reducing the exasperation common with tax preparation and filing.

Paul Selby
I am a product marketing consultant for Aventi Group. Aventi Group is the first product marketing agency solely dedicated to high-tech clients. We’re here to supplement your team and bring our expertise to bear on your top priorities, so you achieve high-quality results, fast.

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