NTA Blog: Telephone Service in an Omnichannel Environment (Part 2 of 2)

February 8, 2018

Telephone Service in an Omnichannel Environment - The IRS Must Ensure Taxpayers Are Getting the Assistance They Need Over the Telephone (Part 2 of 2)

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In last week’s blog, Telephone Service in an Omnichannel Environment - The IRS Must Make Communicating with the IRS Over the Phone Easier for Taxpayers, I discussed some of the struggles taxpayers will face during filing season while trying to get help from the IRS over the phone. Given the challenges of increased call volume and confusion over the tax law changes, along with the uncertainty of the IRS’s final funding level for Fiscal Years 2018 and 2019, the IRS has projected its “level of service” (LOS) on its Accounts Management lines will be anywhere from 40 percent to 80 percent for Filing Season (FS) 2018. In a later blog, I will discuss my concerns about how the IRS calculates LOS and whether that measure provides accurate information about callers’ experience with the phones.

As I mentioned in last week’s blogpost, a Most Serious Problem in my 2017 Annual Report to Congress highlighted ways the IRS can make speaking with a telephone assistor easier for taxpayers, including implementing new features such as a customer callback option. However, new technology alone will yield a hollow victory for the IRS if taxpayers’ issues remain unresolved after the call.

Merely having a telephone assistor answer the phone is not a successful call outcome in the mind of a taxpayer. During 2016, I held twelve Public Forums throughout the United States to hear from taxpayers and their representatives about what taxpayers need from the IRS in order to comply with their tax obligations. One message came through loud and clear: taxpayers who have an issue or concern or dispute with the IRS want to talk with the IRS to resolve the issue or at least identify the specific steps they must take to do so. It is very frustrating for a call to conclude with the taxpayer no better off than before the call began, especially if the taxpayer has spent a lengthy period waiting just to speak to an assistor. 

Volume Two of my 2017 Annual Report to Congress contains a literature review showing that other government agencies and private sector companies now give more weight to measures that capture a customer’s overall experience on a call rather than pure efficiency metrics like level of service (LOS). The single biggest indicator of customer satisfaction is the First Call Resolution (FCR) rate, which measures the percentage of all calls that are resolved on the first attempt without the telephone assistor needing to refer the customer to another source or call the customer back. While the IRS has some qualitative measures, it has not uniformly incorporated FCR as a measure to evaluate its telephone service.

FCR is important because it shows whether telephone assistors are answering a caller’s questions, not just their calls. The industry standard for FCR is above 70 percent. Yet TAS’s Service Priorities Project survey showed that almost 40 percent of taxpayers calling the IRS were unable to fully resolve their problem. Issues such as return preparation assistance, information on a notice, and information on a refund had particularly low-resolution rates over the telephone. These results show that taxpayers are not getting the full assistance they need over the phone, which can negatively impact voluntary compliance.

In my 2017 Annual Report to Congress, I elaborated on the literature review and identified several reforms that are needed to improve the quality of service the IRS provides to taxpayers over the phone. First, IRS telephone assistors need to be engaged with ways to improve their performance and enhance caller satisfaction. While most telephone assistors recognize the importance of their work to the overarching mission of the IRS, many feel they don’t have the knowledge or skills necessary to accomplish that mission. Telephone assistors must be provided with more issue-focused training and equipped with the proper resources to help resolve a caller’s inquiry directly in as few steps as possible.  

Next, the IRS should expand the scope of the questions it will answer over the telephone to better align with the needs of taxpayers in today’s omnichannel service environment. As we discussed in last week’s blog, since 2014, the IRS has limited the scope of questions it answers over the phone. This filing season, the IRS will only answer what it characterizes as “basic” questions about tax law, and will answer no tax law questions on the phones or in the Taxpayer Assistance Centers for the rest of the year. However, as more people begin to access information through other channels, contact center calls are frequently more complex and issue-oriented, building off basic information a caller may have already found. Rather than just reading to taxpayers from information usually already available, with the proper training, IRS telephone assistors should work to engage with taxpayers and help them troubleshoot any complex tax law issues they have. This approach not only provides better service to taxpayers but also creates a more engaged and professional IRS workforce.

These reforms require more than just increased funding from Congress -- they need a change in the IRS’s mindset. The IRS should view its interactions with taxpayers as relationship-oriented, rather than simply enforcement-oriented. A taxpayer-centric approach to communication would recognize that the IRS must serve taxpayers in the ways they want and need. This approach requires the IRS to develop its service and service measures in terms of customer loyalty. Just because the IRS does not operate on a profit margin like private sector companies does not make customer loyalty any less important. While the IRS does not directly “earn” profits as the result of a successful call, a customer-centric approach to telephone service would still benefit the IRS by helping to improve its perception among taxpayers and ward off its chief competitor – the lure of noncompliance.

You can read more about industry best practices in telephone service in the Literature Review: Improving Telephone Service Through Better Quality Measures.

The views expressed in this blog are solely those of the National Taxpayer Advocate. The National Taxpayer Advocate is appointed by the Secretary of the Treasury and reports to the Commissioner of Internal Revenue. However, the National Taxpayer Advocate presents an independent taxpayer perspective that does not necessarily reflect the position of the IRS, the Treasury Department, or the Office of Management and Budget.