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Citizen Engagement Blog

Citizen Engagement Fail: The IRS Customer Service Debacle

IRS struggles with citizen engagementA USA Today article broke down customer service failures by the U.S. Internal Revenue Service for the 2015 tax filing period. This is exactly the type of publicity no government agency wants. Yet at the state and local level, an embarrassing customer service meltdown may be inevitable. If, like the IRS, a state or local agency relies primarily on contact center agents or state workers to personally resolve an issue, a huge bottleneck can occur during peak usage periods or when an interruption or disaster occurs. And what if systems in place fail first, like this example shows? 

The IRS, already an agency that citizens dread dealing with, descended to a new low during this year’s tax season. Highlights – or, rather low points – included more than 8.8 million dropped calls due to system overloads and longer on-hold times (averaging 23 minutes vs. 14 minutes in 2014). And these are only the KNOWN results – undoubtedly many more people heard about the IRS’s problems from a friend, relative or neighbor and decided not to bother calling. Or maybe individuals were so anxious about missing the filing deadline that they submitted incorrect documents, rather than wait endlessly on hold for assistance from IRS teams.

In the USA Today article, the IRS acknowledged it would be negatively impacted “if voluntary compliance declines because of decreasing taxpayer service and the attendant loss of good will,” according to Nina Olson, head of the office created to help taxpayers who face IRS problems. Further, the Agency may have increased its own workload because of additional returns with errors or missing information – the result of citizens forced to “go it alone” with the complex and confusing tax code. 

"Technology is a queer thing. It brings you great gifts with one hand and stabs you in the back with the other.” - Charles Percy Snow, British novelist, scientist and government administrator

A hard lesson

Other government agencies – indeed, any organization with a customer service function – should learn a lesson from the IRS. Constituent engagement should be available through multiple on-demand channels, with contact center representative and state worker time reserved for complex issues. For quality assurance and continuous improvement, systems for measurement and reporting should be in place.

  • Help constituents self-serve first: A robust interactive voice response (IVR) facilitates constituent self-service, and can help resolve most issues quickly without long hold times and agent interaction.
  • Enable digital engagement opportunities to increase convenience and speed access: Mobile web and mobile apps allow people to use their preferred mobile devices, whenever and wherever they choose, and reduce call, email, and web interaction costs.
  • Create the ability to resolve issues with contextual, persistent chat messaging: Chat, or preferably more advanced messaging functionality enables agents to handle multiple inquiries simultaneously, and the right technology can allow constituents to start and stop a chat, and pick it up later to resolve issues without repeating themselves. These best practices conserve staff resources and budget dollars (budget cuts were cited by the IRS as a key cause of its service woes), and improve constituent experience.
  • Use citizen interaction data to tell a story with a positive ending: Analytics should be used to measure number and type of inquiries, how many actually get through, how long it takes for people to resolve an issue or obtain information. These metrics can quickly illuminate a problem and provide a foundation for improvements.
  • Avoid complex, legacy platforms that are costly and time-consuming to maintain: Technology supporting a customer care operation should be powerful, advanced, feature-rich (for example, IVR personalization) and easily scalable. A cloud-hosted solution can provide the fast ramp-up needed for those usage spikes—with no need to buy and install more infrastructure or worry about security compliance issues.
To that point, Agencies don’t have to handle everything in house (and neither do enterprises). Budgets and priorities don’t allow Agencies to be agile enough to keep every system, process, and program ready for any circumstance, update, or disruption. Agencies can benefit from partnering with a technology provider that offers a portfolio of customer care solutions, including IVR for phone inquiries, mobile and web for digital interactions, and analytics for business intelligence and trending.

As you consider your program priorities, remember the IRS’ example we’ve reviewed as a critical wake up call to ensure your constituent engagement is secure.


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Topics: Process Improvement