How the IRS Cut Tax Season Headaches by 19 percent

Andrew Harnik/AP

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The agency's early outreach efforts appear to be paying off.

Every year millions of people call the IRS with questions about filing taxes, but researchers found many of those conversations could be avoided with a little bit of early outreach.

By communicating basic information earlier in the tax-filing process, the agency can significantly improve customer experience and reduce taxpayer questions, according to a report published Wednesday by Accenture and the Partnership for Public Service. Last year, calls to the agency fell 19 percent.

IRS employees anticipated the types of issues they thought taxpayers might run into when filing their returns and created two initiatives to answers those questions before people ever had to pick up the phone. One campaign, dubbed “Get Ready,” highlighted changes taxpayers would see when filing in 2017, and another, “Avoid the Rush,” helped them navigate to specific information on the IRS website.

The agency also launched a Customer Early Warning System to flag customer problems in real time and help employees solve them more quickly, mirroring the Transportation Security Administration strategy for streamlining the checkpoint and travel process.

While there may have been other factors at play, agency leaders told researchers “the communication played a large role” in eliminating more than 12 million phone calls last tax season.

The IRS measured the campaign’s success by checking whether users were sharing the information across social media, and it was evident taxpayers were absorbing the message, said Jim Clifford, director of customer account services in wage and investment at IRS.

“People were communicating peer-to-peer and word was getting around,” he told researchers. “We knew people were getting the message.”

But while the IRS made huge strides last year in reducing headaches for customers, Clifford pointed out “every tax-filing season has its own story.”

The agency is already putting together a strategy for 2019, when the recent tax overhaul will go into full effect. The new code will hit taxpayers a fresh set of complex requirements, making next year potentially “the biggest test yet of the IRS’ communication approach,” researchers said.