Internal Revenue Service, Department of the Treasury
The IRS played a major role in the country’s recovery from the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021, delivering hundreds of millions of Economic Impact Payments to help people weather the crisis.
The agency also expanded its commitment to delivering a streamlined experience for taxpayers—appointing its first chief taxpayer experience officer and issuing a comprehensive customer experience strategy.
During the pandemic, Americans flocked to the IRS’ website for assistance—visits increased by 145% in 2020. However, identity verification requirements, designed to protect taxpayer identities, can make it hard for people to access authenticated IRS accounts to take advantage of personalized, self-service features such as making payments. In response to this challenge, in 2021 the IRS piloted an improved authentication service intended to increase the authentication rate for digital services. Some of the information or support functions customers often look for online—such as a detailed update as to why their refund has been delayed—are unavailable, leading people to call the agency for additional information. But while people calling the IRS continued to have difficulty getting through, particularly as the agency handled unprecedented pandemic-related demand, those who did speak with an agent usually had a good experience receiving help—emphasizing, alongside other improvements, the urgency of continuing to expand the IRS’ automated callback system after years of staff cuts.
of callers found IRS employees to be helpful.
hours of hold time for callers saved after the IRS implemented an automated callback feature.
of taxpayers who were able to meet the IRS’ authentication standards and register for a new online account.
of callers to the IRS’ main customer service line who reached an agent, due to impacts related to the pandemic.5
Customer Experience Insights
Improvement from last year
Room for improvement
Customers often call the IRS for information or services they are unable to access online. Outdated technology and operational challenges during the shift of agents to remote work during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the loan of IRS call center staff to FEMA to help with the pandemic response, all made it difficult for the IRS to deal with a high volume of calls in fiscal 2020. This trend continued when the tax filing season began in early 2021, with the agency answering only one in 50 calls on some phone lines.6
To help mitigate this issue, in 2020, the IRS expanded an automated callback feature that enables customers to receive a call back from an agent, rather than waiting on hold. This feature saved taxpayers a total of 486,000 hours of hold time, and in fiscal 2020, those who used the customer callback feature were able to successfully reconnect with an IRS representative approximately 90% of the time. In 2020, the agency expanded this feature from five to 16 of its phone lines, with the feature now available for 40% of calls. The IRS plans to add the feature to nearly all phone lines by 2024.
Beyond improving the ability of customers to reach an agent over the phone, the IRS is also working to improve and expand access to the information and self-service tasks available on its website. (see more below).
Despite the challenges of maintaining services during the coronavirus pandemic while also implementing new programs, including Economic Impact Payments, overall satisfaction with the IRS customer service line remained strong in fiscal 2021.
People visiting the IRS website or logging into online accounts were often looking for information on the status of a delayed tax refund or Economic Impact Payment, but detailed status updates were not always available—the IRS’ current online tools enable customers to see whether their return is being processed, but do not offer more specific timelines. Customers were also often looking to initiate direct communication with the IRS to resolve an issue, but this feature is not available online and customers must call the agency for this type of direct, personalized communication. To address this gap, in 2021 the IRS piloted web chat for Economic Impact Payments to enable customers to communicate with an IRS staff member through the agency’s website.
The IRS’ website contains many self-service tools that customers can use to access their tax records and make payments. To deliver these personalized services, the IRS needs to be able to verify customers’ identities before providing them with sensitive financial information. However, many customers are unable to create an authenticated account and access these online tools because of the agency’s current identity verification methods.
- In fiscal 2020, only 42% of taxpayers attempting to verify their identity and register for a new online account were able to meet IRS’ authentication standards.10
Customers may need to verify their identity for several reasons—for example, if their tax return is flagged for potential identity fraud. However, people do not always have all the documentation they need to verify their identity, such as mortgage or credit card information. If customers cannot verify their identity online, they need to call the IRS or visit in person.
The agency is seeking to increase customers’ ability to verify to their identity, while maintaining needed security standards, through a program called Secure Access Digital Identity. The program is being tested on some online features in 2021, and the agency plans to expand it to additional features by 2024. This new system will enable people to verify their identity using more readily available documentation, such as utility bills or drivers’ licenses.
As part of the agency’s Multi-Lingual Initiative—an effort to expand the languages IRS services are available in—for the first time this filing season, the IRS provided its most commonly used tax form in Spanish: the 1040. Also, for the first time, the 1040 form enables taxpayers to indicate whether they want to receive notices from the IRS in a language other than English, helping to ensure that customers understand the important information they get from the IRS. Additionally, most pages on the agency’s website are available in seven languages other than English and taxpayers who call the IRS have access by phone to interpreter services in more than 350 languages.
However, out of the 10 most commonly filed tax forms, the 1040 is the only one available in another language and only in one other language—Spanish. The agency is working on making more forms available in Spanish and other languages.
Leading Customer Experience Practices
The Partnership and Accenture developed the following list of practices to understand how agencies prioritize the customer experience, and steps they can take to improve. The list is based on research about effective customer experience practices in both government and the private sector, and aligns with practices in a customer experience maturity self-assessment for agencies developed by the Office of Management and Budget.