GOVERNMENT FOR THE PEOPLE: PROFILES ON THE CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE

Individual Taxpayer Services

Internal Revenue Service, Department of Treasury


Executive Summary

The IRS was hit with a double dose of challenges in 2019—the major interruption caused by the 35-day government shutdown that kept tens of thousands of IRS employees from doing their jobs, and the need to implement a sweeping new tax law. Yet by some measures, the IRS still delivered services to taxpayers faster than it did five years ago, when the agency was dealing with a crisis caused by substantial budget cuts.   

In fact, in 2019, customers reported high satisfaction levels with the support they received from representatives on the agency’s primary customer service line—even though it can be difficult to reach a representative during the busy tax season. 

The IRS also produced or updated several easy-to-use digital tools in the last year to help taxpayers make payments, decide how much money to withhold from their paychecks and complete other tasks. However, some tools require individuals to verify their identity—and many taxpayers struggle to fulfill the agency’s strict authentication requirements, in place to protect the security of sensitive taxpayer information.     

These complications were exacerbated by the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, which presented an additional set of challenges. Initial difficulties with teleworking hindered IRS employees’ ability to support customers, correspond by mail, and process paper and some electronic tax returns.

Service Overview

Primary Customers

Individuals, businesses, nonprofits and charities that must file taxes, as well as tax professionals who help others prepare their taxes. 

Key services for individual taxpayers

  • Tax-return processing.  
  • Collection and processing of tax payments.  
  • Processing of tax refunds and assistance with inquiries about refund status.  
  • Access to tax records. 
  • Answers to taxpayer questions about how to fulfill tax responsibilities. 


Data at a Glance

customer satisfaction rate among callers who reached a representative on the primary customer service lines in fiscal 2019 

customer satisfaction score for electronic tax filing in 2019 

decrease in customers who were able to get through to an agent on the primary customer service lines in fiscal 2019, though this number has improved from five years ago 


People Interact With the IRS By

(All data for fiscal year 2019)

CALLING THE IRS CUSTOMER SERVICE LINE

76.8 million 

attempted calls to the IRS’ accounts management customer service lines


(77.7 million in fiscal 2018).1 

AVERAGE WAIT TIME FOR CALLS 

11.3 minutes


to speak with a representative


(7.5 minutes
in fiscal 2018).2 

VISITING ONLINE

651 million 

visits to IRS.gov 


 (608.8 million in fiscal 2018).3

Visiting an IRS Taxpayer Assistance Center

Almost 2.4 million 

face-to-face contacts through Taxpayer Assistance Centers


 (2.9 million
in fiscal 2018).4

Filing a tax return 

>253
million


tax returns and supplemental documents filed


(Less than 250 million in fiscal 2018).5


$452 billion


in tax refunds


Customer Experience Insights

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With more taxpayers getting services online or over the phone, the IRS was able to provide in-person services more quickly compared to three years ago, and the agency was in a better position to deal with office closures related to the coronavirus.

Percentage of visitors to Taxpayer Assistance Centers waiting more than 30 minutes for service10
Fiscal 2016 27%
Fiscal 2017 6%
Fiscal 2018 6%
Fiscal 2019 10%

The agency has focused on addressing taxpayer questions over the phone or online to reduce the number of office visitsIn 2019, the IRS educated customers about digital tools such as its DirectPay feature, which people can use to pay taxes online rather than sending check or bringing payment to an office.  

“When taxpayers came into Taxpayer Assistance Centers with a payment, instead of saying, ‘Hey, you know you could do this online,’ we actually sat down next to them and said, ‘Let me show you how to do this,’” said Karin Rice, communications and liaison director in the IRS Wage and Investment Division.

We gave a B+ to selected webpages intended to help users understand how much money to withhold from their paychecks and when they will receive a refund.

Website Experience:
How easy is it to navigate and understand online information? 

Reviewers looked at selected webpages from the perspective of people trying to answer two questions:

IRS Grade

B+


Strengths

  • The “Where’s my Refund?” button makes it easy for users to find answers related to their specific tax situations.
  • Content explaining when to expect a refund uses clear language that is easy to digest.
  • The site clearly explains typical timing for receiving refunds and whom to contact if users do not get theirs within that time.

Standout feature: tax withholding calculator

The tax withholding estimator has clean, simple design, and the webpage is user-oriented. It tells users what information to collect before using the toolhelpful featureA navigation guide at the top of the page shows users where they are in the process as they are guided through a set of questions with predefined response options and easy-to-fill fields for data. The website design is effective, and the language is clear and easy to understand 


Opportunities to improve

  • Some pages are busy, with multiple pieces of information competing for attention.

When callers were able to reach a representative on the IRS’ primary customer service lines, they continued to report high a high satisfaction level of 88%.11

However, in fiscal 2019 only 65% of callers to the customer service line who were routed to an agent for assistance were able to get through—an 11% decrease from the prior year. The IRS calls this measure the “level of service.” This decline was partially due to the long-term impact of the 2018-2019 government shutdown, when many IRS employees were furloughed.

Metrics for IRS Customer Service Line (2015-2019)12
Fiscal 2015 Fiscal 2016 Fiscal 2017 Fiscal 2018 Fiscal 2019
Average wait time 30.5 minutes 17.8 minutes 8.4 minutes 7.5 minutes 11.3 minutes
Level of service 38% 53% 77% 76% 65%

To improve the customer experience, the agency is piloting a virtual callback feature on five of its phone lines. This feature enables customers to keep their place in the queue and receive a callback from a phone agent, rather than waiting on hold. On just one if its phone lines, this feature saved customers an estimated 111,000 hours of hold time, with 77% of customers opting to receive a call back.

The IRS plans to add the option to a total of 15 phone lines (or 40% of its phone demand) in fiscal 2022, and nearly all phone lines by 2024.

The number of individuals submitting e-file tax returns is on the rise, with nearly 89% of individual returns filed electronically in 2019—about a 10% growth since 2016.13 The agency believes customers favor the electronic process due to its faster processing times and user-friendly features, such as acknowledgement of receipt.

Customer Satisfaction Scores, 2019

individuals filing taxes electronically: 74 out of 10014

individuals filing taxes using paper: 60 out of 10015

government-wide aggregate score: 68.1 out of 100

  • For fiscal 2019, only 43% of taxpayers attempting to verify their identity and register for a new online account were able to meet IRS’ strict authentication standards.16

Customers may need to verify their identify for several reasons—for example, if their tax return is flagged for potential identity fraudIf customers can’t verify their identity online, they need to call the IRS or visit in person. In 2019, the agency enhanced its online ID verification tool by adding more capabilities, including the ability to handle tax returns from previous years if an older return is flagged for fraud. However, people do not always have all the documentation they need to verify their identities, such as an account number from a mortgage or credit card.   

  • The IRS’ 10 most commonly filed forms, and many of its online services, are currently available only in English.17

The IRS plans to start publishing these tax forms in six languages in 2021, starting with Spanish. It has already translated some of its online content into Spanish and other languages, and officials say they plan to translate more content over the next few years. As more forms and correspondence become available in other languages, the agency is working on an option for taxpayers to denote their preferred language in their online accounts so the IRS can send them correspondence in that language.

Key

Improvement from last year

Ongoing challenge


Connecting on Social Media

The agency uses social media primarily to inform and educate the public about tax-related issues and to identify common questions and concerns that provide an early indication of problems taxpayers may face—for example, if people are confused about language on an IRS tax form. This enables the agency to address issues quickly, before they become more widespread. 

As of September 2020, the IRS’ social media presence related to individual taxpayer services included: 


Twitter

(@IRSnews)

Followers: 206,00



Total tweets: 48,90


Facebook

(@IRS)

Followers: 420,400



Total likes: 319,400


Instagram

(@IRSnews)

Followers: 57,300



Total posts: 436


YouTube

(IRSvideos)


Subscribers: 50,200



Total views: 5.8 million

Social media practices

Posts almost daily?
Yes



Responds to customers?
No



Uses multimedia content?
Yes

For background information on these metrics and our full methodology click here.

How the IRS adjusted taxpayer services during the coronavirus

The IRS has faced enormous challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. In March 2020, the agency had to close tax processing centers, Taxpayer Assistance Centers and other offices across the country. The IRS had to manage the busy tax filing season while also delivering economic stimulus payments to millions of customers in a timely manner. To complete these tasks, the agency extended the tax filing deadline by three months, giving taxpayers until July 15 to file and IRS employees more time receive and process tax returns.   

Congress passed the CARES Act on March 27. Within a few months, the IRS delivered over 160 million economic stimulus payments to individuals and launched an online tracking tool to help them easily check the status of their payments6 – both notable accomplishments on this timeline and under these circumstances. According to the agency, millions of taxpayers received these payments within 14 days of the CARES Act passing, as compared to the 75 days it took for people to receive stimulus payments during an economic downturn in 2008. Still, some payments were delivered to the wrong individuals and some people had trouble tracking their payments.  

The agency also kept up with processing tax returns, going through 146 million individual tax returns by July 24, 2020.7  

Despite these efforts, some tax filers experienced challenges with the IRS during the pandemic. IRS offices that process paperwork were either closed or operated at limited capacity, delaying the processing of paper tax returns as well as responses to written correspondence.  

Taxpayers trying to call the IRS regarding filings and stimulus payments also had a hard time reaching representatives, with many contact center representatives lacking laptops or other equipment they needed to work from home. When the pandemic began, just 44% of the IRS workforce overall was eligible for telework.8 Throughout the spring and summer the IRS set up more employees for remote work, with 50,000 of approximately 63,000 teleworking by the end of June.9  

Indicators that the Customer Experience is a High Priority 

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Commitment to Customer Experience

The IRS:

Includes high-quality customer experience in its strategic goals.


Specifies customer feedback as a key measure of the organization’s performance.


Has a senior executive with the responsibility and authority to lead efforts to improve customer experience across the organization.

Improvement from 2019.


Shares meaningful customer feedback data with the public.

Customer Service Basics 

For the most common services provided, customers can: 

Complete frequently used transactions online.


Easily find information to call an appropriate IRS representative.

Improvement from 2019.


Schedule in-person appointments.


Obtain status updates.


Has a process for standardizing across channels the information and guidance provided to customers. 

Customer Feedback 

The agency collects and analyzes data and information on customer perceptions:   

Of specific interactions, including website visits, phone calls and in-person appointments. 


Of a customer journey through a series of interactions or multistage processes that build toward a specific goal.


Of the overall service the organization provides.


Through qualitative research, such as customer interviews, focus groups, analysis of social media comments or direct observation.


Through a structured analysis of comments about the service left on social media channels.

More details about our methodology

This customer experience profile was produced in collaboration with Accenture Federal Services.