The Internal Revenue Service doesn’t rank among Americans’ favorite agencies at any time of year, but that anti-IRS sentiment is perhaps most prominent during tax season as consumers struggle to make sense of their taxes. For its part, the IRS is using Twitter to push out content like #IRSTaxTips to perhaps ease that pain. In fact, a page on the IRS website lists the various platforms it uses and what kind of content it provides for tax professionals in particular. But the reputation remains.
What could the IRS potentially implement for the 2016 tax season to provide more useful content and to perhaps better its reputation among American consumers in the process? Today, to mark the U.S. tax filing deadline, let’s explore what the IRS can learn from agencies and brands in other industries that also aren’t well-liked by consumers – or at least not widely adored.
Andy Beal, CEO of social media monitoring tool Trackur, points to another agency that doesn’t always have the best reputation among consumers: The Transportation Security Administration.
“It would certainly be an uphill battle for the IRS to improve its reputation. The best place to start would be to demonstrate that it has learned valuable lessons from the recent scandals that have plagued it,” Beal said. “I would also suggest it takes a look at its federal cousin, the TSA. They have made an admirable job of personalizing their department by the use of their blog.”
The Cable & Airline Industries
For his part, Jason Chan, group director of mobile and social platform at RGA, points to other brands that “suffer from a lot of customer service abuse,” like cable companies or airlines.
“They take a lot abuse on Twitter in particular from angry customers because their flights have been canceled or there’s huge delays and no one is responding to them. And cable companies are doing lots of really crazy things with down time and not getting back to customers in an acceptable manner,” Chan said. “There’s just lots of negative things and certain industries that have an overall negative image, what ends up happening is consumers take to social to vent and complain. In those businesses, you kind of have to expect that.”
Chan’s best advice for the IRS, which may find itself in a similar boat this time of year? Make lemonade out of lemons.
He points to KLM as an airline brand that has a strong customer service department that can “handle pretty much any request that comes in through Facebook and Twitter.”
That means the brand can deal with problems 24 hours a day.
“They have taken what would traditionally be a channel where consumers complain to a potential revenue stream and way to market themselves,” Chan said. “By investing heavily in social, they can handle different situations that consumers have. There’s foresight from senior leadership to use it in positive ways rather than just for customer service. If more brands adopted [that strategy], they could shift the perception of the industry around.”
Chan suggests the IRS try to use social in a more positive way, such as promoting chat sessions with a series around specific topics like capital gains taxes.
“They could say, ‘We’ll host a one-hour forum on Twitter on Thursday and you can ask any questions and we’ll have experts on hand,’” Chan said. “[The IRS could have] a really focused conversation about the topic on top of people’s minds. One way to change perception is by being helpful and proactive…and these are really the sort of straightforward and basic tactics around things they can do.”
Chan also suggests the IRS could do more to help demystify all of the changes in the tax code every year.
“One good thing TurboTax does is it summarizes the changes for consumers upfront,” Chan said. “That’s something the IRS determines themselves. There’s no reason they couldn’t do it, too.”
The IRS could also do more to help consumers determine which tax form to file, Chan said. That would give the brand an opportunity to help consumers at the very outset.
At the same time, however, the approach must be simple and easy to use.
“There’s definitely potential for the IRS to do something interesting in regard to changing perception and be more proactive about it,” Chan said. “They could create more content that is less technical in nature and simpler to digest.
One way to do that might also be to use infographics, Chan said. That’s because they take complex data or trends and break it down into a manner that is easy to understand. He suggests the IRS consider infographics around topics like how quickly consumers get their refunds in the first two months of the year versus the last two months of the filing period.
“That’s another thing the IRS can help do to help change its perception,” Chan said. “[The IRS has] all this data. They just need to package it in a way that makes it appealing and shift the perceptions.”
If the IRS spent time thinking about what resources it has on hand and how it could be useful, it could demystify some complex topics for consumers, which would be a great place to start.
“The reason I bring up TurboTax is because they make what is a pretty mundane and boring and frustrating task very simple and they almost make you feel like, ‘I enjoyed doing that,’” Chan said. “Every year, I time myself and it gets shorter every year and I credit them with understanding my scenario.”
He suggests IRS follow TurboTax’s lead and ask consumers small questions along the way that help refine the picture of what their tax situation is.
“They’re the ones who are essentially creating the tax code. Instead of publishing a list of changes in a way that requires an accountant to decipher, they could translate it and [make] that content more digestible for the layperson.”
In addition, Chan suggests the IRS do some social listening and proactively answer questions on Twitter or do a Reddit AMA with different employees at the IRS.
“There’s lots of different avenues,” he said.
Your turn: what do you think the IRS can do to improve its brand reputation?