Of all the rich and varied complaints about the unfairness of the Internal Revenue Service or the tax laws it enforces, it often seems that the most common taxpayer gripe involves the phone service.
"Bad enough they only give you one number--that toll-free information line," sputters an Orange County taxpayer, "but then just try to get through!"
In fact, the IRS thinks it has taken care of this problem with its one-number system, meant to handle almost all calls for information or help.
The calls go to the IRS' Taxpayer Service Division, which was set up about 15 years ago as the tax laws got more complex and there were more inquiries than could be answered by people also performing jobs as auditors, revenue officers or revenue agents.
Flooded With Calls
Taxpayer Service now handles almost 47 million calls a year, many of them in the "filing season" from January through April. In Southern California, for example, almost 45% of last year's calls came in these peak weeks, when the staff was temporarily increased 40%, and there were 204 phone lines open, plus an additional 22 just for requesting forms.
Thanks to a computerized system that answers and holds incoming calls, transferring them, in order, to the first free phone, 76% of callers get through on their first try. Even the hold period is "not supposed to be more than 40 seconds," says Lee Guirlanda, a Taxpayer Service branch chief in Los Angeles.
Most callers want fairly basic information that can be provided by "first-line assistors," although they may have to "probe the inquiry" a bit before it's clear what the taxpayer is asking. Most focus on the 1040 tax return form and its attachments, particularly itemized deductions, moving expenses, selling one's home, and capital gains and losses.
"Right now," says Guirlanda, "there are a lot of questions on what's deductible and what isn't, particularly the medical and charitable deductions, and on the effective dates for different parts of the new law." If that first person can't answer, the question is referred to a more senior representative or a specialist, who will either take the call or call back.
Get Extensive Training
Though some taxpayers are incensed by the system, the IRS wants Taxpayer Service to be a "clearinghouse" for all unsolicited calls (People already contacted by revenue agents or auditors are given their specific numbers).
Those calling about bills they received for additional taxes are immediately referred to the Accounts Division. Others may be referred to the IRS' Problem Resolution Office, described in IRS literature as "an independent IRS office designed to help you resolve any problems you may have with other IRS offices," but not one directly reachable by phone.
Tax practitioners are given the local number, but ordinary taxpayers must go through Taxpayer Service, which will not usually pass on the call unless the taxpayer has already had the requisite number of previous contacts with the IRS to qualify for Problem Resolution.
Taxpayer Service employees got their jobs partly because they exhibited what the IRS calls "meet-and-deal" abilities as well as reasoning power, and in five weeks of training, they're not only introduced to the tax laws and taught to "probe the inquiry," but given "quality service" classes.
They're reminded that the taxpayer is in essence a customer and, says Guirlanda, "that taxes are a difficult and sensitive area." They're also taught "conversation control"--such "re-cuing techniques" as "politely interrupting, perhaps by saying 'That's good information, but not what I need,' ' and even some cutoffs ("Thanks for calling; if you don't have any other questions . . . ").
On the job, they're monitored not just for courtesy and accuracy but for speed. In Los Angeles, they average 15.5 calls an hour, with long technical discussions balanced by quick pass-ons to another department.
This average skews on April 15, when the division will receive 25,000 calls, says Guirlanda, "but 20,000 are 'Where should I send my tax return?' Answer: 'Fresno, Calif. 93888.' "
A taxpayer dissatisfied with either the attitude or answer he gets can request a supervisor, but could also be causing the trouble himself: "An answer is only as good as the question and the information they're feeding in," says Lowell Langers, an IRS public affairs specialist in Los Angeles.
The caller should certainly have at hand all appropriate information--figures, any notices or correspondence, back-up information--and should preferably be the person involved, rather than a third party.
The "garbage-in-garbage-out" principle may explain why taxpayers who call several times can get two or three different answers to the same question: In between, they may have rephrased the question or restated the information.
Some, of course, are what Guirlanda calls "regular shoppers, looking for a particular answer rather than the facts. Any time there's a conflict, like they got different information last time, we'll send them a form or publication that has that information."
It's to the taxpayer's advantage to pin down the right answer, if possible, but where can one go, if not to the source? Unfortunately, "even if the assistors give 'wrong' information, the taxpayer is still responsible," says Langers, "just as they are for what their tax preparer does."
Taxpayer attitude is occasionally a problem: While Taxpayer Service employees are supposed to try to calm people down, there are limits.
"We're here to help, and we want to provide good service," says Guirlanda, "but if someone's being abusive, we instruct them that we're not here to be doormats."