IRS' telephone routing system under fire

The General Accounting Office has recommended that the Internal Revenue Service reassess an automated telephone routing system because most taxpayers who call for help are not using it.

According to the GAO report, "Tax Administration: IRS' Telephone Routing Interactive System May Not Meet Expectations,'' which was released this summer, taxpayers are avoiding the TRIS because they would rather be served by a customer service representative as opposed to an automated operator. TRIS allows a taxpayer with a touch-tone telephone to access the TRIS master menu, and it directs the call to the most appropriate IRS customer representative.

About 24 million of the 30 million telephone calls routed through the IRS system were served by a customer service representative, according to GAO. About 3 million other callers simply hung up before being routed to a customer service representative or completing an automated application. Only 3 million callers, or 10 percent, stayed on the line long enough to be routed through the automated system to an automated operator.

"A lot of people don't want to listen to the machine,'' said A. Carl Harris, assistant director at GAO's Atlanta office. "People want to talk to a person. The IRS isn't getting the usage out of its automated system. People aren't using it like they anticipated.''

IRS Commissioner Charles Rossotti stated in a letter, which was published in the GAO report, that he agrees with GAO and the recommendation to reassess its automated phone system. Rossotti said the agency plans to improve TRIS and will provide a status report to GAO by Dec. 31.

"The modernization concept I proposed in January will enable us to improve not only TRIS but all our taxpayer-related products and practices,'' Rossotti said. "Step One is to organize around similar groups of taxpayers, Step Two is to revamp our business practices to address the needs of these specific groups, and Step Three is to build the technology to support these business practices.''

Harris said the IRS needs to tailor TRIS to taxpayers' needs. He said TRIS has some menu options that are not used by most taxpayers. He also said most taxpayers find the instructions difficult to understand, which is why many decide to hang up or speak to a customer service representative.

A 1996 GAO report stated that when taxpayers are routed to the TRIS main menu, they are presented with nine options. They must listen to and remember the different options unless they are familiar with the menu and know which option provides the specific service they need.

"There are too many menu options,'' Harris said. "The IRS hasn't publicized how to use the telephone system. It's not so easy to navigate through the TRIS system.''

Also, Harris said, the IRS has made sizable investments in TRIS without having a reliable estimate of the benefits that it will provide. The benefits were made based on assumptions that may no longer be valid, Harris said.

To improve its service, GAO recommends that the IRS devise a plan that would assess what taxpayers need, want and will use, an assessment of why taxpayers are not using the current TRIS system and a re-evaluation of the cost and benefits of TRIS.

"We are already undertaking efforts to address these recommendations and improve TRIS in both the near term and long term,'' Rossotti said.

"Short-term activities included reviewing procedures, researching why callers default or hang up, working with contractors to define problems with TRIS, expanding marketing efforts, enhancing applications [and] re-evaluating costs and benefits of TRIS.''


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