IRS answers the call

A new automated system will bring some relief to taxpayers frustrated by busy signals when they call the Internal Revenue Service, officials say.

The $75.6 million system debuted July 27 and is the first Business Systems Modernization service to be activated since the plan to overhaul the tax agency took shape. Officials say the system will ensure that callers' questions are answered more promptly and accurately. The agency's goal is to resolve 80 percent of customer questions during the first call—double the current rate.

The system is also intended to provide taxpayers with more accurate answers to specific questions. With better-trained personnel and a faster response time, officials hope they will put to rest complaints from critics who say taxpayers often get the wrong answers when they call the IRS—or no answers at all.

"This new system gives callers the right balance of personal customer service and automated responses," said John Reece, chief information officer at the IRS. "This phase of modernizing our telephone hotlines gives us the ability to quickly and accurately guide taxpayers to the right solution and the appropriate level of IRS service."

The system routes calls to a local call center, and the customer is asked to press a button for a service.

Callers are asked whether they speak English or Spanish and routed to the proper line. IRS officials expect that it will take 30 seconds to get an answer to a simple question, such as "When will my tax return be mailed?" It will take longer to get a more complicated answer or talk to a trained IRS worker.

"If you are calling in with a touch-tone phone service and you're looking for refund information, it will take three prompts," said Cecil Usher, director of the customer communication 2001 project. Usher calls the system a "sort of front door to a real person," but the time it takes to get an answer will be slashed dramatically with new technology and automation.

"We do our primary call routing through an AT&T network. Once we determine the type of call coming in, then the calls are switched to their destinations," Usher said.

The system is a complex network developed by Computer Sciences Corp., along with a number of subcontractors. SpeechWorks International Inc. and Aspect Communications Corp. provided voice-recognition services and multilingual applications. Cisco Systems Inc. handled the routing, and Accenture provided the menus and automated processing on the equipment from Aspect.

CSC is the leader of the IRS Prime modernization project. The project is expected to cost about $5 billion and take 15 years to complete. If it works as designed, the project will streamline interactions between taxpayers and the agency. The IRS still has a long way to go to fix its call system and regain the public's confidence. A recent report by the Treas.ury Department's inspector general found that millions of calls to the IRS went unanswered.

For the period Oct. 1, 1999, through April 8, 2000, the IRS answered 28.6 million of the 47.1 million calls it received, the IG noted. That's a response rate of just over 60 percent.

"Lots of whiz-bang technologies will make it look like you are solving a problem until it comes time to demonstrate results," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union, a watchdog group that often criticizes the IRS. "The results have to show up quickly. If they don't, you are left with a lot of egg on your face. And $75 million is a lot of eggs on your face."

He added, "Getting citizens faster to the wrong answer is the problem. The accuracy of the IRS advice is stunningly poor even on basic questions."

In addition to routing calls for English- or Spanish-speaking customers, the system also uses a voice-activated program that helps taxpayers find out the status of their refund and has the capability to more accurately route taxpayer calls to the most appropriate IRS resource, Usher said.

One of the most frequent questions asked in the first month of the system's operation came from students and teenagers, according to Usher.

"There were an awful lot of people who thought they should get a rebate," Usher said. "Students and kids who were claimed on their parents' returns thought they should get a rebate if they got one last year. That is the most typical question we've gotten this year."


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