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  • Greg Elliott

Unexpected Customer Service: 5 Practical Steps From The IRS.

Male and Female Light Switches

I’ve posted this before, but since today is the last day to file your taxes, it seemed apropos to repost it. It’s a good reminder that, too often, organizations tout “customer service” as a point of differentiation. Yet good customer service is rarely a differentiator, it’s the expectation. It’s only sets you apart when it’s exceptional…or unexpected.

I used to work for an organization that touted great customer service – and they usually delivered. Being a smaller player in their industry, they used customer service as a point of differentiation. Their customers knew they should expect good service when a question or problem arose, and when those expectations weren’t met, it was a letdown – as it should be.

Now, as a customer, imagine how you’d feel after an encounter that you anticipated would be unpleasant, left you with a smile. That’s what organizations should strive to provide every day – the unexpected customer service - and that’s what I experienced recently.

Did You Say, "From the IRS?!"

Last year, my wife’s company had a security breach and there was concern that private information may have been hacked. As you might imagine, panic set in. The comfortable everyday routine had been interrupted. No longer was it wake up, go to work, pick up kids, dinner, bedtime, repeat. It was now all about trying to find out if anyone had tried to use our identity. First it was a check-in with the credit services, then the bank and credit card companies, and finally…the IRS! It was tax season, and someone may have tried to file for us.

As I prepared to call the fraud line, I thought, “Oh, Crap! What unsympathetic, bureaucratic a-hole am I going to have to wait 45 minutes to have the pleasure to talk to?” Let’s be honest, the IRS doesn’t always have a great track record on customer service. For a moment, I even considered just writing off this year’s tax refund rather than going through the pain. What followed was perhaps the best example of unexpected customer service I have ever experienced.

After being on hold for approximately 15 minutes - not bad for tax season - I was greeted by Ms. McCarthy (apparently, that’s the only identification the IRS will offer). Ms. McCarthy proceeded to speak knowledgeably about the situation while referring me to additional resources; while unable to legally speak about specifics regarding my wife’s social security number, she did offer information that would expedite my wife’s later inquiry; and generally, she was able to put my mind at ease and instill confidence that my potential problem would be handled.

Thank You sign

That is exactly what I needed. And that is exactly what most customers expect when they take time from their busy schedules to call customer service. Ms. McCarthy followed 5 simple customer service steps that can improve almost any customer interaction:

  1. KNOW your product or service offerings and be honest about what you can or cannot offer to the customer to resolve the issue

  2. EMPATHIZE with the customer. S/he doesn’t want to waste your time or theirs…they have a problem they need fixed, and they view you as the “fixer”.

  3. ASK for time or managerial input if you get a question you are unable to answer.

  4. ANTICIPATE questions; offer more information than the customer asked; and if possible, provide sources for additional information.

  5. THANK the customer for their time and confirm their question has been answered. This is huge!

These steps might seem like Customer Service 101, but it’s amazing how many organizations struggle to figure them out. And just a single negative interaction with your brand can have an exponential effect on brand perception. So, alongside creating great products, offering meaningful content, and shifting cultural attitudes, add “providing unexpected customer service” as a key to building a sustainable brand.

*Photos courtesy of

#CustomerService #IRS #Taxes

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