The difference between government and business

In May of 2012, I realized I had made a huge omission on my tax return because we had become renters and I didn’t know I needed to include this information on my taxes. I filed an amended tax return to correct the error, resulting in an additional refund for us. Yay!

We were excited to use the refund, which is the government’s way of saying “Thank you for giving us extra money to play with interest-free for the past year.” We came up with all of the different projects would could accomplish, trips we could take, or family outings we could afford with this extra money. But then it didn’t show up in our bank account.

After a month, I started convincing myself it wouldn’t be much longer. It probably just got caught up in the mail somewhere. Then two months went by, and then three, and I began wondering if they ever received it or if I had ever sent it in. Did I put postage on it? Was the address wrong? Did someone in Fresno have my amended return on their kitchen counter?

I went online to their website to see if I could track it down. I tried using the IRS’ “convenient” online tool Where’s My Refund? to find out the status of our bonus money. No dice. It simply said it could not provide any information. After several days’ attempts and many frustrated moments in front of my computer screen, I gave up on that method.

Moving on, I decided it was time to call the IRS direct. To anyone who has walked this path, you know that calling the IRS directly is an oxymoron. It is anything but direct. The first step is navigating through their automated system, which decides to hang up on you if you choose an option that is currently not available, a lot like an upset girlfriend when you forget her birthday and try to make it up by taking her to McD’s. It usually ends abruptly. How is there no “To return to the previous menu” option? To combat this problem, one of my friends suggested I try the “hit zero until an operator answers” approach, but this is safe-guarded by the government as well.

In a last ditch effort to recover our refund 7 months after sending in the amended return, I decided to do what everyone who has ever dealt with the IRS dreads doing: I called to speak with a real person. I knew this was going to take a huge bite out of my day, but it was time to get drastic.

I made the call, luckily made my way through the options to be directed to a live representative, and my wait time was 10-15 minutes. Not bad, I thought. I can hang for 15 minutes with the speaker phone on until a human picked up on the other end. And then it happened. A voice on the other end gave me his name, his ID code and asked how he could help me. I explained my situation and what I was needing, but instead of helping me out, he said, “Let me get you over to that department.”

I had a sick feeling in my stomach as he dialed this department, which I imagined must be on the top of a mountain in the Swiss Alps and the only way to connect this call is to give a phone line to mountain climber on his way up. Surely enough, an automated voice came on the line and said, “Your expected wait time is 10-15 minutes.” Didn’t I just do this? Shouldn’t I get a direct transfer to a live person in this new department that can help me. I’m sure the representative was leaning back in his chair laughing like Dr. Evil as he made the transfer.

After 15 minutes went by, no answer. 20 minutes, and no answer. I have almost 40 minutes tied up in this call and I’ve only spoken to a fellow human being for 30 seconds. The only thought I had at this point was, “If this phone disconnects me, I’m flying to Washington D.C., or wherever the IRS is located, and I’m marching my amended return into their office.” I doubt that would have helped.

Finally, I heard the sweetest voice I had ever heard. It was an older gentleman who likes to hear the sound of his voice, and after the longest introduction of a person’s name, credentials, position at the IRS and family tree, he asked me for about 10 pieces of information to verify who I was. I shared with him my situation, he started looking into it, and then he put me on hold to get the scoop of why I had not received my refund.

After eight more minutes on hold, he finally came back and said, “Yeah, we received it, but they didn’t release the funds.” Okay, did I do something wrong? Was there more information needed? No, the “system” just didn’t release the funds. “Are they going to release them now?” I asked. “Yeah, let me put you on hold and check that out for you.” Seriously?

When he finally came back on to the phone, he informed me that he could not manually release the funds, and then he thought he could, and he spent the next 10 minutes semi-debating himself and explaining to me the intricate processes the IRS had in place to make something as simple as an Electronic Bank Transfer come to pass. I literally had to ask him if I could hang up the phone now.

Which brings me to the conclusion of this depressing, slightly humorous story and a major point for all business owners and leaders to consider.
•Conclusion: the government is not a business, so it doesn’t view tax-payers as its customers. Therefore, customer service is not a high priority. Can you imagine a business who kept $1000 of your money for 7 months longer than they should, and then putting you on hold for a total of 45 minutes on an hour call to figure out why they had done this. I submit, that company would be out of business in a hurry, especially if it was a small business.
•Major point to consider: always treat a customer as if she were your only customer, and treat her the way you would want to be treated if you were in her shoes. This should keep you from the experience of having a customer write a blog about your incompetence. I have a feeling your business will do much better as a result.

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