Suppose you made 10 trips to the ATM, but three of those times it was out of order. Or if, in 10 visits to a fast-food place, the milkshake machine was broken three times. Think you’d find a different bank and a better take-out restaurant?
The fact is, when dealing with customers, getting it right 70 percent of the time isn’t nearly good enough. Unless, of course, you have the power of the U.S. government behind you.
As Americans begin thinking about tax season, the Internal Revenue Service promises that, this year, it will aim to answer 71 percent of the phone calls to its help-line number, 800-829-1040. So the agency begins the tax season by admitting it plans to ignore three out of every 10 callers.
This would actually be a slight improvement from 2008, when only five out of every 10 calls to the IRS were answered. And it would roughly equal last year’s “success rate,” when seven out of 10 calls were answered.
Meanwhile, those who do manage to get their call answered must endure the waiting game. The average caller will spend 12 minutes on hold.
“This level of service is unacceptable,” National Taxpayer Advocate Nina Olson reports. She called the IRS’s unresponsiveness the “number-one most serious problem for taxpayers.” (Wonder if she’s ever been audited?)
In the agency’s defense, spokeswoman Michelle Eldridge told The Washington Post that, “The bottom line is we have answered millions more phone calls in the last two years than ever before.” That’s undoubtedly true. Year after year, Congress makes changes to the tax code, making it even more difficult to understand. That’s why most taxpayers pay someone else to prepare their return; they’re afraid to make an expensive mistake.
They’re right to worry. Even if they can get through to the IRS for help, taxpayers are often steered wrong.
For example, a 2004 Treasury report found that the IRS provided incorrect answers 20 percent of the time. In the agency’s defense, that may be because there often isn’t one single, apparent correct answer. For many years, Money magazine asked 50 tax professionals to prepare sample returns. Year after year the pros came up with different tax liabilities -- sometimes differing from each other by as much as $1,000.
Even when IRS advice isn’t wrong, it’s often misleading.