Don’t be vic­tim of cus­tomer ser­vice


In an ear­lier ar­ti­cle, I wrote about cus­tomer ser­vice at the state De­part­ment of

Tax­a­tion. One alert reader wrote, with tongue firmly in cheek (I think), “I ob­ject to the use of the word ‘cus­tomer.’ It cer­tainly doesn’t feel like that type of re­la­tion­ship to me. Maybe ‘hostage’?” he writes.

Call­ing a tax­payer a cus­tomer isn’t too far from real­ity. Tax­pay­ers are cer­tainly pay­ing money. They pay for the pro­tec­tions and con­ve­niences that a civ­i­lized so­ci­ety brings to us.

It might not feel like a nor­mal cus­tomer re­la­tion­ship (for one thing, we can’t re­turn the prod­uct if we are unhappy with what is de­liv­ered), so the gov­ern­ment em­ploy­ees, tax pro­fes­sion­als and oth­ers can con­trib­ute to­ward mak­ing this re­la­tion­ship less dif­fi­cult and strained.

Yelp, a web­site that col­lects cus­tomer re­views on a wide range of busi­nesses, ap­par­ently thought that the De­part­ment of Tax­a­tion is enough like a busi­ness that peo­ple could ben­e­fit from see­ing re­views. So, it has pub­lished a few of them. The re­mark­able thing about the re­views is that most peo­ple don’t run out of vit­riol — pend­ing long wait times, in­com­pre­hen­si­ble com­puter sys­tem, ar­cane pro­cesses — un­til they ac­tu­ally meet an em­ployee. One per­son changed a one-star re­view, the low­est pos­si­ble, to a four-star re­view out of five af­ter fi­nally speak­ing with a de­part­ment em­ployee. That must have been one heck of a con­ver­sa­tion! Many tax­pay­ers have ex­pe­ri­enced frus­tra­tion when, just be­fore the due date of a re­turn, they try to sign up on the sys­tem and can’t. They then try pick­ing up the phone to get help log­ging in, but are ei­ther put on hold for a tremen­dous amount of time or, worse, are dis­con­nected be­cause there is no space in the call-hold queue.

If all fails, the tax­payer sends in a pa­per form with a pa­per check, and is dis­tressed when, weeks later, a no­tice comes in the mail ac­cus­ing the tax­payer of not mak­ing the pay­ment at all and threat­en­ing un­seemly con­se­quences.

Cus­tomer ser­vice has im­proved, but im­prove­ment doesn’t mean the prob­lem has been solved com­pletely. There are still vic­tims. To make sure you aren’t an­other of them, we sug­gest a few things:

First, al­low ex­tra time when try­ing some­thing new. A new com­puter sys­tem and no time be­fore a dead­line are a recipe for lots of stress. You can’t con­trol the first in­gre­di­ent, but at least you can con­trol the sec­ond.

Sec­ond, use elec­tronic fil­ing and pay­ment when­ever pos­si­ble. If you can’t, make sure you get a re­ceipt. The prin­ci­pal ad­van­tages of elec­tronic fil­ing and pay­ment are that they are recorded on the de­part­ment’s com­put­ers right away, and you get an elec­tronic re­ceipt from the de­part­ment. That means there is less chance of the de­part­ment’s com­put­ers ac­cus­ing you of not fil­ing or not pay­ing when you ac­tu­ally did, and even if you are ac­cused you have a re­ceipt to wave at them.

Third, if you are try­ing to do some­thing for the first time, such as reg­is­ter on the Hawaii Tax On­line sys­tem, file your first GET re­turn, or sub­mit your first ap­pli­ca­tion for a tax clear­ance, con­sider ac­cept­ing help. If you are do­ing some­thing for the first time, by def­i­ni­tion you don’t know what you’re do­ing! Of course that doesn’t stop peo­ple, my­self in­cluded, from try­ing any­way, but if they have the slight­est doubt they should get as­sis­tance, be­cause there may be nu­ances not un­der­stood at the mo­ment.

For ex­am­ple, sup­pose you are try­ing to fill out a tax clear­ance ap­pli­ca­tion for a cor­po­ra­tion. Your cor­po­ra­tion has sev­eral share­hold­ers, some of which are other cor­po­ra­tions. When do you check “Cor­po­ra­tion” as op­posed to “Sub­sidiary Cor­po­ra­tion,” and if you do the lat­ter, which fed­eral em­ployer iden­ti­fi­ca­tion num­ber are you sup­posed to put in for the “Par­ent”? This ques­tion is there to help the de­part­ment find the cor­po­ra­tion’s net in­come tax re­turn.

If the cor­po­ra­tion need­ing a clear­ance files a Hawaii N-30 un­der its own FEIN, check “Cor­po­ra­tion.” If it’s part of a group re­turn filed un­der an­other FEIN, check “Sub­sidiary Cor­po­ra­tion” and fill in the FEIN un­der which the group re­turn is filed. If this isn’t filled in cor­rectly, the tax clear­ance could be de­layed or de­nied.

Bet­ter to get help on the front end than af­ter the de­nial.

Tom Yamachika is pres­i­dent of the Tax Foun­da­tion of Hawaii.

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