In an earlier article, I wrote about customer service at the 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 sufficiently 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, and 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 getting 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!

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