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Tax Revenue Agency Uses Social Media as Another Avenue to Deliver Customer Service

By Stephanie McFarland, APR

When I was director of public relations for the Indiana Department of Revenue, I was all but laughed out of the room when I first suggested we implement a social-media endeavor for our agency back in 2010. I mean, think about it: Revenue agencies legally coerce people out of their money, making their mission anything but warm and fuzzy — the very antithesis of organizational loyalty. In short, it’s fair to say our line of work was pretty “unliked.”

But at our Indiana revenue agency, we worked for a guy whose focus was on building good relationships within the scope of the agency’s role, and providing quality and accessible customer service. So, social media seemed like another opportunity for us to further live out our brand mantra of “Quality That Counts.”  And my boss was the kind of person whose mentality was: “If you think it’s right, then do it.”

And, so we did. Though we had no social-media policy in place, or content plan, we did have a purpose, which was to provide another avenue for customer service. A few days later, our Facebook page was born, and a Twitter account was typed into existence. We were officially open for business in the social-media sphere, and our organic journey began.  The next steps were to throw out information and see what stuck. Here are the lessons we learned:

If you give customers a place to be heard, they will tell you what they think.  And our customers did. If they liked an online tool we provided to help make filing taxes easier, they told us. If they couldn’t get resolution on a tax issue, they told us. If they received excellent service from a district office somewhere it the state, they told us. And if they couldn’t get through the customer service line to talk with a representative, they told us that too.

Handling criticism transparently is good for business.  Maybe it’s because we were a revenue-collection agency and we lived with criticism every day, so we didn’t flinch at posts that criticized us. Instead, we would openly post a return message expressing our interest in helping the customer resolve the issue, and direct them to privately send us their contact information. From the PR side, we hustled to make sure a representative got with that customer promptly and strove to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. Instead of an escalation of more criticism, we would receive subsequent posts thanking us for our quick response and assistance.

Likes aren’t everything.  Though we relished every “like,” encouraging them wasn’t our goal. Instead, we used our social-media analytic tools to give us a snapshot of which content got the most play, and that informed our future content decisions.  For example, after several months we learned that our Twitter following was primarily businesses, and our Facebook presence drew individual tax filers. That knowledge helped us to reshape our content planning for each platform: Business-tax content for Twitter, individual-tax content for Facebook.

Finding content to feed the social-media demand isn’t difficult, if you plan.  At first, back in 2010 when many companies were still treating social-media like an extension of their webpages, we posted three times a week to our social-media platforms. However, as followers and fans picked up, and more information about user preferences and interests in social-media on the whole became more available, we applied those lessons and planned weekly at our staff editorial meeting for daily social-media posts. Some were as simple as an inspirational or funny quote, others announced various upcoming tax-filing deadlines and customer-service messages, and some offered short polls to gauge a snapshot of sentiment.

It’s not the quantity of fans or followers, it’s the quality of your community.  We went into our social-media endeavor with a realistic expectation: We probably weren’t going to draw followers and fans to us like moths to a flame. So, we focused on adding increments of followers and fans in set intervals, but our largest focus was on providing those who did participate in our communities with relevant and helpful information—and an avenue to reach out for customer service. Unlike some of our sister agencies with 40,000+ fans, we may have had 100+ participants after the first year. But it was a start, and an opportunity to nurture those online community relationships, encourage them via that relationship to be advocates for our customer-service, and to help us spread the word on tax issues that affected the more than 3.2 million taxpayers the revenue agency serves.

The Indiana Department of Revenue’s approach doesn’t fit the model of mass participation and collaboration that most social-media experts and books promote. But it is an excellent example of an organization that delved bravely into the social-media sphere, embraced and used online criticism to demonstrate its customer-service efforts and learned valuable lessons that can certainly be applied to much larger, more beloved organizations. Yet most of all, it demonstrates that social-media is not about the tools and the rules, it’s about the strategy that drives it and produces business results that further the organization’s function.

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