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Calling a Specific Person at the Service

Posted on Aug. 23, 2013

Everyone knows of the difficulty encountered in reaching someone on one of the call lines the Service.  This frustrates both taxpayers and practitioners.  While we could debate the proper allocation of resources within the Service to call lines or the proper allocation of budget dollars to the Service to allow it to better staff these call lines, the wait times present ongoing frustrations beyond the scope of this post.  The National Taxpayer Advocate has regularly commented on the problems with reaching the call site numbers.  See e.g., the 2012 NTA Annual Report to Congress.

This post focuses on calls to a specific individual at the Service.  The frustration of calling a specific individual, whose number you have somehow acquired, deserves attention by the Service because the frustration is very real and the fix is fairly simple.  The issue confronts all practitioners engaged in controversy work as well, of course, as taxpayers representing themselves.

In the 1990s most Service offices eliminated the positions of employees who would answer the phone for the office and pass that message onto the intended Service employee using a yellow slip, Optional Form 363 (Rev. 1-94).  I still have one from 1998 when a member of the clerical staff in my office left the handwritten form in my in box alerting me to a message from “Jude Marzel.”  Because I was about to participate on a panel with Tax Court Judge Paige Marvel and because the phone number belonged to Judge Marvel, Form 363 served its purpose.

When Service offices had sufficient staff, or chose to allocate staff, to have someone answer the phone for the offices and pass out phone messages, callers had a decent chance of getting information from the support staff person answering the phone about the individual in the compliance function being called.  This information allowed the caller to make an informed decision on whether and when to expect a return call.  Such information informed the caller on whether to take action or wait for a return call.  It also enabled the practitioner to advise a client on when to expect an answer.

As the phone staff person disappeared, each Service employee in compliance field function, Appeals and Counsel received their own phone number.  If you have the number of the Service employee you seek to reach, you then face the unfortunate operation of their voice mail system (unless you possess extreme fortune and get through to the intended party on the first call.)  Since many, if not most, Service employees spend a fair amount of their work days in the field or working from home, getting the employee on the first attempt is the exception rather than the rule.

So, you reach the voice mail message of the employee you with whom you wish to speak.  What will it tell you?  Usually, nothing.  If you have good fortune, it may confirm that you have reached the phone number of the person you seek.  Unlike most large businesses who want callers to know the status of their employees, the Service does not sufficiently value callers to require its employees to leave a meaningful message alerting the caller to the status of its employees.  As a caller who reaches a meaningless voice mail message, you do not know whether you might expect a return call that day, that week, that month, etc.  Chief Counsel’s office provides a refreshing exception to the attitude of the Service.

Through Notice 2011-001, Requirement to Provide Updated Information on Personal Voice Mail and Outlook, someone calling that office has a decent chance of knowing when to expect a return call or a return message.  Chief Counsel employees should update their voice mail message at the beginning of each week and their e-mail message whenever they will not access e-mail for more than one day.  The voice mail message must provide the employee’s name, the date of the message, and a statement about whether the employee will be in the office that week or on a particular day.  If the employee will be out of the office the message should contain an alternate contact name and number.  Deputy Chief Counsel Chris Sterner deserves credit for voice mail rules governing Chief Counsel employees.  I had the pleasure to work with Chris in the Richmond, Virginia office of Chief Counsel back in the 1990s where we adopted a similar rule.

In a world where voice mail provides the only source of information about the employee’s status all Service employees with individual phone numbers which taxpayers and practitioners must call should have the same requirement placed upon Chief Counsel employees.  If the Service cares about its customers, it can make a quick, cheap, effective change from its current practice.  Instead of treating callers to direct lines as something less than customers,  it can follow the lead taken in the notice adopted by Chief Counsel’s office over two years ago.

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