Stop calling us customers! Taxation campaign

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'Taxation' magazine editor Mike Truman has turned crusader by proclaiming his opposition to HMRC's practice of referring to the public as "customers".

Truman wants HMRC to go back a professional civil service model rather than aping business terminology, replacing "customer" with "taxpayer" or "claimant" depending on the person's relationship with HMRC.  

“We are all fully aware that when we deal with HMRC we are not customers at all,” Truman wrote.  "We are not buying anything from them, and we do not have a choice about whether to interact with them.  We cannot, except in certain complicated double taxation scenarios, decide to pay our taxes to the American IRS or to collect our benefits from the French Securité Sociale.  Someone who is being investigated for serious fraud is not a customer of the unit that is carrying out the investigation, nor should they be treated as one. Some might argue that, although inaccurate, the use of the word ‘customer’ by HMRC is unimportant.

"It is important if it makes me wince every time I read it, because it distracts my attention from what follows.  It is also important for the reason given by George Orwell in his seminal essay ‘Politics and the English Language’: ‘the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts’.”

The use of the word customer to describe taxpayers has been growing within the department for the past decade, predating the merger of the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise.  It has is now become a lazy form of shorthand within HMRC, when  (correspondents, contacts, users, members of the public), but if senior management feel an overwhelming desire to say ‘customers’ when talking to each other, it probably doesn’t do too much harm, provided they stop using it when talking to taxpayers, claimants and their advisers.

 “I don’t want HMRC to treat me as a customer.  In fact, I don’t want the focus to be on me at all. I want it to be on them and their staff.  What I want is for my tax affairs to be handled by civil servants, in all senses of that phrase.  What I mean by it most of all is that I want government departments to stop playing at being businesses and to return to the traditional values of the professional civil service.

“While that might carry certain negative connotations of being bureaucratic and pen-pushing, those are outweighed by the positive ones of being independent, professional, fully trained, having great integrity, and providing a public service. Those are the values Dave Hartnett was defending when refusing to breach taxpayer confidentiality under questioning from the Public Accounts Committee; they are not the values of a ‘customer-centric’ organisation, because you only please customers in order to make more money out of them.”

Taxation magazine is running an online petition to press its campaign home. Only 99,700 more signatures are needed to force a parliamentary debate on the subject. Don’t push at the back there!  There should be plenty of bandwidth to accommodate you all.

You can also follow the campaign’s development by monitoring the Twitter hashtag #NotACustomer.

2012 Taxation Awards

Truman launched his anti-customer diatribe on the morning of the Taxation Awards (24 May). For those who couldn’t make it, the winners were:

Big Four tax team PwC R&D Tax Credit Team

Regional tax practice Francis Clark

High net worth team Smith & Williamson

Law firm tax team Olswang

In house team Legal & General Group

National firm tax team Grant Thornton National Employer Solutions

International tax team Grant Thornton

Tax writer John Endacott, Francis Clark

VAT team Ernst & Young Retail Indirect Tax

Rising star Kelly Sizer, CIOT

Single-office practice Creaseys

Technological innovation Low Incomes Tax Reform Group

Consultancy team McKie & Co (Advisory Services)

Investigations team Crowe Clark Whitehill

Tax personality of the year Anthony Thomas, Thomas & Company, Coventry

Lifetime achievement John Andrews, CIOT

John Stokdyk
Editor
AccountingWEB.co.uk
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25th May 2012 14:38

I think that it is often the case ...

... in marketing, that if you commit to selling a lie, it behoves you to ensure that the lie stays bought.  Because being caught out in the lie leaves you placed in a worse position (at least in a marketing context, which is after all the sole purpose of the lie in the first place), than had you never in the first place tried to manipulate public perception.

Calling taxpayers "customers" was just such a lie, and with such transparency that their belief that the public would be hoodwinked by it was an insult to the intelligence of the public.  And I speak as one who holds the collective intelligence of the public in pretty low esteem as it is.

With kind regards

Clint Westwood

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25th May 2012 15:24

HMRC response

Andrew Goodall, over at our sister publication Tax Journal, managed to get some interesting responses from HMRC... They say that imagining taxpayers could choose to go elsewhere for the 'services' HMRC provides, and that they have to be enticed to return by good customer service, will improve quality.

I wonder whether HMRC investigators dealing with fraud think 'hmm, if I give this customer good service, he'll come back again with another fraud next year...!'

Mike Truman

Editor, Taxation magazine

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By trevv69
Euan MacLennan
27th May 2012 15:40

Remember 'Yes Minister'?

Mike Truman wrote:

Andrew Goodall, over at our sister publication Tax Journal, managed to get some interesting responses from HMRC... They say that imagining taxpayers could choose to go elsewhere for the 'services' HMRC provides, and that they have to be enticed to return by good customer service, will improve quality.

I wonder whether HMRC investigators dealing with fraud think 'hmm, if I give this customer good service, he'll come back again with another fraud next year...!'

Mike Truman

Editor, Taxation magazine

Way back in the early episodes - no 1 I think - it was said that the thing to do was to get the difficult thing out in the title, where it does the least harm. Then you don't have to put anything meaningful in the actual paper.

By calling taxpayers "customers", those who haven't bought into the idea can pretend they're doing customer service, but they don't actually have to do it in any meaningful way. Meanwhile those who do believe in it somehow imagine that the sheer power of words will make it work. Meanwhile staff surveys show hideously low staff morale and taxpayers get ever lower levels of REAL service.

How much resource in time and effort goes into enforcing the use of the word "customer" within HMRC? If it's a penny, it's a penny wasted.

The challenge to this campaign is to show why this matters beyond making Mike Truman wince. That using the word "customer" is in fact hiding poor levels of CIVIL service, rather than instilling customer service. Perhaps a starting point would be to insist the next staff survey should ask the staff if they really believe the in the idea or if it could ever work.

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By kjevans
Euan MacLennan
28th May 2012 13:31

Customer Service..?!

So imagining that taxpayers can go elsewhere means that HMRC give better service? So that's why they hang up the employer's help line phone about 30 mins before home time on a Friday after you've been in a phone queue for over 20 mins. If that's good service, I dread to think what bad service is.

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By chatman
Euan MacLennan
29th May 2012 09:59

HMRC Stupid?

Mike Truman wrote:
HMRC ...  say that imagining taxpayers could choose to go elsewhere for the 'services' HMRC provides, and that they have to be enticed to return by good customer service, will improve quality.

Is there any evidence that this strategy has worked? Because there is plenty of evidence that it has not. Wasn't it famously said that stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results?

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By BKD
Mr_awol
29th May 2012 10:17

Stupidity

chatman wrote:

Wasn't it famously said that stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results?

 

:) :) - have a look at my profile!

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By chatman
FRAS
29th May 2012 10:21

Insanity/stupidity

BKD wrote:

chatman wrote:

Wasn't it famously said that stupidity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results?

 

:) :) - have a look at my profile!

I take it back; they're not stupid, they're insane. Apologies to any stupid people I insulted.

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26th May 2012 23:35

Customers ?:

By definition a "customer" has the choice of being able to take his business elsewhere.

HMRC's "customers" have zero choice of supplier and are forced to "purchase" from HMRC.

I would say the most accurate description for them would be VICTIMS.

 

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28th May 2012 09:44

bad customers?

Normally, if you are a bad customer, you won't get a lot of attention and may even be barred from the premises.

However, if you are a "bad" customer of HMRC, you certainly won't be barred, but you will find yourself getting more attention than usual.

HMRC would argue we are "customers" as we are consuming public services.

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28th May 2012 10:18

@TonyKelly

That is the downside of being a civil servant, or being an employee, and I don't just refer to the tax evaders.

If we get an ignorant, loud-mouthed, 'never wrong' client, we can sack them, but HMRC employees cannot. I am sure they find other ways of dealing with them though ;)

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By JOANP
28th May 2012 11:59

Final straw

I worked for them up to five years ago.  The final straw was when they made a big issue out of changing "Post Teams" to "Customer Correspondence Teams".  No change in what the teams did, just lots of paperwork and messages changing the name.

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By ds
28th May 2012 12:23

Orwell was right.....Fascism in any other language...

It seems to have been a general trend in both local and national government to refer to tax payers as customers as well as refer to the various departments as businesses. Indeed my local county council now bristles with a host of unaccountable "Directorates" led by Masons.

This has been the case for a number of years and especially more so with Nu-Liebor in control. This and the "streamlining" of staff numbers (i.e. redundancy), the use of Limited companies for some of the top brass to avoid tax and national insurance and reliance on ever more IT systems and out-sourcing is all leading to the inevitable total privitisation of the civil service and public services, the NHS currently being a good example of this.

As can be seen with the utilities that have been sold off already, the upshot is higher costs to the "customers" and fatter wallets for the directors but with no better "customer service".   

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28th May 2012 13:48

By definition a "customer" has the choice...

Actually I'm not sure that's true, but I'll stand corrected if you point me to a reputable dictionary that defines the word with this particular qualification.  I think it's probably a gloss that commentators put on the word to prove a point.

Anyway, that's just semantics.  Surely the important point is the quality of the customer/taxpayer service.  If that quality is improving, and calling people and companies 'customers' is helping, then a thumbs up is due.

If the quality is declining then things must change, and one thing to consider is reverting to 'taxpayers' (though we might think of examples where that is clearly inappropriate).

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28th May 2012 14:22

customers

The underlying point here is that this government (and the last one) believes that the only real relationship is a financial relationship and that the subject of that relationship - what is actually being done - does not matter (hence rail passengers are "customers" too). So only financial relationships matter and people are most definitely not people but customers, not free men but numbers !

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28th May 2012 17:19

Customer?

The word customer does perhaps influence culture though.

We have seen that HMRC do treat tax evaders as valued potential future customers (not wanting to upset them) rather than criminals.

And that if you owe HMRC money you will be chased vigorously for it.

Perhaps tax is optional as we see in a practical sense and therefore the willing are actually customers?

Although donators to not very good causes might be a better term.

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28th May 2012 22:38

We are cattle.

Would the term "cash cow" be more accurate, after all we are milked for taxes at every opportunity.

 

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By BKD
29th May 2012 09:44

With on or two exceptions ...

... I am in full agreement with Mike's article and the responses above. We, and our clients, are not 'customers' of HMRC by any dictionary definition.

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01st Jun 2012 00:08

It's not actually Taxation magazine's campaign

John Stokdyk mistakenly (but hopefully inadvertently) refers to the online petition as being part of Taxation magazine's campaign. It isn't. Many tax advisers, Mike Truman among them, don't like the term "customer" used where "taxpayer" (or "claimant") is the more natural term.  Mike came across the petition on the e-petition website and has simply drawn readers' attention to it in an article. Yes, it's got a long way to go, but there are now over 600 signatories, so it's clearly struck a chord.

Just a thought - if HMRC are going to insist on calling honest taxpayers "customers", when are they going to start calling those engaging in aggressive tax avoidance "shoplifters", and out-and-out tax evaders "looters"?

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01st Jun 2012 11:44

Correct

We were going to put up a petition on it, but when I did a search this one was already there, although (as I say in the article) it only had two signatures at the time. It seemed to make more sense to get behind the exisitng petition.

The petition was launched by a 'Stuart Herd' - if anyone knows who he is, please let me know. Unlike the old e-petition site the names of signatories are not shown publicly, so he is presumably wondering what on earth is going on...!

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