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The ‘customer’ word helps us to put people first, says HMRC

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Use of the term ‘customer’ helps to remind HMRC staff that taxpayers and tax credit claimants deserve ‘the same consideration and attention that those who use commercial services receive’, HMRC told Tax Journal today in response to a new campaign launched by Taxation magazine.

An e-petition calling on the government to ‘stop HMRC calling taxpayers customers’ has attracted more than 280 signatures since Taxation Editor Mike Truman launched the I am not a customer campaign in this week’s issue of the magazine, which is published by Tax Journal’s publisher LexisNexis.

Truman said the term showed ‘no sign of gaining traction’ outside the department’s own documents. The result was a ‘strange schism in which the profession and the department seem to be talking different languages’.

HMRC had offered two reasons for using the term ‘customers’, he wrote. First, ‘taxpayers’ was too narrow a description of the people HMRC dealt with. Truman suggested that there was no reason why HMRC should not address tax credits claimants as ‘claimants’.

The second reason was that use of the term was ‘meant to make HMRC officers adopt a “customer service” mentality. ‘The justification for this was that it was a much-needed change in approach for HMRC staff, and would result in a significantly better level of service for taxpayers and claimants,’ Truman said. ‘It clearly hasn’t, though that may be due in large part to the fact that the department is trying to make do with far fewer staff. However, there is also a fundamental flaw in the concept. HMRC seem to have bought the line from business that what they want to do is provide great service to their customers.’

‘I am not a customer’ – reaction posted on Twitter

Kevin Reed: Can't find fault in Mike Truman's views ... I Am Not A Customer, I Am A Taxpayer.

Jeremy Newman: I am not a customer– great article. Please sign the petition!

Andrew Brooks: I am not a customer.

Ben Saunders: I abhor the use of the term ‘customer service’ by HMRC. It should be ‘public service’ if anything. They are public servants.

David Eckhoff: HMRC uses 'customer'? Like our 'customer-focused' railways??! You really could not make that up.

Businesses made a profit from customers by giving those who paid the most the best levels of service, Truman argued. ‘It is no surprise that in a “customer-centric” HMRC, the one area getting rave reviews is the Large Business Service, with the High Net Worth Unit beginning to garner grudging praise as well. Nor is it any surprise that the average taxpayers (and their advisers) get a process-driven level of service from call centres – they simply are not worth putting more resources into because they don’t produce as much revenue.’

An HMRC spokesperson told Tax Journal that the department had no plans to stop using the term, which underpinned its thinking about ‘how we should relate to the millions of people we serve’.

HMRC would listen to its critics, she added, but ‘we believe the term plays an important part in helping us to take forward our strategy of putting people at the heart of everything we do’.

The e-petition, created by Stuart Herd, had received two signatures when Truman published his article.

‘A customer has to be treated exceptionally well’

Tax Journal put a series to questions to HMRC this morning. HMRC's response is set out below.

Tax Journal: Does HMRC accept that use of the term ‘customer’ is not appropriate?

HMRC: Language is important. We use the term ‘customer’ to underpin our thinking about how we should relate to the millions of people we serve. The word ‘customer’ invites a different provider orientation, with its implication of choice. We know that it is this that irritates our critics but it is exactly this point that needs to be thought about when defining how we connect with people. We must ask ourselves: ‘If this person had a choice would they come back to us?’ If the answer is ‘no’ then we need to address that. We do not want to be the kind of organization that takes people for granted because we can. We think it is inevitable that when you think of someone who comes to you through choice and has to be encouraged back through the quality of service they experience even when this is not literally the case this will feed through into the quality of service you provide. A customer has to be treated exceptionally well and that is what we aspire to. We want to think of the millions of people we serve as deserving of the same consideration and attention that those who use commercial services receive. So no the use of ‘customer’ is not inappropriate.

Tax Journal: Does HMRC intend to continue to use the term?

HMRC: We do.

Tax Journal: Are there any plans to stop using the term, and if so when will the change take place and what terms will be used instead?

HMRC: We think using the term ‘customer’ underlines the fact that the people we serve are entitled to be treated as though they could receive the services they get from us elsewhere. It is right that we have the mind-set of an organization faced with tough competition for the people we deliver our services to.

Tax Journal: Do you have any comment on Mike Truman’s article or the campaign?

HMRC: We always welcome robust debate. The views that Mike’s campaign will generate (and we think there will be many) will contribute to an interesting and important conversation – one to which we are likely to contribute. We know that not everyone likes our use of the term ‘customer’ and we will certainly listen to the views of our critics but we believe the term plays an important part in helping us to take forward our strategy of putting people at the heart of everything we do.