Getting More Revenue: UK's HM Revenue & Customs Case Study

At this year’s UK digital communications event, “Reaching More People: Transforming Public Service Delivery with Collaborative Communications”, staff from HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), the UK's tax authority (think IRS for the UK), spoke about their agency’s efforts to reach more people in a more effective way in their presentation, “Central Government Success Story: HMRC”.

Oliver McGuire, SME Education Strategy Manager at HMRC, started out the presentation by summarising a recent report by Martha Lane-Fox, the former U.K. Digital Champion, which called for a radical change in government digital communications and concluded that “digital channels needed to be agile, open, and cheaper”. The report also stated that agencies had previously been guilty of putting policies and procedures ahead of user needs, and that if they wanted to take advantage of the new digital shift, they would need to put the user at the heart of their digital designs. In response to this report, Oliver explained, government departments are now “striving to create digital services that are so convenient, straight-forward, and attractive, that anyone can use them and will choose to use them ahead of any other traditional means”.

For HMRC, that meant translating these conclusions into something operational for their departments. Though the agency already had a customer-centric business and design model, the Martha Lane-Fox report reemphasized the need to consider the user at all times, and they realised that big changes needed to take place. HMRC’s primary function as an organisation is to provide service and support to 4.9 million people to make sure they get their taxes done correctly and on time. Their secondary function is to support their citizens’ transition to digital communications. There are a large number of customers who would like to take advantage of HMRC’s online services, but don’t have the confidence to try. HMRC’s goal is to help people find that confidence by providing them with webinars, live presentations, instructional YouTube videos, mobile apps, downloadable content, and other informational materials. Email plays an important role in directing customers to those products.

“When we first started doing educational work in 2010 our approach wasn’t very targeted,” Oliver said. “More recently, we’ve started to move towards trying to understand our customers better. With that info, we can tailor our education approach to make sure they get the right messages, the right support, and the right push at the right time. This was the period when our use of the GovDelivery email system became a key tool”.

Despite the strides HMRC has made, Oliver noted that they still want to get better in terms of understanding their customers and providing them with what they need and when they need it; learning to integrate their communications approach much more closely with the customer experience. This desire boiled down to four main objectives, as Oliver explained: “One, attracting customers by providing services they will actually use. Two, enabling customers and giving them the skills confidence, and ability to self-serve using the HMRC transactional service on their own. Three, promoting our service, making sure they’re aware of it and wanting to use it. Four, supporting those that are less able, so no one gets left behind in the digital shift”.

After explaining HMRC’s four main objectives, Oliver handed the stage over to Mike Brook, Senior SME Education Strategy Analyst, who provided some real-life examples to illustrate HMRC’s efforts in this area.

Mike started out his section of the presentation with a critical distinction: “Our target to reach 718,000 customers in the current year may sound quite ambitious. But with GovDelivery we’ve actually already reached more than that. However, reaching customers and impacting customers are two different things”.

Mike then went to explain how HMRC views emails as signposts directing people to help on the website. Their email messages don’t give technical information and are not tailored to the individual. Recently, after conducting research that showed that the comprehension level of their customers’ was actually much lower than they had thought, the organisation realised they needed to reevaluate their communication strategy. “It came as a shock to our department, who has always addressed people in very legalistic terms and very paternalistic terms”, Mike explained. “Now when we write to them it’s with a very different tone of voice. Instead of saying ‘if you don’t do this we’ll fine you’. We’ll say something like ‘don’t waste your money on a fine’. It’s a very different kind of relationship”.

HMRC’s emails now have on average a 37% open rate with a 10% click-through rate. They’ve also found that some customers even save and store the information in the email to read later on. They currently use an opt-out system, subscribing anyone who signs into the website for the email alerts and allowing them to easily opt-out. Impressively, they’ve only had a 1% opt-out rate with no registered complaints so far.

Though HMRC still has improvements it would like to make and additional objectives it would like to explore, their success with their email system has been encouraging so far.

To learn more about HMRC’s story, view the full presentation here.

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