You may recall that six million people have – through no fault of their own – paid the wrong amount of tax over the last few years, thanks to a blunder at HM Revenue & Customs (HMRC).
The story dominated the column inches last month, in part because of the way HMRC so unceremoniously delivered this bombshell to its customers (in the form of a standard tax calculation letter) and in part because of the backlash that followed from taxpayers.
Arguably some of the controversy could have been avoided through a large dose of subtlety and a more customer-centred approach from HMRC. And if it had actually taken into account how its customers might receive the news (particularly if you were one of the 1.4 million poor souls who had underpaid).
HMRC was never going to make friends in this situation, but equally it didn’t have to make enemies. The tone of its letter was on the clinical side at best and unapologetic at worst.
Here’s an extract to give you a flavour:
Dear taxpayer [Name]
I have reviewed your income tax liability for the year shown above to see whether you have underpaid or overpaid tax for that year.
My calculation is given on the enclosed sheet. The calculation result is given near the foot of that page.
The ‘See Notes’ column refers to the numbered notes in the guidance leaflet ‘Understanding your tax calculation’ which I also enclose.
A copy of this calculation has been sent to [Agent name].
Part of this underpayment is already being collected through your tax code during [year] and the rest will be collected during [year–year] …
(Source: BBC News)
Keeping letter writing customer-centred is always important, but probably never more so than when giving bad news. The last thing you want is to exacerbate the situation by not only delivering a blow, but by also sounding like a robot as you do so.
To avoid this, try the SCRAP (Situation, Complication, Resolution, Action, Politeness) formula.
Begin by explaining the situation (or ‘where they [your readers] are’). By doing this, your readers will realise you understand and empathise with them.
In the case of HMRC, this could have involved briefly summing up (and owning up to) mistakes in the PAYE system, and suggesting it was at least aware of the worry this might cause to its customers.
As you may be aware, HMRC has recently found that some taxpayers have paid the wrong amount of tax through the PAYE system over the last two years. We understand that many people will now be concerned about how this may affect them.
Introduce the idea that there’s a problem readers need to solve or a request they need to fulfil (‘why they can’t stay there’).
Here, of course, this will be the money taxpayers owe (or are due). It would also be wise to reinforce this with an apology.
I’m very sorry to tell you that you have been undercharged by £X for the year X–X, as the enclosed calculation shows.
State your resolution to the problem or request. Your readers may well be relieved that you’re offering a ready-made way of fixing things.
(In the case of HMRC, such a sense of relief would unfortunately elude those taxpayers suddenly finding themselves seriously out of pocket.)
We are now in the process of collecting underpayments. For those who have underpaid by less than £2000, like you, we will do this by altering your tax code to reclaim the money in monthly instalments over the next X year[s].
We would also like to assure you that from now on, we will be using a new computer system that will minimise the risk of such a mistake happening again.
Suggest what action the reader can or should take. In some cases, this will be what further action you, the writer, are going to take. Make sure that this follows on logically from the resolution.
HMRC has been criticised for not being entirely open about taxpayers’ possible rights to appeal. If these were made clear at this point, it might avoid being bombarded with letters of appeal sent on the off-chance.
You don’t need to do anything at this point: your new tax code will be applied automatically. The additional tax taken each month will be £X.
If, however, you feel that you provided all the necessary information for us to tax you correctly, you may be entitled to appeal. Please see the enclosed leaflet for details on whether this applies to you and how to contact us.
Finally, end with a polite sign-off. And, in this example, a second apology.
I hope you understand why we need to take this corrective action. Once again, I’m sorry for the effect that our mistake may have on your financial situation.
Apologise like a human
No-one likes to admit they’ve made a mistake, but owning up when it’s justified will always have a better reception from your reader than trying to wriggle out of it. And, while ‘I apologise’ is better than nothing, ‘I’m sorry’ is much better: it sounds more sincere – and more personal.
The language of ‘we apologise for any inconvenience caused’ has been dubbed ‘professionalese’ by Daniel H Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Pink advises avoiding the phrase entirely, because it makes the author seem like they’re distancing themselves from the mistake. ‘We speak human at home and “professionalese” at work,’ he explains. ‘And that might be hurting our businesses more than we realise.’
In childhood we’re often told to say we’re sorry and mean it. And it seems that remains the best advice at every level. In his book The Upside of Irrationality, Dan Ariely found that a simple ‘I’m sorry’, uttered following a mistake, stopped the other person from getting annoyed and retaliating in some way. Say, for example, refusing to pay back tax.
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