H&R Block bets on customer service for turnaround

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Tax-preparation firm H&R Block is boosting customer retention with a long-term strategy to return its focus to client service, the company's western region president told the audience at a Forrester customer conference in New York on June 30.

Sabrina Wiewel, president of H&R Block in the West, noted that at some point customers had stopped enjoying their experience at H&R Block. Internal research showed top complaints included a lack of customer service, including long wait times and rudeness. Wiewel said this happened as the company “lost sight of its core competency” of tax preparation and entered new areas like mortgages, while simultaneously cost-cutting in the wrong areas. The company has since exited several businesses, including its brokerage and mortgage units.

“What we did was we began to dilute the client experience,” she said to the audience at the Forrester Customer Experience Forum. “We cut non-revenue earning personnel (the receptionist). We cut coffee in the waiting room. We didn't pay attention. Client satisfaction rates declined. People stopped coming in.”

So while the company had 98% brand awareness, according to internal data, only 17% of those would consider coming into an H&R Block, she continued. To reverse that trend, the company began a strategy to invest in four main categories: Customers' first and last impression of H&R Block (this meant bringing the receptionist back); price value; brand proposition; and personalization.

Part of this change included an "aggressive" activation of social media channels, such as a Facebook and Twitter feed, and an iPhone app. In addition, H&R Block wants to make better use of the data it already has on customers, Wiewel said.

“We believe aggregating the data … is part of our job,” she said. “We want to integrate what we know about you to offer personalized plans throughout the year.”

“It took us a while to get here,” she continued. “We haven't solved everything, but we feel we're on the right path.”

Just last week, the company released its fiscal year 2010 earnings, reporting a 5.1% decline in revenue from the prior year, to $3.9 billion. Its CEO, Russell Smyth, blamed the performance in part on the country's record levels of unemployment that led to an overall decrease in returns filed. The company had an overall 6.1% decline in retail returns prepared for FY 2010. It noted that the industry-wide returns to the IRS in the 2010 tax season fell 1.7%.

Still, Wiewel said the company prevented 400,000 people from walking out the door this year, where in the past, two million did so.

Wiewel, who has worked in various roles at H&R Block since 1999, including president of digital tax services, now oversees an area encompassing 19 states. Prior to her most recent promotion, Wiewel was chief tax network officer, overseeing client experience, employee training and integration.

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