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Mind Your Language

HMRC Letters Make You Anxious

Nobody likes receiving a letter from HMRC but the tone of their letters can influence the way we react to the department. Research, carried out two years ago but only just published, was commissioned by HMRC as it sought to improve its interactions with taxpayers both in terms of experience and efficiency.

Self-Assessment letters are sent out to taxpayers by HMRC employees from a set of standard paragraphs that have been approved for their tone and content. However, HMRC wanted to gauge individual’s responses to revised text for potential use in future letters, to make sure that correspondence is easy to read, understand and provoke good co-operation.

The research sought to explore individuals’ responses to letters in terms of their content and design, and considered clarity of understanding, areas of difficulty, and highlight where further information or clarification is needed. For some letters, the focus was on the likely behavioural outcomes for the recipients.

Those taking part in the study were selected from a range of sectors but all had experience of Self-Assessment. Groups were asked to look at one draft letter and its alternative, falling in the following categories:

  • Employment expenses
  • Estimated and provisional figures
  • Bank interest
  • Student loan repayments

Main findings

It’s stressful dealing with HMRC

We all know what the Revenue’s function is in life, so when a person receives a letter from HMRC they are often stressed at the prospect of unwelcomed news, or anxious that they may have done something wrong. They may themselves had suffered penalties in the past, or know others who have. Dealing with HMRC can be perceived as frightening and there is a fear that non-specialists are at risk of being ‘caught out’ when they engage with the department. Whilst for many this anxiety means they look to respond to HMRC communications immediately, research participants suggested that the tone of HMRC correspondence needs to encourage the two parties to work together, as well as being authoritative to minimise the risk of some simply ‘tuning out’ the letter.

Letters appear generic

Whilst letters may contain specific taxpayer information, many believed the letters gave the impression of being generic, sent from HMRC corporately to a large number of individuals. This made some people feel that the letters may not relate directly to their own situation, or that they are not sent by an individual who is familiar with their circumstances, and may reduce the sense that they need to respond to the letter. Introducing the sender of the letter, using pronouns like ‘I’ consistently, including a direct dial line and a personalised sign-off may all help to counter this impression.

Get to the point

Whilst the opening section of the letter summarises HMRC’s reason for writing to a taxpayer, some felt that it took too long to ‘get to the point’. This is a problem if HMRC wishes to ensure that the letters grab the person’s attention immediately. Across all of the letters, people wanted to see the desired action point for the taxpayer clearly set out at the top of the letter and a warning of potential consequences of non-response. However, this could also cause extra anxiety for some, so it was felt that there should be a reassurance that HMRC is there to help.

Reluctance to call HMRC

Many of the research participants had called HMRC’s contact centre in the past and, for many, it was not a positive experience because of long waits, being passed around from pillar to post, and not being properly advised. Such experiences have put people off calling phone numbers displayed on letters, in particularly enquiry letters. It was not at all obvious to people that the number was staffed by a small, dedicated team familiar with their case, rather than a contact centre as for the general enquiries line. This therefore needs to be clearly stated along with the fact that the 03000 number format is a local rate number.

Less is more

There was a general preference for shorter letters. Dense paragraphs of text also cause confusion and these are particularly off-putting to people with a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, those with English as a second language or those with sight impairment. Most people preferred bulleted lists to convey information and the use of white space to allow the content of the letter to be taken in at a glance.

Legalistic language

While, for the most part, the language of the letters was considered straightforward and comprehensible, some contained examples of what people considered ‘legalese’. This included the use of words such as ‘incurred’, ‘statutory’, ‘dispensation’, ‘substantive’, ‘indicator’ and ‘compliance check’. Participants said that letters should ideally be written in simple English, free of specialist terminology and, where possible, examples should be given to illustrate the application of the rules described.

The full report can downloaded below.

Letter Testing with HMRC Self-Assessment Customers (PDF)

By Andy Vessey

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2 thoughts on “Mind Your Language”

  1. NigelR

    Dealing with HMRC has been a major component in deciding to wind up my company. I did nothing wrong, not once, and yet their letters spoke of seizing my goods, funds, and dire consequences of what could happen if I didn’t do exactly what their computer-generated letters stated. I was doing quite well, and had a good accountant, but in the end it was all a bit too much. I used to dread the letter box rattling.

  2. NicolaA

    I find HMRC letters very stressful because they are so threatening. And then they don’t give you the detail.
    So they say “pay the amount above” but there is no amount above. Or tell me to use my 17-character reference number “which you’ll find on the attached payslip” and there is no attached payslip.

    And when you phone them up, they are very stern rather than being helpful. I can’t pay them if I don’t know how much to pay them or what the reference number is!

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