Doing your taxes is a very personal experience.
By: Wasan Tita/Shutterstock.com
Who knows you best?
- Your doctor?
- Your personal trainer?
- Your tax advisor?
The answer will vary. But for many of us, the person who prepares our taxes knows more about the details of our lives than anyone other than our family. They know how much we earn, how much we save (or don’t), how much we spend (and on what), how much we donate (and to whom).
People have complicated relationships with money, and your tax advisor sits with you (metaphorically, virtually, and sometimes literally) right in the middle of all of that complication. Your anxiety, your bravado, your generosity … all are on display in the financial moves you make throughout the year – moves that get documented in your tax return.
This puts a business like H&R Block in an interesting position related to the discussions I’ve been having with C-level leaders about the tension we’re all feeling as our society transitions from an age of standardization (when people did what they were told to do inside the box they were given) to our current age of personalization (when it’s becoming less and less efficient to have boxes at all). Doing your taxes is a very personal experience.
Recently, I had a conversation with these H&R Block leaders:
- Karen Orosco, Senior Vice President, U.S. Retail
- Vinoo Vijay, Chief Marketing Officer
- Tiffany Scalzitti Monroe, Chief People Officer
As I’m writing this, the U.S. tax season has just been postponed three months in response to the COVID-19 crisis that is still unfolding. Our conversation took place in mid-February, before the coronavirus changed everything seemingly overnight.
The future might be a bit murky at the moment for everyone around the world, but the topics we discussed are more relevant than ever.
Most people feel some vulnerability when it comes to their finances, even without a global pandemic. Many people feel isolated from their communities, even before mandatory social distancing.
Corporate America has been struggling for years with how to keep up with changes that, while beneficial in many ways (think advanced technology and increased efficiencies), leave individuals struggling to find their place in a world where their familiar “place” no longer exists, and the new “places” don’t welcome them.
Organizations respond to this overwhelming pace of change with big investments in technology, big investments in diversity and inclusion, big investments in change management. They respond with initiatives to react to each particular problem or situation. Each of those responses may be well-intentioned and may create some positive impact that justifies its existence. But in the end, those piecemeal approaches don’t address that vulnerability and isolation that people feel. Why? Because ultimately they’re still pushing standardization in a world that has evolved to personalization.
I’ve written extensively about the shifts that are necessary:
When we turn diversity into inclusion, we stop being tribal and start seeing each other as human. When we shift focus from brand identity to individual identities, we invigorate our shared missions by elevating individual contribution. When our individual capacity is stifled, we stagnate. But when we loosen our grip on results and activate methods for leading in a way that honors our Age of Personalization, we become healthy. And when we’re healthy, we grow.
In crisis, we need to be able to identify these shifts in action. As my conversation with the H&R Block leaders unfolded, I could tell that whether or not they used the same language as I do, they are living these shifts in the way they think about their business, their clients and their network of tax professionals.
‘Strategic Intentionality’ to Best Serve the Individual
As we see what’s playing out in real time right now, H&R Block is an organization that must be able to adapt to a lot of change. Tax preparers have to be good at taking something complicated and standardized (the tax code) and delivering a highly personalized experience and product (an individual’s tax return).
In 2019, H&R Block prepared 23 million tax returns worldwide, including 1 in 7 U.S. tax returns. In addition, 8 million H&R Block online clients prepared returns through the company’s digital products. H&R Block serves taxpayers with 80,000 highly trained tax professionals worldwide. H&R Block supports consumers with all the ways to file taxes – in offices, online and through virtual tax prep.
How do you find a balance between the standardization required to deliver consistency and the personalization necessary to deliver quality to earn one’s trust?
Orosco, Vijay and Scalzitti Monroe all put the emphasis on “strategic intentionality” to best serve the individual.
Personalization at the Consumer Level – Company and Franchise
Karen Orosco, Senior Vice President, U.S. Retail, described the challenges that are familiar to any retailer with such a broad footprint.
“We know our clients expect a consistently great experience if they’re in Kansas City one year and Detroit the next year,” said Orosco. “At the same time, they expect the experience to be personalized to them. They don’t want to get the exact same tax experience as the person who walks in the door behind them, because they know their tax situation is unique. So, for us the question is: how do we bring that personalization to bear and do it in a way that’s consistently great and operationally excellent?”
And how do you accomplish that when you have 80,000 tax professionals across the country, some company-owned and some franchise tax professionals? How do you deliver a consistently great experience in a highly personalized way?
While there is certainly a role for technology – and H&R Block offers a mix of in-person, online and virtual options – the leaders all agreed that the personalization of the future is grounded in what they called the “human advantage.”
“Conversations between tax professionals and clients ebb and flow at the speed and at the level of detail that the client prefers,” said Orosco. “Some clients want to get to the punch line as fast as possible: how much do I owe or how much am I getting back? Other clients want to know exactly how it works. What’s happening in my tax situation? Tax professionals are amazingly skilled at being able to personalize the experience, so the client gets what they want out of that experience. And that’s truly about the human advantage. You can’t solve that personalization exclusively with technology.”
How Individuals Contribute to the Company Mission
Vinoo Vijay, Chief Marketing Officer, explained what they mean by the “human advantage,” and how that concept has helped them define how they want individuals to be able to contribute to the company mission – and also how they want the company to contribute to the communities they serve.
“If 12 million people each spend an hour with our tax professionals talking about their taxes every year, just imagine the amount of hours that we’re engaging with clients,” said Vijay. “Online, there are 8.5 million clients who show up on our online space and never actually see a human being, but they’re still engaging in a very deep way with our online product.”
That’s a level of individuality that is built into the products and services they offer. But it takes an intentional approach to recognize the value of that individuality and turn it into something that moves the entire organization toward those personalization shifts mentioned above.
“We believe we can help inspire confidence in clients and communities everywhere,” said Vijay. “We’re deliberately using those words, because we think that helping others and inspiring confidence in communities everywhere is the higher purpose that we are able to deliver, given what we do and our scale. We have 10,000 offices across the country, in almost every main street in America. We have 80,000 tax professionals who are deeply embedded in those communities. We are as much a fabric of the country as any company out there. And so that obligation to help and inspire confidence is something that we take really, really seriously.”
How the Company Contributes to Its Communities
Every part of life shows up in the tax return.
“We jokingly say that our clients tell their tax professional more than they tell their doctor or their priest, because every part of their life is actually manifested in their tax return,” said Orosco.
At a time when many people are experiencing increased isolation (and this was BEFORE we all started literally isolating ourselves), H&R Block announced its commitment to build sustainable connections in neighborhoods and for small business owners through its new community impact program called Make Every Block Better.
“According to Pew Research, only 31% of Americans say they know their neighbor,” said Vijay. “And worse, people who are socially isolated have a 30% higher risk of death in the next seven years. So when we think about helping inspire confidence in clients and communities everywhere, and we know that what our clients and communities are going through is social isolation – we see an opportunity to help, because we have these connections in our communities and an intimate relationship with our clients.”
As part of its commitment to Make Every Block Better, H&R Block plans to support neighborhood revitalization efforts with Habitat for Humanity, partner with the Kauffman Foundation to better understand the importance and benefits of better-connected new and small business owners and their impact on communities, encourage its associates to volunteer in ways that help form connections within communities and improves the spaces where neighbors can come together, among other activities.
The Right People to Deliver on the Promise
Getting clear on your purpose as an organization is something good leaders can and must do. But actually living that purpose throughout the organization is something that can only be done by the individuals who make up that organization at every level. It depends on people – and on giving people the freedom to contribute to that purpose in their own way.
How do you get the right people to deliver on the promise? As Chief People Officer, Tiffany Scalzitti Monroe plays a pivotal role in that.
“It’s more about a connected culture, connected leadership in the sense that every person brings something to the table that no one else has,” said Scalzitti Monroe. “Each person is an expert in their area. But together, you create these bigger aspirations and these bigger achievements. For us, it really is not about fitting people into a box, it really is about understanding what’s uniquely you, what talent do you uniquely have, and how can we maximize that for the whole?”
This is where several of those shifts come into play in an overlapping way. To create a connected culture that allows people to bring their individual expertise to the mix – you have to create a system that enables that kind of individual contribution. No matter what you’re trying to achieve, you need people at their fullest capacities connecting with and elevating each other as they individually and collectively contribute to a shared mission.
“We really have to focus on that unique skill that you might bring to the table regardless of how you got that skill,” said Scalzitti Monroe. “And how can we utilize that to the best of our advantage? We want everyone here to be able to use their talent. We want everyone here to feel safe, have that deep sense of belonging. We want a culture where people feel empowered and envision a company where every voice is heard.”
Knowing Your People On a Deeper Level
Another challenge that many organizations face as they try to manage the balance between standardization and personalization is this – the same expertise and experience that gives someone valuable deep knowledge of a subject, can also make people less inclined to challenge the standards that have worked for them in the past.
“Specific to our retail business – our tax professionals have an average of 12 years of experience at Block, and they’re deeply credentialed and deeply knowledgeable,” said Orosco. “Our business relies on that expertise. In order to create a personal experience at the tax desk with a client, it requires the tax professional to have a deep amount of tax knowledge and a deep amount of experience – so they’ve seen situations and scenarios and they know the best ways to help the client navigate them.”
Orosco acknowledged the challenge that comes with that: “When you’re deeply experienced and credentialed in doing it one way, it can be harder to change. As a business we have to change fast. Clients want to be served anywhere, anytime, by that same tax professional they already know and trust. So what we’ve been studying more deeply is understanding our tax professionals in a very personal way.”
Orosco said they conducted a nine-month deep study to understand their tax pros – hosting panels in five cities, surveying nearly 2,000, and conducting in-home interviews with many.
“They all have the same title or role, but they’re all uniquely different,” said Orosco. “We wanted to understand who they are as people, what motivates them, why they do what they do, and how they bring their unique skills, talents and perspective to their work and to their clients. It was extremely moving to be a part of this experience in getting to know people more deeply.”
They learned that their tax professionals feel a sense of belonging to something that is stable. It may seem odd to call it stable, when tax preparation is a seasonal job.
“We were in the home of a tax professional in the Chicago area in December,” said Orosco. “She told us she was in the middle of cooking for the Christmas party at her H&R Block office. For her it was a family reunion. It’s December, the tax season is getting ready to start, and they all were getting together. The stability of every year being part of the Block family and seeing the faces of her clients and her clients’ children and being connected to that, was personally what was motivating for her.”
Vijay pointed out what the opposite can look like, from his own experience. “When I worked for a different company, we wore a badge with the name of the company on it. When I went shopping, I would take the badge off, because I worked there but I didn’t belong there. I didn’t want to make that my identity. How much of our identity do our employees embrace? How much of the brand’s identity do our employees embrace? How proud are they of being a part of this family? And that’s the part that I think is our strength.”
Scalzitti Monroe said their in-depth study revealed the deep need for connection – and how, if your people are truly connecting with each other and with their clients and communities, that’s how to keep up with the changes in the marketplace.
“If you are on every Block, and if you are genuinely connecting, then you are aware of the demographic shifts,” said Scalzitti Monroe. “You’re aware of how the world is working, and what we’re trying to do is say we’re in this with you, it’s not happening to you. And we want you to be a part of the greater Block, whether you are a client, whether you are a possible associate, a current associate. But it really is about that human connection that we specifically bring, that is very unique.”
That’s the key: human connection. H&R Block is deepening those connections with intention.
That’s why leading in a way that honors our age of personalization can be so powerful. It’s the only way to keep up with changes that happen faster and faster.
As we have all experienced in the past few weeks, there’s no way to anticipate everything in the future. We can’t be ready for all possibilities. But we can be ready to be ready.
If we create systems that reinforce human connection, both inside and outside our organizations, that’s a great start. That’s what happens when you build high performance leaders, teams, cultures and communities focused on inclusion and the power of individuality.
Learn more at www.ageofpersonalization.com