Staying in touch with the ATO (it’s good for business!)

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Just the other day, I was thinking about the best ways to communicate with a large bureaucracy such as the Australian Tax Office (ATO) when my phone started vibrating. I reached into my pocket and was surprised to see it was the ATO texting.

This year, my relationship with the ATO went deeper. The text arrived conveniently during my lunch hour. It was a nice, helpful text message telling me that new pre-fill information was available for my e-tax. To end our texting relationship, I simply needed to reply STOP. To report SMS scams I should contact 13 28 61.

Since I’m an accountant, I do my tax return the old fashioned way — myself. This keeps me up to speed with the customer experience of individuals working with the ATO. I must say I have been impressed by the timeliness and usefulness of the micro-messages from the tax collector. Even the inclusion of the “SMS scams” number is helpful.

It’s good to stay in touch with the ATO. It also helps keep you updated on the latest changes, deadlines and news. My relationship with the ATO started when I was a wobbly teenager in the 1980s. I’m sure we will keep in contact for sixty or seventy years.

  • Paper

This is how it all began, and it is how die-hard traditionalists will continue their relationship. In some cases, you may be forced to communicate in this manner still, as certain areas of the ATO lag behind others. For example, if you own an incorporated small business, you are still forced to print off a paper return and complete in handwriting. Perhaps the ATO just wants all company returns done via tax agents?

  • Rotary dial phones

These types of phones were popular before the turn of the century. You used to be able to call the ATO and talk to the local office and even speak to the same person each time. Those days are gone for most of us.

  • Face-to-face

Some people used to walk into a tax office and pay a cashier or see someone from the ATO for an appointment. This is still possible today, particularly if you are having relationship problems, for instance, if you are having trouble paying your debt or can’t cope with the paperwork deadlines. There are still certain places you can meet and talk about your issues.

Like any relationship, it shows you made an effort and take the relationship seriously. You may need to make an appointment, but always be prepared, kind and courteous. After all, you are probably there because of an error or omission on your part. It’s always better if you contact them first. It’s not a good sign for your relationship if the ATO asks to meet you face to face.

  • Email & mobile 

Don’t be afraid to give your email address to the ATO. If you are traveling or on the go, email can be particularly helpful. I have received emails from the ATO that kept me informed and served as helpful reminders.

And why not share your mobile phone number? The benefits of all the new technology will then combine with the freedom of mobility. With accounting records in the cloud, ATO texts, access to the web and AusKey-enabled access, you really are developing a perfect relationship: You can get what want, when you want, how you like it.

  • Texting (SMS)

Yes, I said the ATO was helpful, and not just in your personal tax relationship. The ATO has been texting me helpful small business reminders. I appreciate that, though it is only a one-way conversation.

ATO SMS

Credit: Andrew McIntosh

  • World Wide Web

The Internet revolutionized our relationship and continues to do so. For personal tax matters, the ATO helps me by pre-populating my forms and makes a wealth of information — even videos — available and searchable. I don’t need to phone, text or email. Gone are the days of another mass bureaucracy, Australia Post, delivering paper “Tax Packs” to your very own home mailbox! Very efficient!

If you do your own Business Activity Statements (BAS), an AusKey can get you access to lodge your BAS electronically and gives you the ability to see the debits and credits hitting the ATO accounts. Sometimes your payments for income tax get confused with BAS payments or other mix ups occur — if you and the ATO can both see the same information, your conversations will go a lot more smoothly.

  • Social media

Don’t under estimate social media. YouTube is a form of social media and is one of the most used tools for searching. If you have not connected to the ATO and follow them on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube or the channel of your choice, you are really missing the next revolution in your relationship with the ATO. You can often get a quicker answer to general questions through a Facebook channel than you can other methods. Be careful though: never give private information over social media.

  • Biometrics

I never thought the ATO would use biometrics when communicating with me, but this is perhaps one of the more interesting and beneficial ways the ATO is improving its relationship with all of us. Have you telephoned the ATO recently? The future is here, as the ATO has introduced a voice identification system that asks you to make a statement that is recorded and then analysed. Unique characteristics of my voice can then be used to identify me and get on with the business at hand.

The biometric relationship I have with the ATO has benefits that will save me time and money, but launched with little fanfare, I do see people eventually questioning such a relationship.

Where does the limit of our privacy to the relationship begin and end? Does the ATO really need a biometric blue print of my voice? I prefer to look on the positive side and run with the time saving benefit of my ever-evolving relationship with the ATO, as we move beyond texting.

Stay on the good side of the ATO

People often make the mistake of thinking they are talking to the Australia Tax Office (ATO), when, in fact, they are speaking with a person — an employee of the ATO, which includes mums, dads, daughters and sons. We often forget this, and a job at the ATO — on the government payroll — can be tough.

Don’t turn feral. Maintain common standards of good communication:

  • Be polite and respectful (not feral)
  • Be on time for lodgments and payments (so you don’t get fined)
  • Don’t ignore the ATO
  • Be accurate and truthful (of course)
  • Pick the right medium or channel, such as via phone, letter, etc.
  • Quote an issue number or reference number, and your tax file number or ABN
  • Remember the ATO can make mistakes also
  • Seek independent professional advice as needed
  • Keep copies of all correspondence and notes of discussions