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H&R Block’s Tax Prep: Allying With IBM Watson, Walmart, And Exploring Voice Search

With over 10,000 branded tax prep locations to manage, H&R Block executives have a "long-form" omnichannel plan to connect with taxpayers.

After one of the most fraught changes in the tax code in three decades, H&R Block has sought to assuage nervous taxpayers with a series of humorous TV spots starring Jon Hamm.

But that’s not all the Kansas City, MO.-based tax prep chain has been doing to ease consumers minds.

To face off against online tax software purveyors as well as local accountants, H&R Block has been working to connect customers to one of its 10,000 branded U.S. locations by building on existing partnerships with IBM Watson, which used artificial intelligence during the 2017 tax season to personalize the tax return process. (H&R Block has 12,000 total global outlets.)

“H&R Block with Watson turns our 600 million data points and 60 years of tax expertise into a personalized tax preparation experience that is accessible and understandable – an experience you won’t get anywhere else,” said Meg Sutton, director, client experience and product management for H&R Block, at the time.

The IBM Watson brand name has appeared along with Hamm in his series of commercials.

But AI is not all H&R Block has in its file folders. Last month, H&R Block struck an exclusive deal with Walmart. The collaboration involves selling H&R Block’s DIY desktop tax software at Walmart stores nationwide and on the retail giant’s website.

Even with intensity of this year’s tax time, H&R Block is also looking to next year and determining how the use of voice search and voice activation might help enhance its existing omnichannel offerings.

In addition to responses from Sutton, we also heard from Amy Hu, VP, interactive marketing and online experience, and Dan Rieger, VP, field operations for H&R Block, on the chain’s marketing programs.

GeoMarketing: When did H&R Block begin working with IBM Watson?

Meg Sutton: We first introduced H&R Block with Watson last year when our tax professionals used the technology to help deliver the best outcome for each unique tax situation, while helping clients better understand how different filing options can impact their tax outcome.

The collaboration between H&R Block and IBM represents the first time Watson was applied to tax preparation, enabling millions of filers to benefit from the industry-leading expertise of H&R Block’s tax professionals, who will now partner with Watson to improve the client experience and aid in identifying credits and deductions.

What is the nature of the collaboration and how does IBM Watson fit into this current campaign?

MS: We have found that clients who come into our offices typically want to be involved in the process to better understand their tax situation and make sure they’re getting every credit and deduction. H&R Block’s tax professionals will now leverage the power of Watson.

By utilizing the leading cognitive computing technology, deep analytics built from over 600 million data points, and a dedicated client monitor, we are creating our most personalized tax experience ever.

H&R Block tax professionals in the office or working remotely with clients are backed by technology to evaluate your situation against the tax code, thousands of yearly tax law changes, and then work with Watson to identify all credits and deductions to find you the best possible outcome.

In terms of the broader use of artificial intelligence technologies, has H&R Block explored the marketing role for voice-activated assistants like Amazon’s Alexa, Okay Google, Siri or others to connect with consumers who either have a quick tax question or want to make an appointment at an H&R Block outlet?

Amy Hu: Discoverability has been essential in attracting potential customers and will continue to grow in importance. We know the “how” of this will change and want to be ready meet consumers with new technologies such as voice search.

Currently, we’re exploring voice search and have our eye on other voice technologies for the future.

Separately, on the Walmart partnership, is this the first time H&R Block has struck an exclusive deal with a retailer to sell its software or other products?

MS: Yes.

We’ve noticed that some big box stores have often engaged banks to have a physical “store within a store.” Will H&R Block also have tax preparers physically setting up shop within Walmart (or other non-related brick-and-mortar locations?)?

Dan Rieger: Every year we assess where our clients want to be served and adapt to their needs. As a part of that strategy, we currently have physical locations inside some large retailers, businesses, grocery stores and military bases. We also have an H&R Block branded retail office located within five miles of 95 percent of Americans – covering all demographics and income levels.

About The Author
David Kaplan David Kaplan @davidakaplan

A New York City-based journalist for over 20 years, David Kaplan is managing editor of GeoMarketing.com. A former editor and reporter at AdExchanger, paidContent, Adweek and MediaPost.