Liberty Tax CEO Brent Turner
The 2020 tax season was like no other. But Liberty Tax Chief Executive Officer Brent Turner said his company was able to weather the storm by innovating and remaining nimble. The company, which provides income tax consultancy services, created a secure online portal and expanded hours to allow for better in-store social distancing, among other things.
In an interview with Exec Edge, Mr. Turner said remaining flexible has gotten his company through the Covid-19 pandemic and helped focus the company for 2021 and beyond. The full interview is below:
Exec Edge: What’s your vision for turning what was essentially a three-month a year business into a 12-month a year business?
One of the first things I recognized when I joined Liberty Tax as CEO a little more than a year ago was an opportunity that would set us apart from the competition – to offer a suite of products and services to our core user that would create an engagement with us throughout the entire year. This would make us more valuable to them and at the same time create a more valuable customer. It didn’t take me long to see the enormous trust that our customers have in us. Remember, as a customer, the tax preparation process is one of the most intimate transactions you can complete with a third party. Executing properly on that requirement provides us the opportunity to offer our customers an expanded suite of financial products that are well suited to their needs. Doing so also elongates our business relationships with them. It quickly became clear that as soon as we could expand the menu of our offerings, and do it reasonably from a cost perspective, that our customers would choose us over others. Paired with the fact that we already have their financial information, and have proven that we are good stewards of it, the multiple opportunities were readily apparent. Today, the portfolio we offer is broad and includes tax planning, tax resolution, debt settlement, credit repair, consumer loans and lending, as well as bookkeeping and payroll services.
Exec Edge: To execute on that plan, what internal and external challenges needed to be overcome – especially in the context of Covid-19?
Even without the turbulence of Covid-19 and the resulting stay at home orders, implementing such systemic change would have been tough. But we pivoted quickly to meet these new demands. For example, it took us just seven days to build and launch a secure virtual contactless delivery system for customers to get us their financial information so that we could prepare their taxes. This quick change enabled us to redeploy our paid tax preparer capability in such a way that our customers knew we had their backs. As it turned out, we processed quite a number of virtual returns via this channel and it clearly helped keep many of our franchisees in business. Broadly, our ongoing focus is on continuing to innovate how we deliver these products and services to our customers across all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and in Canada, while automating as much of the process as possible to make it user friendly at the retail level. The key to this entire initiative is that our franchisees have the flexibility to offer as many, or as few, of these products and services as they want to. They are opportunities for franchisees who want to increase their success and revenue, not corporate mandates.
Exec Edge: Everything is moving toward technology. How are you positioning the company re: the trend toward online tax prep and tax software? What’s the Liberty Tax answer/solution?
Actually, there is a little bit of myth in this assumption. In fact, the 42% of people who complete their tax returns online has held steady for the last decade. In our experience, we find that customers crave choice and that’s exactly what we offer them. While we have an online offering where the consumer is their own preparer, the feedback we have tells us that a great many individuals do not want to do their own taxes because they don’t feel that they understand the law well enough to get the maximum refund to which they are entitled. To help work through this process, this year we’re rolling out the capability for a customer to start online as his/her own preparer, and then if they get stuck, to have the option to transfer the return, and all the work that’s already been done, to the nearest Liberty Tax location and partner with one of our team to complete it. Naturally, we’re keeping an eye on the choice of channels – and for us that’s in-person, sharing information with us via secure mobile connection, or completely online – that our customers use so that we can make it easy and seamless for them to engage with us. We’re proud of our well-defined system of continuous training for our professionals to help ensure that they are armed with the latest information about the tax code, and we know that is one of the attributes that our customers appreciate the most about working with Liberty Tax.
Exec Edge: How are you going to differentiate the company from the competition?
We differentiate ourselves in several important areas. First, the number of platforms and channels that we offer. There isn’t a competitor out there who has the same breadth of choices, or brand extensions, that we do. We know that our customers appreciate the flexibility to serve them where they want to be served and accompany that with the ability to move between platforms as they like. Second, we stand apart in terms of the personalized service we provide. At Liberty Tax, the average franchisee owns two or three stores and actually works in one, or all, of them. They are committed and zealously ensure quality service. On the other hand, franchisees with our nearest competitor clock in with an average of 15 locations. Ultimately, by making life better and easier for our customers with the products and services they want delivered by professionals they know and trust, we’ll continue to build the durable loyalty to we’re fortunate enough to have today.
Exec Edge: How did you handle the movement of the tax filing deadline in 2020? Have there been any other 2020-specific issues the company has had to overcome?
To say that 2020 has been full of curveballs would be an understatement. Nevertheless, I am enormously proud of how our entire team responded. From the creation of the secure online portal, to expanded hours to allow for better in-store social distancing, to the enhanced ability to schedule appointments in advance to match customers with prepares and more efficiently manage the workflow, flexibility was the key. And we’re carrying these innovations and tools forward into 2021 and beyond. To that end, we’ve spent the last several months building additional functionality across our platform to simplify their use even further.
Exec Edge: How has the company evolved so far – and what’s the future hold?
One metric I’m particularly pleased with is a reversal in the number of stores who had abandoned the brand in previous years. We’ve turned the corner on this trend by positioning every franchisee for success with the new menu of offerings, expanded training programs, and helping to increase the underlying value of their businesses. As we’ve instituted higher hurdles required to become a Liberty Tax franchisee, a natural increase in quality has followed closely behind. We’re certainly attuned to the November election and the distinct possibility that no matter who wins, changes in tax policy will follow. As an organization that is now built for speed, and one that has the necessary agility to move when and where we need to, we have the team and the offerings to meet these challenges in whatever form they occur.