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Voice and chat bots now part of IRS telephone tax help lines

Operators at 1914 telephone exchange_Library of Congress
When folks call the IRS for help, they often get the feeling that this 1914 switchboard is how the agency is operating its telephone hot lines. Now, however, the IRS has integrated voice and chat bots in the hopes it will help both taxpayers and IRS staff. (Photo courtesy Library of Congress)

Would you rather wait on hold to talk to an Internal Revenue Service representative, or use an automated service?

Most of us already deal with online apps and phone menus instead of human contact for much of our financial lives. The IRS is counting on that familiarly to help ease taxpayers into similar actions with their tax questions.

The federal tax agency recently enabled new voice and chat bots on two of its specialized toll-free telephone assistance lines.

Shuffling more to automated help: The new automated options could make getting tax answers from the IRS easier for many taxpayers.

But another major motivator toward more automation is IRS staff overload.

The IRS receives millions of calls a year to its toll-free telephone lines, noted the agency in its announcement of the voice and bot chat move. Where calls are related to tax collection matters, an IRS representative spends on average nearly 20 minutes with each taxpayer.

"Our phone lines continue to see unprecedented demand, and the IRS continues to look for ways to help people and avoid long wait times," said IRS Commissioner Chuck Rettig. "Our telephone representatives remain an important part of the service we provide, but these bots can help some people avoid lengthy phone delays for something that could be resolved on the spot."

Bots aren't for all IRS issues…yet: Of course, we are nowhere near the artificial intelligence (AI) point where mechanized interactions can adequately solve our problems. That's especially true of taxes.

Tax laws are complicated on their own. Then you add individual taxpayer situations to the mix, and things get even messier.

That's why people who call and have general tax season questions, generally will not at this time be directed to a bot option. Instead, the voice and chat bots that the IRS soft launched in recent weeks, and which are available in English and Spanish, will deal with specialized tax matters.

Payment matters are paramount: First, there are the payment issues.

The automated assistance is now available on phone lines for taxpayers with payments issues or understanding an IRS notice they may have received. Specifically, they are designed to help taxpayers with:

  • questions about how to make one-time payments,
  • answers to Frequently Asked Questions, and
  • collection notice clarification.

"Voice and chat bots interact with taxpayers in easy-to-follow ways, which means taxpayers don't have to wait on hold to handle simple tasks," said Darren Guillot, Commissioner of Small Business/Self Employed Collection at the IRS.

From the IRS perspective, when bots are used by taxpayers, that frees up IRS phone assistors to talk with taxpayers who have more complex collection issues.

And that's person-to-person option will still be available even where taxpayers start out using a bot. If during that interaction, those taxpayers decide they'd rather speak to an IRS customer service representative, can ask to do so. They'll then be placed in queue for English or Spanish Automated Collection System (ACS) telephone assistance.


Just What are voice and chat bots?

   Voice bot software allows a caller to navigate an interactive voice response system with their voice, generally using natural language. Callers don't have to listen to menus and press corresponding numbers on their keypads. They speak to the bot in a simplified simulation of a call with a live operator.

   A chatbot is a computer program that allows interaction between humans and technology. They originated as text-based communication, but as the technology improved, chat communication has extended to other input methods, including touch and voice.

   These technologies have become primary channels for customer service. They allow consumers 24/7 access in ways that, for most, are familiar and conversational.

   Advocates of the technologies say they increase customer support and service, and ideally satisfaction, as well as the bot-offering organization's operational efficiency.

Sources: Genesys and Boost.ai


COVID relief payments, too: In addition, to the payment lines, voice bots were added to the Economic Impact Payment (EIP) toll-free line. They provide general procedural responses to frequently asked questions about this tax credit created to provide assistance during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last month, the IRS also added voice bots for the Advance Child Tax Credit toll-free line. There, affected taxpayers will get similar automated assistance when they need help reconciling the credits on their 2021 tax return.

Current limits, planned AI expansion: As noted earlier, the bots aren't for all taxpayers. Those who now call IRS phone lines and have general tax season questions, will not, for the most part, be directed to a bot option.

Also, the IRS voice and chat bots currently provide unauthenticated services, which means they cannot provide assistance with a taxpayer's protected account information.

However, the IRS says it plans to roll out more voice and chat bots later in 2022 to help taxpayers with more complex issues

This will include bots that will enable taxpayers to authenticate their identity to establish payment plans, request a transcript, and obtain information about their accounts, such as payoff details.

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