IRS tries artificial intelligence to improve customer service

For several years the IRS has been bewitched, bothered and bewildered by COVID-19 pandemic and legislative-related turmoil. Finding itself with a backlog in the multimillions of unprocessed business and personal tax returns, the IRS is adding artificial intelligence (AI) to its effort to respond to taxpayer needs.

Use of AI-powered software “voice bots” (short for robot) is being expanded to assist taxpayers with tax balances of $25,000, who can use the system to verify their identities for the purpose of requesting to start or to change their IRS payment plans.

Apart from payments, voice bots will help taxpayers with “general procedure responses” to Frequently Asked Questions on the agency’s Economic Impact Payment line. In February, the IRS began using voice bots for taxpayers needing help with reconciling for tax purposes their 2021 Advance Child Tax Credits.

Use of AI is already underway in many private businesses for supply chain management, robotics, and other tasks. The IRS’s move is driven by a combination of pragmatism, necessity – and perhaps, desperation. And the agency is planning increased use of voice bots in the future principally to improve, under the weight of taxpayer inquiries, a rather dismal customer service record.

According to a June 20, 2021, report on CNBC, “Officially, the average phone wait time was 23 minutes in 2021, according to the National Taxpayer Advocate. But the agency has been struggling with staffing and increased call volumes. In its 2021 report to Congress, the National Taxpayer Advocate called out phone service as one of the most significant issues, noting that the agency only answered 11% of calls during fiscal year 2021.”

As of late June, the IRS was buried under a tsunami of 21 million as-yet unprocessed tax returns. The more employees the IRS can keep from having to deal personally with taxpayer issues, the more ability they’ll have, presumably, to chop away at the backlog.

The latest expansion of AI voice bots follows their introduction last January to the IRS service inventory. Three million calls have so far been answered robotically, said the IRS in a news release:  “Voice bots run on software powered by artificial intelligence, which enables a caller to navigate an interactive voice response. The IRS has been using voice bots on numerous toll-free lines since January, enabling taxpayers with simple payment or notice questions to get what they need quickly and avoid waiting. Taxpayers can always speak with an English- or Spanish-speaking IRS telephone representative if needed.”

When a taxpayer wants to engage the AI-driven voice bots, they’ll need their most recent IRS bill and “some basic personal information” to complete the process of verifying their identities by use of a personal identification number (PIN).

The IRS is pushing forward with this AI concept because somehow, in some way, it has to find a way to move faster in serving the American public. Technology has advantages in removing human beings from the process, thereby increasing speed. But is there a cost? For some people, the idea of engaging with AI to provide tax information could be daunting. Also, technology is a wonderful thing until it doesn’t work, or is hacked, or a mistake is made.

The problems and answers in the use of AI to respond to taxpayer issues will be revealed as time passes and more people use the system. The IRS has plans in 2022 to further grow voice bot usage for taxpayers with new or existing PINs to access:

  • Account and return transcripts.
  • Payment history.
  • Current balance owed. 

How intelligent the artificial intelligence turns out to be in its ever-expanding IRS use will determine if the agency’s customer service problems are resolved. Or not.

This article first appeared in KnoxNews. 

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