The IRS has added to the repertoire of its telephone-answering "voice bots" the ability to manage taxpayers' requests to establish or change a tax payment plan.
In a news release and conference call with reporters Friday, IRS officials described the new capability, which adds to bot functions that have been in place since earlier in the year. Those earlier bots have offered help with economic impact payments and advance child tax credits by providing general procedural responses to frequently asked questions. Callers with simple questions about IRS notices and tax payments could also choose from a menu of answers. Because these bots do not handle any chores requiring taxpayers to authenticate their identities, IRS officials refer to them as "unauthenticated bots."
But now, eligible taxpayers who call the IRS's Automated Collection System and Accounts Management toll-free phone lines to inquire about a payment plan are able to interact with recorded responses keyed by artificial intelligence (AI) to their spoken input. The IRS released a sample audio clip Friday of such an exchange. They will also be able to learn from the bot whether they are eligible for a payment installment plan and, if so, set up a payment amount and schedule. Eligibility includes having a tax debt of less than $25,000.
Callers are able to authenticate or verify their identities with these "authenticated bots" using a personal identification number, the officials said. The IRS also released a YouTube video illustrating an Authenticated Collection Voice Bot and its use.
The authenticated bots went live on Tuesday this week at 25% of their full capacity and in a single day handled 13,000 calls, said Darren Guillot, deputy commissioner of the Small Business/Self-Employed Division for Collection & Operations Support. The bots are expected to be fully deployed next week, he said.
The IRS officials said this and future additional bot-programmed interactions should help alleviate the Service's chronically overwhelmed toll-free telephone lines. Taxpayers using the bots should be able to avoid wait times on hold.
So far, unauthenticated voice bots have answered 3.4 million calls through the end of May, Guillot said. Taxpayers can still, if they opt to, speak with a human representative in either English or Spanish. The bots also are bilingual, in Spanish and English, with plans to add other languages, Guillot said.
The unauthenticated bots showed promise, but IRS officials recognized that callers with more complex issues, such as penalty relief and hardship exceptions, required greater help.
"It takes a critical-thinking, compassionate human being on the phone with you for a while to do that," Guillot said — 17 to 20 minutes, for example, to set up a payment plan. "So if bots, artificial intelligence, can interact with you in a way that resolves your case ... can you just imagine if we're saving 17 to 20 minutes multiplied tens of thousands or millions of times, how often that's going to make it possible for other people to get through on the phones?"
IRS officials have worked with National Taxpayer Advocate Erin Collins to refine the bots' patter, Guillot said. Collins was concerned that taxpayers might offhandedly agree to a faster payment schedule than they could afford.
"At some point soon — this year — we're making sure that the bots ask some additional questions to give taxpayers a moment to discern and stop and think, 'Can I really afford this payment plan?' before they finalize it," Guillot said.
Also, later this year, authenticated bots will be able to allow callers to obtain account and return transcripts, as well as their payment history and any balance owed.
The difficulty that taxpayers with a balance due notice face trying to get through to a live person at the IRS weighed in the decision to develop the bots and led to the IRS's IT unit's delivering the capability two years ahead of schedule, Guillot said. To pitch that expedited timetable internally, officials urged the staff in charge of developing the technology to imagine a taxpayer's plight.
"We said, 'Listen, these taxpayers who are calling us are not taxpayers who got any ordinary IRS notice; they're getting notices from the collection function of the IRS,'" Guillot said. "Many of those notices warn you that if we don't hear from you within a certain time frame, we're going to take enforcement action. Imagine getting a notice like that and you can't get through on the phone."
— To comment on this article or to suggest an idea for another article, contact Paul Bonner at Paul.Bonner@aicpa-cima.com.