Tax pros ‘very skeptical’ about expanded IRS voice bots for payments plans

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If you get a tax bill and want help from the IRS to set up a payment plan, newly expanded voice bots may make for faster phone service, according to the agency. But some tax professionals are doubtful about the new plan to reduce wait times. 

Artificial intelligence-driven IRS voice bots can now assist taxpayers by phone with setting up or making changes to payment plans.

“For the first time in 160 years, this agency is able to successfully interact with a taxpayer using artificial intelligence to access their account and resolve it, in certain situations, without any wait on hold,” IRS deputy commissioner Darren Guillot said on a press call. 

Callers, however, may still speak with an agent if needed.

That might be easier said than done.

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.

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How voice bots can solve some taxpayer problems

Here’s how the voice bots work: When you get a bill from the IRS, you can call the agency and follow voice-prompted steps to verify your identity. By providing the caller ID from your IRS letter, the bots may share payment plan options and assist with setting one up.

You may qualify to use the service with a tax balance of $25,000 or less, which is the majority of IRS payment plans, according to agency officials. 

The IRS has used phone-answering voice bots since January, answering basic payment or notice questions to cut back on long wait times. However, the latest upgrade is the first opportunity for voice bots to resolve a taxpayer’s issue.

Of course, complex problems, such as penalty relief or hardship, may still require a live agent, the IRS said.

The agency plans to expand voice bot capability to allow authenticated callers to receive tax transcripts, payment history and the current balance due.

Tax professionals remain ‘skeptical’ about voice bots

While the IRS expects the newly expanded features to be fully deployed this week, some tax professionals are still iffy about the voice bots.

Dan Herron, a certified financial planner and CPA with Elemental Wealth Advisors in San Luis Obispo, California, said voice bots are a good idea for “very simple things,” such as balance due questions. But he’s “very skeptical” about bots setting up payment plans with multiple moving parts. 

Does anyone actually get anything settled by AI voice bots for any company, let alone the Internal Revenue Service?
Adam Markowitz
Vice president at Howard L Markowitz PA, CPA

What’s more, voice bots without answers may trigger further frustrations among callers, said Adam Markowitz, an enrolled agent and vice president at Howard L Markowitz PA, CPA in Leesburg, Florida. 

“Does anyone actually get anything settled by AI voice bots for any company, let alone the Internal Revenue Service?” he added.

Phyllis Jo Kubey, a New York-based enrolled agent and president of the New York State Society of Enrolled Agents is optimistic about the expanded voice bots and applauds the agency for “more sophisticated automated taxpayer assistance.”

However, she worries taxpayers may “bite off more than they can chew” and agree to unrealistic monthly payments when setting up a plan through the automated system.

“I hope the IRS has its AI set up to query the taxpayer about whether they can afford the monthly payment on which they agree,” she said.

CNBC has reached out to the IRS for comment.

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