HMRC reveals £5m cost savings from chatbot use during pandemic

Conversational online text tools were able to direct many customers to the service or content required without needing to ring and speak to an adviser, digital product leader tells PublicTechnology

The use of chatbot tools to help customers find what they were looking for and provided HM Revenue and Customs with £5m in savings during its administration of Covid support schemes, according to the department’s digital leaders.

In recent years, the tax agency has expanded its use of use of such automated text tools – sometimes known as virtual assistants or conversational user interfaces (CUI) – for customers using digital services or seeking help online. CUI technology is now used across 15 of the tax agency’s content areas, covering the specificities of 780 “customer intents” – meaning the service, advice or outcome sought by the individual contacting HMRC. This includes a range of queries related to key areas such as self-assessment, PAYE, and National Insurance.

The department’s chief digital product officer Sarah McMann told PublicTechnology that chatbot-type systems can act as a “concierge” when a user first arrives at an HMRC website or online service.


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“Trying to navigate and find relevant content we knew was a massive pain point with customers,” she said. “So that’s where we started: how do we use this capability to surface relevant information to a customer? And we did that in earnest, and proved its success – and, in Covid, it was a critical component for digital services.”

While many HMRC digital platforms offer “a brilliant front-end service… you are always going to have fallout” – where an online visitor concludes they are unable to find what they are looking for, and decides to call one of the department’s helplines for assistance.

But if a chatbot is able to step in here and help the user complete the online process, this can eliminate the need for a phone call and spare the – invariably stretched – resources of the department’s contact centres.

The use of virtual assistants in the online services for the Covid support programmes – including the furlough and the Self-Employment Income Support Schemes – helped many users find what they were looking for when they would otherwise have resorted to phoning an HMRC helpline. This delivered the department an estimated £5m in “cost-avoidance” savings, McMann said.

Such success helped to accelerate the use of the technology, according to the digital product chief, and the department has plans to expand the use of conversational UI to the HMRC app – where it will be deployed “imminently”, she said.

“It will be the front door [where], instead of customers having to navigate and find information themselves, the ambition is, on the digital channels – particularly in the app… there will be a menu where you can self-serve, but you also have the option of just typing in what it is that you need, and we surface that,” McMann added.

HMRC will also shortly undertake a pilot exercise – using Microsoft’s Nuance technology – to explore the use of generative AI in its use of chatbots.

“We will look at how we can use that to better improve the customer experience by analysing the intents [to provide] better responses,” McMann said.

Look out in the coming days for a full write-up of our interview with HMRC’s digital product chief, including plans to grow its number of app users, take advantage of data analytics, and connect its service channels to better support citizens.

Sam Trendall

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