‘We do not want it to be a hardship to contact us’ – how HMRC hopes to use AI and analytics to transform customer service

PublicTechnology talks to chief digital product officer Sarah McMann, who discusses the burgeoning use of chatbots and automated voice platforms, and plans to increase functionality of HMRC’s highly rated app

Keeping customers happy is a perpetual challenge for any organisation.

The task is surely particularly tough if your customer base encompasses the majority of the population – and if their transactions require them to hand over large sums of money and receive nothing in return.

While people and businesses are unlikely to jump for joy every time they pay tax, HM Revenue and Customs – in alignment with a broader department-wide transformation – is trying to make the experience of doing so as painless as possible. Perhaps even pleasant.

To do so, the tax agency is striving not just to improve – and increase adoption of – its self-serve digital platforms, but is also ramping up its use of sophisticated automation and analytics tools to better intuit users’ needs, and meet them.

Sarah McMann is the department’s chief digital product officer, a role in which she oversees the IT platforms that underpin all HMRC’s interactions with customers via the provision of tax services for businesses and individuals, as the well as the department’s services in the areas of debt-management, benefits, and the work of Valuation Office Agency.

“There’s tens and tens of services and hundreds of products that that sit under that,” she says.

“I would like to be in a state where customers do not have to contact us, but can access information as and when they need it – allowing customers to get their tax right – and it’s just a thing that happens rather than something that customers have to be concerned about.”

Upon joining the tax agency almost five years ago, McMann found that the various means through which citizens interacted with HMRC – including online services, telephony, post, and a dedicated mobile app – were “really fragmented”. This negatively impacted both service users and the department.

“We tended to build something for web services, then rebuild on mobile app, and then have to rebuild the journeys in telephony,” she says. “Customer experience wasn’t great; if you were visiting the web but couldn’t find the answer, you’d have to ring up and repeat your journey all over again.”

The digital chief had been charged with replacing an outgoing contact-centre infrastructure but, before doing so, instigated a review of customer interactions over a period of six months.

“We ingested about 80 million rows of data to understand not only why customers were contacting us, but the intent behind that – because, quite often, we may be the cause of that contact, [because of] a letter that we’ve sent out. And that really helped us to understand where the pain points were in the journeys, understand the channels that customers were visiting – and why they were visiting – and then also the fallout. And that really informed our strategy… in terms of the components that we needed to bring in to manage a customer’s journey end to end and make it as seamless as possible – [while] driving more digital adoption and containment, and also improving the customer experience.”

A key part of this strategy was introducing low-code or no-code technologies – which are designed to allow non-technical staff to design or amend software applications. The use of these platforms allows officials in individual areas of the business to make reactive changes to the messages given via automated systems such as the interactive voice response technology that greets callers to HMRC helplines, or text message-based “deflections” that offer pointers intended to help users independently access information or services online.

HMRC’s array of service-delivery customer-support channels are now much more joined up than they were when McMann joined, but the department is currently only able to track user journeys retrospectively, she says. Over the next six months or so, via the department’s Customer Engagement Data and Reporting platform, it hopes to be reach a point where it is able to “use data in real time… to then determine the treatments for the customer”.

“What we are doing with it at the moment stitching that data together [retrospectively] in order to inform the roadmaps of where we need to focus next – and how do we measure through A/B testing that that we’ve had the effect that we were we were aiming for?,” she adds.

One outcome HMRC is aiming for is to ensure customers are able to complete interactions independently and digitally, where possible, without requiring additional support. Common barriers to doing so identified by the department include difficulty for uses in finding the info or service they are looking for online, as well as a lack of awareness of the existence of HMRC’s digital services.

Analysis of data has also indicated that the process of authentication is a point at which many experience problems.

“If you’re in PAYE, it might just be a life event that happens every two three years that would require you to engage within HMRC. So, authentication for those types of customers can be quite problematic,” McMann says. “We are looking at how do we authenticate up or downstream – and low-code/no-code… linking in with the case-management and the back end systems allows us to do that.”

App for it
In the early years of transformation led by the Government Digital Service, the Cabinet Office-based unit clearly advised departments to develop mobile-friendly web services, rather than dedicated apps which it said were “rarely justified”.

This hardline stance has since softened significantly but, for much of the past 10 years, government’s tax department has been something of an outlier – having created its first mobile app in 2012, followed in 2016 by the launch of the first version of the core HMRC app as a front door for many of its digital services.

As of the end of 2022/23, the app has 2.3 million users – representing an increase of 700,000 over the course of the year. The program also boasts ratings of 4.7 and 4.8 on the Google and Apple app stores, respectively.

Amount saved by use of chatbots in Covid support services

Proportion of users sent an SMSA deflection that did not need to contact HMRC for a week thereafter

2.3 million
Users of the HMRC app

HMRC app’s rating on Apple app store

Number of ‘customer intents’ addressed by chatbots

McMann adds that 97% of visitors to the app do not subsequently need to access another HMRC channel – something she describes as “an impressive stat, compared to what I have seen in the private sector”.

Citizens can currently use the app to manage their details and contact preferences, make self-assessment payments or claim tax refunds, as well as accessing details of income, benefits, money owed,  tax codes, National Insurance numbers, taxpayer references and – in a recently added feature – employment history.

While the digital product leader acknowledges that not every service is suitable for delivery via the app, HMRC is continuing to add functionality and “tends to launch big features every couple of months”.

“We’re now systematically going through all of the services and intents for PAYE, self-assessment, National Insurance and Child Benefit,” she says. “So, there will be multiple services over the next six to 12 months that that will be launched in the income tax and the benefits space.”

Across both its telephony and digital channels, HMRC has sought to implement automated tools in recent years – including interactive voice response tools to triage calls to customer helplines and text-based chatbots to assist with online service users.

Conversational user interfaces (CUI) are now used across 15 HMRC content areas, covering the specificities of 780 “customer intents” – meaning the service, advice or outcome sought by the individual contacting the department. This includes a range of queries related to self-assessment income tax, PAYE, and National Insurance.

The use of virtual assistants in the online services through which HMRC delivered government’s 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 says.

She says that chatbot-type systems can act as a “concierge” when a user first arrives at an HMRC website or online service.

“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.”

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 says.

In its contact centre, meanwhile, the tax agency has used automated IVR systems to help point users towards self-service digital service options. The technology is designed to deduce callers’ intent and, if a digital service is available, it offers to send an SMS message with a link to the where it can be accessed online.

“While they’re on the phone, they can click that URL and, if it is relevant, then they hang up,” McMann says. “And then we track whether that customer contacted us within the next seven days – which is our measure of contact resolution.”

A comfortable majority – 60% – of those sent a text pointing them towards an online service terminate their call to HMRC and do not need to contact the department again for at least a week. Once again, the digital leader says that this success rate compares favourably with other organisations and sectors.

“When I’ve deployed this in private-sector organisations we’ve tended to start off in the 20-25% range and then gradually build it up once we understand how relevant the content was,” McMann says. “So I think that 60% is a good foundation. But, obviously, we want to continue to improve on that as well – because we don’t want 40% to have to call us back.”

The tax agency’s burgeoning use of automation and enabling users to access self-service tools are steps towards a future in which the ultimate goal is to have a “cognitive decision engine” working at the front line of customer service delivery.

Such capability would be supported by a repository that gathers data in real time and provides it to a CRM-based system, which can then dictate how digital services interact with users.

The kind of chatbots – or conversational user interfaces – that McMann says the department used so effectively in administering Covid support programmes are already able to use analyse real-time data to inform their interactions with citizens.

“We’re systematically going through all of the services and intents for PAYE, self-assessment, National Insurance and Child Benefit – there will be multiple services in the HMRC app over the next six to 12 months that will be launched in the income tax and the benefits space.”

“Rather than just having a static [help] button for somebody to click on… there is intelligence behind that: if we see somebody hovering on the ‘X’ button… or if we see delays, it might be a good opportunity to proactively offer assistance,” McMann says. “At the moment, we will only offer the digital assistant in the event that there is a web chat agent to support – because what we don’t want to do is create a walled garden whereby we provide a virtual assistants that can’t answer the question – because then it’s just frustrating for customers. So we always make sure that, when we’re offering the CUI, that there is web chat availability to support… apart from those where we see a huge containment rate,  because we’ve got the intent – or intents – perfected.”

Asked by PublicTechnology to set progress goals for the coming 12 months, McMann puts forward the ambitious objective that “I would like to see the eradication of post – because we ingest far too much paper and push far too much paper out”.

However they engage with the department, the overarching goal is to reach a point “where customers do not feel it’s a hardship to contact HMRC” – if they even need to get in touch at all.

“I would like to be in a state where customers do not have to contact us, but can access information as and when they need it – because the information that we’re providing or the services that we’re offering, allow customers to get their tax right – and it’s just a thing that happens rather than something that customers have to be concerned about.”

Sam Trendall

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