The ATO's virtual assistant has already answered almost a million enquiries this year

Photo: Oli Scarff/ Getty Images.

The Australian Taxation Office is pushing forward with its “digital by default” strategy, striking a deal with US-tech multilingual software computer giant Nuance Communications to implement a virtual assistant called Alex, in the style of Siri or Cortana, to allow people to serve themselves.

While the software is being unveiled on Wednesday, the ATO has been using it with customers since March to address queries, and has logged 950,000 conversations to date.

Nuance enterprise Australia and New Zealand managing director Robert Schwarz said people were becoming increasingly comfortable conversing with bots, and that automated virtual assistants were enabling customers to serve themselves with less hassle.

“Some people are very aware they’re interacting with a virtual agent, but then there are others… who don’t realise they’re talking to a computer. The challenge is to make it as conversational as possible,” he said.

“Once it is taught something, it never forgets, it’s always polite and it’s available 24/7. And because we capture the essence of the conversation in text format… the ATO can analyse the information at a more granular level.”

Nuance also works with Jetstar, IP Australia and a selection of other government organisations in Australia.

Popular in banking sector

Internationally, it’s virtual assistant software is popular in the banking and financial services sector, and Mr Schwarz said it was focusing on winning more business in the sector in Australia.

“We are having conversations with a number of banking organisations who are seriously looking at this technology,” he said.

“We’re certainly hearing from more government departments too about how they can better help consumers and constituents. We also expect to see it more in retail and telecommunications sectors.”

The technology was developed almost four years ago and stems off innovations that have been made into natural language processing, which enables people to converse with technology in a similar manner to human-to-human interactions.

When Nuance was first engaged by the ATO, the company had to look at what the key reasons were for customers calling the ATO and going to its website.

From here, the business taught Alex the “foundational information” it believed it would need to know to help people with their queries.

The software learns as it goes, and every few months Nuance looks at which areas of advice the virtual assistant needs to know more about.

Initial results show first contact resolution rates of 80 per cent with the tax body’s new virtual assistant, which exceed the industry benchmark of 60-65 per cent.

Digital-first approach

In November 2015 the tax office released its “digital by default” consultation paper, which indicated the organisation was shifting toward a digital-first approach for its communications with taxpayer.

Mr Schwarz said that the next phase of development of virtual assistants would be focused on taking virtual assistants from being web-based, to being present across all forms of communications, be it voice calls or via devices such as Amazon Echo, which have in-built assistants.

“Businesses can then control the customer experience in a multi-channel environment,” he said.

“We’re also seeing more development in the artificial intelligence space around being able to predict what customers may ask before they do and then thirdly we’re working on a concept involving human assistants and virtual assistants.

“In this situation when the virtual assistant can’t answer a question, they ask a human agent…then it passes that information back to the customer.”

This article originally appeared on the Australian Financial Review. Read the original here or follow the AFR on Facebook.

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