We Had a Chat with Charlie, CRA’s New Bot

It can be hard to get through to Canada Revenue Agency (CRA), especially now during the pandemic when questions abound about shifting filing deadlines and federal assistance programs. Even before the pandemic put additional strain on the Agency, a report from 2017 showed that 54 per cent of the time, CRA didn’t even pick up the phone to deal with consumer concerns. The report went on to cite that about 30 per cent of the time, CRA provided incorrect advice. Although CRA made steps to do better, problems persist and a new report shows that the incorrect advice is up to 40 per cent.

What can you do when you need to get through to CRA and get the correct advice? Maybe Charlie can help.

Who is Charlie?

Charlie, a chatbot, is a new pilot program that CRA is using for customer engagement. When you go to CRA’s homepage, Charlie pops up automatically and displays a message:

I’m the Canada Revenue Agency’s (CRA) Chatbot. I’m here to help answer some of your frequently asked tax filing questions. As I am a pilot project, I’m still learning. I might not have all the answers.”

The message continues, asking users to not put in any personal information, even though profiles and interactions are not stored. The questions themselves, however, may be stored to help Charlie learn.

Basically, this is an example of automation, where a “robot” performs tasks instead of a human to increase productivity, reduce wait times, and – more importantly – reduce human error. No, it’s not the robot revolution. Humans are still available at CRA; however, as with most AI of this type, automating the task of consumer contact and answering basic questions could dramatically improve your experience.

Let’s take Charlie for a test drive

We decided to ask Charlie a few basic questions.

First, we asked Charlie what the 2022 tax filing deadline was for individuals. Charlie brought up three “comparable” questions without answering ours. Okay, but perhaps we can get the answer if we select, “what are late filing penalties?”

Well, no. Now we know what late filing penalties are, but not the tax deadline.

Selecting the two other questions returned by Charlie brought up similar results – explanations but no answer to our main question.

Let’s try something easier. When we asked Charlie about the much closer, 2020 tax filing deadline, (“When is the 2020 tax filing deadline?”) we got a much different result. This time Charlie asked us to clarify if we were looking for information on income tax returns, GST/HST returns, or returns (T4) for payroll. When we selected income tax return, we were asked to further choose from four more options. Individual was on this list. Clicking individual brought up four more options, but this time selecting for the filing date was among them… which brings up two more options, individual or self employed. Okay, when we finally get to this point it tells us that the 2020 filing date for individuals is April 30.

Would it be easier for Charlie if we simply asked the question this way: “What is the 2020 tax return filing date for individuals?” No. Now Charlie is offering information about late filing penalties, eligibility for NetFile, and income tax rates!

Well, in all fairness CRA did say Charlie was still learning. So, let’s try an easier question.

When we typed in “what is My Business Account,” Charlie interpreted it as “how to access My Business Account.” We also tried “how to reach the ombudsman,” to which Charlie got completely confused and replied with “You said: How to reach the ombudsman. Sorry, I don’t understand your question. Can you please ask it in a different way?”

Does Charlie have a future at CRA?

Charlie wasn’t exactly helpful in our brief test, but the mere existence of Charlie fills us with hope. AI relies on learning over time and since Charlie is new on the scene, he has a lot to “learn.” There is a great possibility that over time Charlie will provide more direct answers to basic questions, therefore reducing the time needed by callers to wait on the phone, and also reducing the amount of incorrect answers given. What does the future hold for Charlie? We will wait and see.

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