Named Ruby, the FreeAgent bot is designed to help accountants and bookkeepers navigate and understand their clients’ accounts. As practitioners review the accounts, a pop-up window will appear alongside in which the adviser can post questions and Ruby will refer them to relevant articles in FreeAgent’s online knowledge base.
The assistant is only available for accountants and bookkeepers, but the developer’s support team will always be available on the end of the phone to help with any customer or accountant queries, the company said.
FreeAgent co-founder and CEO Ed Molyneux described Ruby as “a small experiment” and emphasised that it was focusing on application support rather than accounting support. “It’s backed by our Zendesk support platform and links AI tools to try and encourage people to check there first rather than call us,” he said.
Molyneux said the text-based bot has been available for a while as an option to submit support questions: “Now we understand how powerful it can be, we tuned it and updated the knowledge base to address questions that weren’t being answered. We want to put it in front of more customers as the primary support option so we can be more efficient.
“High-quality human support is a big part of our proposition, but is expensive to do. Ruby gives us a way to provide a better experience for people to ask straightforward questions because they get a faster response.”
If Molyneux sounds a little defensive, that’s because the FreeAgent assistant follows in the footsteps of Unit4’s Wanda, Sage Pegg, QuickBooks Assistant and a Xero bot that hasn’t resurfaced since it was first announced in August 2016.
So far, none of these tools has lived up to the hype. In August, Sage product marketing director Chris Downing told a live Accounting Excellence Talk audience about how Sage Pegg was now being deployed in a support role for Sage products similar to FreeAgent’s Ruby.
“Pegg was born several years ago,” said Downing. You may not have seen much of it, but it’s embedded in 30 of our applications, specifically aimed at users in business. Amazingly it’s answering 3000 questions every hour.”
Those questions can range to queries about legislation around HR and payroll, or for users of Sage accounting products, it could be capturing an expense or pulling off a debtors report, he added.
For FreeAgent’s Ed Molyneux, virtual assistants were “fashionable about 18 months ago” and bound to suffer from overhype. “It wasn’t clear to us that customers wanted to engage that way,” he said. “So we kept an eye on what other people were doing and didn’t distract ourselves. Sometimes a new idea comes along and developers don’t care if customers use it or not: ‘It’s going to be cool – let’s use it for the annual report.’”
In contrast, Ruby is not trying to do what other accounting bots were trying to do. “There’s a very specific, very deliverable advantage to intercepting people’s application queries and trying to answer them with AI because many of them are very similar. [Because] it comes as part of of the Zendesk AI experience, it was a much easier decision to make. It’s mature enough, but we didn’t have to build it ourselves. So it is worth us investing at this moment.”
AccountingWEB’s Head of Insight has been with the site since 1999 and likes to spend his time studying accountants’ technology habits. When not nerding out, you can find him exploring obscure indie music and searching for the perfect organic sourdough loaf from his base in Brighton, UK.