Philippine BPO Industry Burning Question: Will AI Replace CSR’s?

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Will the day come when a call center will let go of its agents and just fire up an Artificial Intelligence (AI) based system to do customer handling?

The answer to the question above will both scare and excite you, dear CSR – read on!

First Things First: Artificial Intelligence – What Are You and will You Take Over the World One Day?

Using a very crude definition: Artificial Intelligence (AI) allows a program or application to “think” in such a way that the person dealing with it will believe he is actually communicating with a human being. The key feature of an AI powered system is problem solving.

A customer chatting with an “AI Chatbot” may think that he/she is talking with a live agent, when in reality – it’s just a program giving out answers based on the inquiries of the person typing on the other end of the line.

But don’t worry – there is no threat of an AI taking over the world, not yet at least…

What Are The Current Call Center AI Applications?

There are a lot – here are a few that are currently in use:

  • AI Chatbot – Applications that “chat” with customers for the purpose of answering basic questions, and performing some basic tasks in behalf of clients.
  • AI Voice Support – have you heard of these applications: Apple Siri, Microsoft Cortana, Amazon Alexa, and Google Assistant? Now imagine a call center using a similar application to handle basic customer care.
  • Voice to Text, Image to Text – In the past few years, applications that do voice to text and image to text transcriptions have evolved, much to the point that there are already companies out there that have sprouted up with the sole purpose of converting entire analogue libraries to the digital format.
  • Back Office Work for Human Resources and Accounting – Managing the workforce of a factory can now be done by as few as a handful of HR personnel – with the help of system automation. In the accounting front, big firms such as Deloitte have already utilized AI software, thus lessening the need for accountants.

Should BPO Employees Shift Jobs Now?

No need to think of a career change just yet, at least according to the experts:

Erik Brynjolfsson, Director of MIT’s Initiative on the Digital Economy (quoted in the MIT Sloan CIO Symposium)

 

“There is no shortage of work that only people can do. We are moving very, very fast (on AI development), but its decades before we get to that kind of world.”

But there are some who think that the threat of AI may actually be very real, at least to BPO jobs that involve low level work such as transcriptions, and to a degree – even voice.

Gian dela Rama, Innovantage CEO

 

“It really depends on the maturity of the company. If you do mostly transactional work, or repetitive work, then yes you’re in danger… AI moves at a blistering pace. Next year you may actually see solutions that replace a call center agent in voice.”

The Philippines government is also, slowly taking notice of AI’s impact to local white collar workers.

Bam Aquino, Philippine Senator:

 

“These systems use artificial intelligence and are capable of performing the tasks of human employees, putting their employment in peril… This early, we should be preparing for any eventuality that may occur when automation goes into full swing…”

But the challenge of AI is this: can they get to a point that people can’t differentiate talking to a robot versus talking to a human being?

Edward Lowell “Ted” Ladd, American entrepreneur, and professor of entrepreneurship

 

“The question is how fast can people commercialize it (AI) and how fast can they put data into artificial intelligence to ensure that they’re answering questions well and providing customer service and experience that people expect.”

Yes, only time will tell when AI will start replacing people.

Why Is AI Targeting BPO’s!!!

Note that the development of AI powered applications does not only affect BPO work. Here is a short list:

  1. Any job that requires the transport of goods – airplanes and ships can be piloted by a computer, self driving vehicles are already hitting the roads in other countries – the U.S. has 1.8M truck drivers that may lose their jobs in as short as a generation.
  2. Doctors, surgeons really – robots are now performing surgeries with a better success rate. Radiologists, the guys who interpret x-ray results, are getting a run for their money too!
  3. Lawyers – One of the tasks of lawyers is to check large amounts of data (documents) and create legal arguments. Computer applications can already do this.

According to the 2016 International Labor Organization report, 49% of Filipino employees risk losing their jobs when companies shift to automated means to accomplish tasks (of course, this covers other industries outside of BPO related work).

The Future of BPO Employees vs. Artificial Intelligence

Low level work may vanish in the coming decade or so – which means that the BPO workforce will need to up-grade itself.

The dude quoted above, Erik Brynjolfsson, furthers that people need to be willing to re-train themselves as needed to be engaged (in the economy).

Gian dela Rama thinks the same way (also quoted above) – he said that BPOs that deal with higher level work can actually benefit from AI as it forces them to enhance the abilities of their existing workforce and offer higher tier services.

So instead of tasking inbound voice agents to get the basic info of a customer lodging a credit card complaint, we can have the agent instead be trained in such a way that he parallels the knowhow of a highly skilled SME, and handle complex calls that require a fuckload of analytical thinking.

Move Forward Faster!

Jay Santisteban, operations director of the Contact Center Association of the Philippines (CCAP), has already clearly stated that “Repetitive” BPO jobs are especially vulnerable to automation – which necessitates the task of re-training workers to handle tasks that require more analytical thinking.

So dear BPO employee – if you are currently doing work that is similar to a factory robot doing the same thing over and over, then it’s time to upgrade your skills (though here at pushAUX, our opinion is this: you have a lot of time to adapt – don’t panic just yet, but you must eventually start preparing).