AI will not doom Philippines' call centers — BPO expert

The Philippine Star
AI will not doom Philippines' call centers � BPO expert
While AIs are touted the capability to handle customer calls faster and with less errors than their human counterparts, they are expected to handle more mundane parts of a call center job.
Gerd Altmann / CC0

MANILA, Philippines — An expert in the business process outsourcing sector is trying to dispel the fear over the adoption of artificial intelligence in call centers, saying this will not spell the end of the industry as we know it.

Derek Gallimore, founder of the outsourcing advisory firm Outsource Accelerator, said that people predicting the imminent demise of the local call center industry are ignoring the fundamental facts and context of the matter. Outsourcing will not see a slowdown, he said, but will face a brighter future and stronger growth potential than ever.

"People may not realize it, but this isn't the first time that the Philippine labor market faced a formidable rival intelligence and prevailed," Gallimore said.

"When the Philippines entered the call center industry, India was the dominant player," he continued. "Yet the Philippine call center scene grew exponentially and surpassed India's within five short years."

Gallimore pointed to the element of customer care as the Philippines' decisive edge over its Indian call center counterparts. He also pointed to this element as the one thing that even sophisticated AI systems cannot automate.

"If it was so easy to systemize that intuitive level of service, India would have copied the Philippine style and neutralized that advantage years ago," added the outsourcing expert. "You can't tell me that coders armed with machine learning are going to replicate and surpass what the mighty India could not."

Today's enterprise-level call center AIs are said to have the capability to handle customer calls faster and with less errors than their human counterparts.

However, users and developers of customer service AI systems admit that these platforms have yet to reach a level of "sentience" that allows for the kind of critical thinking that's essential in resolving complex issues.

Data favors Philippine BPOs

Gallimore also cites a study by McKinsey and Co. where an analysis of over 2,000 work activities from more than 800 occupation were examined to assess the technical feasibility of automation.

"Taking into account the different responsibilities of a call center agent, most of their job falls into four categories: data processing, data collection, applying expertise and managing others," Gallimore explained. "Half of which is highly susceptible to automation while the latter is the least susceptible."

The consultant expects that AIs will handle more mundane parts of a call center job, while tasks that require critical thinking, interpersonal care and customer care for agents will increase in demand.

He then compared the introduction of AI to call centers to the time when ATMs were introduced to banks. Instead of eliminating tellers, ATMs actually grew the banking industry by allowing human personnel to focus more on work that require human intellect and empathy.

"AI may someday be able to replicate the cornerstones of good call center work such as empathy, adaptability to complex customer requests and the willingness to go the extra mile," Gallimore said. "But right now, all of that is in the realm of science fiction."

In stark contrast to the general BPO industry's pessimism, Gallimore believes the opportunities for Philippines outsourcing are bigger and brighter than ever before. Contrary to general predictions of a BPO sector slowdown, he sees an increase in the sector's expansion velocity until at least 2045 — when it could be employing as many as 10 million highly paid professionals.

The emergence of AI, for Gallimore, is still an evolutionary step in the call center business. It will not completely replace human agents, but it will certainly do away with old industry processes.

"As long as there's a need for another person at the other end of the line who cares about helping a customer, call center agents will be in demand," Gallimore said.

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