Generative AI threatens SA’s booming BPO job market
South African contact centre employees are worried generative artificial intelligence (AI) will take over their jobs, as the industry across the globe increasingly incorporates AI-powered agents into their processes.
This is according to analysts, who say generative AI will disrupt the traditional business process outsourcing (BPO) industry by automating more and more tasks for agents, prompting employees to fear their duties may eventually be entirely replaced.
However, the BPO industry says generative AI technologies will likely supplement their human agents and not necessarily replace them, as many customers still prefer human interactions, especially for sensitive or complex issues.
Employers across the globe are anticipating millions of jobs across industries to be displaced by the growing adoption of emerging technologies in the workplace.
Flux Trends researcher and trend-spotter Faeeza Khan explains: “Generative AI is sparking anxiety among call centre workers all around the world.
“The Philippines employs roughly 1.6 million BPO workers and is one of the world’s largest centres for BPO. Political and business leaders there are in the process of formulating a plan to deal with AI replacing human jobs.
“In March, Google demonstrated new generative AI capabilities for call centres and there are a multitude of customer service platforms to choose from.”
Khan points out that while generative AI will play a critical role in SA’s BPO industry, it will enhance roles rather than replace them. This will be done by enabling efficiency through automation of repetitive tasks, improving agent productivity and in turn revolutionising the entire customer operations function.
“The incorporation of generative AI in the customer service realm is becoming crucial in order for businesses not to be outcompeted. The benefits are clear.
“However, businesses should not ignore the human cost and should make efforts to enable their workforce to perform higher-value work that’s still beyond the scope of AI. Upskilling programmes for BPO workers to gain the necessary expertise is recommended,” she adds.
SA’s BPO sector has the potential to create 775 000 jobs by 2030, according to a report by consultancy firm McKinsey.
A June 2023 McKinsey report reveals generative AI will automate 60% to 70% of employee workloads globally, with the customer centre industry being among the top sectors that will be augmented by the emerging tech.
Laurent Leclercq, CTO of BPO solutions provider Merchants, says while generative AI will more likely add value than substitute workers in SA’s BPO industry, it does pose a certain level of threat.
“The ongoing adoption of generative AI technologies can pose challenges to job creation in the South African BPO sector, specifically for roles that include routine tasks, are repetitive in nature and can be easily automated.
“AI solutions can also be deployed to scale up or down easily, based on demand, without the need for recruitment, training or other overheads associated with hiring human agents.
“Once trained appropriately, these systems tend to make fewer errors in repetitive tasks compared to humans. This efficiency can make them preferable for tasks where precision and consistency are crucial,” notes Leclercq.
While generative AI can pose challenges to traditional job creation in the BPO sector, it will not necessarily mean the end of jobs in the industry, with many customers still preferring the “human touch”, he adds.
According to Leclercq, Merchants approaches the use of generative AI technologies within its contact centres opportunistically and with specific focus on client-driven value requirements.
“The emotional intelligence and understanding that humans offer cannot be fully replicated by AI. In essence, the digital economy has elevated the role of contact centre agents from mere problem-solvers to critical brand representatives, equipped with technology and empowered to offer an enhanced and integrated customer experience.
“With the ever-increasing rise in cyber threats, human agents also have a key role to play in ensuring data privacy and adhering to security protocols,” Leclercq comments.
Mithum Singh, MD of customer management services provider CCI South Africa, believes the integration of AI in the BPO industry will create a diversity of roles − particularly among local employees who are trained in ICT skills – to work alongside AI.
“I do not believe AI will take jobs; it will simply enhance people’s ability to efficiently handle these complex tasks, while handing over mundane or routine tasks to self-service channels. The complex tasks often required of agents will always require human interaction.
“While AI is extremely useful for simple automated tasks, human beings need emotional connection, especially when experiencing heightened emotions,” explains Singh.
While CCI South Africa has not incorporated generative AI in its processes, the company plans to do so, he adds. The role of the contact centre agent has evolved significantly over the years, in the advent of the digital economy.
“With improvements in technology, the contact centre landscape has evolved even further and is now what is called ‘omni-channel’.Furthermore, I believe the analytic power of AI will help us to better utilise macro-economic factors, and how they interact with human needs and experience to best make use of our local resources.
“For the BPO industry, one of these key resources is the massive potential held by the unemployed youth. I believe that through this process, we will be able to further drive job creation using these analytics,” notesSingh.