Curium Solutions – Simplified Change Management, Birmingham, West Midlands

Rise of robots

By Mark Turner

16 May 2018

Rise of robots threatens to terminate the UK call-centre workforce

In its article, ‘Rise of robots threatens to terminate the UK call-centre workforce’, The Guardian painted a bleak picture for the future of the contact centre industry. Citing predictions from ContactBabel that more than 45,000 jobs will disappear from the sector by 2021, it laid the blame at automation’s door.

Principal consultant and transforming operations specialist Mark Turner shares his thoughts on how automation might change the nature of work in a contact centre.

The UK’s 6,000-plus contact centres currently employ more than one million people. There’s no denying that this number will change as contact centres embrace technologies to become more efficient in responding to customer queries. Our report, ‘AI and robotics: from science fiction to business fact’, reached a similar conclusion.

However, what The Guardian article doesn’t consider is how the remaining roles will change, potentially for the better. For example, automation works best when handling defined tasks and processes. It is no substitute for the full range of skills and activities dealt with by contact centre staff.

Our best guess is that robots will pick up the more mundane and repetitive tasks as these are ‘quick wins’ in terms of automation. That’s an immediate upside for employees – less boring work – and less pressure to handle hundreds of calls per day because the high-volume, simple stuff won’t get in the way.

Instead, employees will be left with more demanding and exciting work to get their teeth into. They will be able to invest more time, servicing customers with real emotional or complex needs. Contact centre employees will have a far higher sense of worth because they’ll be dealing with customer issues where they add real value.

One of the common criticisms of contact centres is that operators just mindlessly read from a script. That’s not been my experience. Nevertheless, in the future, successful and sought-after contact centre staff will be those who are great at listening, empathising, solving problems and communicating.

Once organisations move along the automation path, the tasks and activities which robots handle will need to be defined, developed and checked. The people who are best placed to do this are the current experts in completing these tasks now. New roles will evolve around managing the robots.

I envisage contact centres becoming centres of excellence where the highly skilled and talented customer advisors / handlers work and where automation supports them in doing so. The strategic question is: How many companies are recruiting people with these skills or empowering their existing staff to develop these skills?

Finally, with the move towards an automated service industry, there is still much work to be done. Introducing automation into an operation which is inefficient and not fully in control of its drivers is never going to produce the right results.

Robotics and AI are certainly going to play an increasing role in how we deliver and receive service in the future. Whether you are aiming for a highly roboticised environment or just automating some key high volume and simple activities, it is important to make sure your operation clean and healthy first.

Related content

AI, robotics and contact centres – Emma Taylor, Curium’s Head of Transforming Operations reviews the opportunities and challenges contact centres face when implementing artificial intelligence (IA) and robotics technologies.

Customer experience expert Martin Hill-Wilson considers what contact centres should prioritise when thinking about AI and robotics, along with opportunities and challenges.

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