How AI-Powered Virtual Agents Can Bolster SA’s BPO Sector

By Staff Writer, 11 March 2024 – Originally published byTechFinancials.

Soon every contact centre will have both human and virtual agents working directly with customers.

The introduction of AI-powered virtual agents is not expected to impact the number of jobs in South Africa’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. In fact, industry players believe that AI will only bolster the strengths that have earned the country its reputation as a global market leader.

South Africa’s BPO sector is fast growing, employing over 200 000 people. According to statistics shared by Minister Ebrahim Patel in November 2023, 90% of employees in the sector are young people, while 60% are women.

“Call centres make up a huge proportion of South Africa’s BPO sector and the jobs it creates. AI will supercharge the industry, and change how it operates and where the real job growth occurs,” says Ryan Falkenberg, CEO of conversation automation company CLEVVA.

He says the use of virtual agents (VAs) will reduce the work volumes channelled to human agents who will be tasked with ‘connecting’ conversations that take longer but have a bigger impact on customer retention and loyalty.

Job growth will shift to technology-based jobs within specialties such as conversational process automation, data analytics, insights and reporting, process intelligence, and back-office automation.

Gareth Pritchard, Chief Marketing Officer for CapeBPO agrees that while transactional call volumes will be lower, demand for relationship building conversations will grow. As a result, the organisation expects no changes in the numbers of jobs estimated in South Africa’s BPO sector growth strategy as a result of AI.

“Even prior to the use of VAs, what we were selling to overseas clients is that we do the human side of interaction really well,” Pritchard states. “VAs create more time for human interaction, so if human interaction becomes stronger, more intricate and more complex, then South Africa only stands to benefit.”

But he says, technology will start to play an increasingly larger role in the sector.

“Traditionally the BPO world has been very much about people, with telecommunications and workforce management technology playing a supporting role. It’s a massive step forward to say that part of the interaction can now be done by a non-human, but I think in the next few months we will see a watershed moment where everyone begins to understand what the capability really is.”

A year ago, a discussion about chatbots in call centres may have been met with scorn, based on the technology’s capabilities. But, Pritchard says, a conversation about virtual agents automating expert-level conversations at scale will get the attention of top executives because they will want to benefit from the all round efficiency gains.

Falkenberg says virtual agent technology is developing at pace, with significant opportunities in the call centre space. Virtual agents can now have human-like conversations via chat channels, web and in app, in multiple languages. They are also starting to happen within the voice channels.

“With the rapid advances in conversation process automation technologies, and more recently the acceleration in generative AI, the ability to automate rule-bound conversations while staying flexible to sudden changes in customer direction has improved significantly,” says Falkenberg. “This is where chatbots struggled. If the conversation did not follow a specific path, they froze. Virtual agents are different. They can handle changing contexts while staying true to company guardrails.”

Pritchard says that going forward, it will be important for call centres to define the role VAs play in the space, especially within the digital channels.

“Soon every contact centre will have both human and virtual agents working directly with customers. Virtual agents will offer real-time support to resolve most known queries, issues and disputes while human agents will as a result focus more on the conversations that are less rule-bound, and require more emotional intelligence,” Falkenberg concludes.

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