Originally published on IOL on 15 November 2021
By Ryan Falkenberg
The demand for quality work in South Africa is increasing daily. Job growth remains stubbornly low, with many small, medium enterprises (SMEs) reluctant to employ new staff. Part of the reason is the cost and time taken to find, hire and train capable staff. And part is the difficulty of firing staff if they get it wrong. This impacts their and the country’s growth.
Enter the new digital workforce, an increasingly specialised team of digital experts and workers capable of performing more and more of the work historically given to human staff. In the past, the cost of these digital workers meant only large banks, insurers, and telco companies could afford them. That is changing with low code platforms now available to the SME market.
Digital workers are designed to perform the rule-based work typically found in back-office administrative functions and now increasingly within the front-office functions of sales and support.
And like human workers, digital workers operate in specialist teams. For example, you have the front office digital worker (or digital expert) that specialises in having hyper-relevant sales and support conversations with customers via multiple interfaces within websites, mobile apps and chat channels like WhatsApp.
Working with the front office digital expert, you have a team of back-office digital workers, each a specialist in a different key function or role. Some digital workers specialise in reading and extracting the data from hand-written or PDF forms. Others specialise in making predictions that help the digital expert shape the conversation and make relevant decisions. And others specialise in performing required tasks across multiple systems. Together they fetch the right data and process the right actions for the digital expert while the digital expert keeps the conversation going. Together they resolve more requests, queries, issues and complaints without the need for a human to get involved.
The result is that SMEs no longer have to be constrained by the severe limitations of traditional chatbots. These limitations have meant that very few customer engagements get resolved digitally the first time. Most still require direct human intervention. And as a result, most SMEs have been reluctant to embrace a digital-first journey.
Fortunately, this is changing. Cloud-based customer experience (CX) platforms are increasingly partnering with specialist automation technologies to offer SMEs a complete digital self-service solution.
Collectively, these low-code platforms make customer service automation viable for more and more companies. They also allow companies to build and manage their own digital workforce. This means SMEs can increasingly service a global client base with only a small team of human specialists.
And while this may initially be seen as bad news for employment, what it actually means is that more SMEs can now compete and thrive in the global market. Low-quality processing work will be handled by digital workforces, while higher-value work will be given to their human workforces. This work will require greater strategic and problem-solving skills, creativity, analytics, as well as the ability to build and manage digital workers.
Humans will also be increasingly tasked with growing meaningful customer relationships rather than simply handling customer transactions. Sales and support staff will therefore need to get better at engaging in multiple languages and adjusting to different cultures, personalities, senses of humour, conflict styles and emotional needs. They won’t need to worry about following the right processes and rules. This will be handled by their digital worker team mates.
SMEs can scale quicker and can service a global market in a more agile, cost-effective way if they can access an increasingly capable digital workforce. Rather than this reducing the net total of jobs, digital workforces can be instrumental in growing employment across South Africa. They can give SMEs a greater chance of succeeding in an increasingly competitive global market. And with this will come an increase in the total number of higher-quality jobs for people.
Ryan Falkenberg is the chief executive of CLEVVA Solutions.
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