Do we need to be living in fear of the robot uprising, or is it business as usual?

by Phil Kitchen, Director, The Contact Centre Panel

In a recent Guardian article, an attention-grabbing headline suggested that the increasing use of automation and artificial intelligence (AI) “threatens to terminate the UK call centre workforce”. At CCP we thought we should take a careful look behind the headlines…

There’s no doubt that the increasing pace of automation will have an effect on contact centre operations and staffing. The future for human contact is already being influenced by two huge shifts in service delivery:

  1. The continuing and inevitable move to delivering sales, customer service and other business-to-customer interactions via the internet, and
  2. Phone-based AI especially for inbound streaming of enquiries and outbound lead generation.

However, even within the Guardian’s concerningly-headlined piece, the numbers being quoted do not ring out the death-knell for our sector just yet.

With around 6,200 customer service centres in the UK employing around 1.3 million people, it is inevitable that some major high street names will regularly make decisions that affect jobs. Individual agents will be significantly affected, and in some cases the towns where major contact centres are based will feel the effects, but most of these decisions will not significantly alter the overall size and shape of the sector. Most of the decisions will shift work from one provider or contact centre to another, driven by outsourcing previously-in-house work, or changing provider at the end of a contract review, for example.

If we read the article, even the most pessimistic forecasts illustrate a contact centre industry which will remain large despite the best efforts of our Robot Overlords. In the Finance Sector for example, 13,000 of 230,000 agents in customer service call centres are quoted as “expected to go”, which represents 5.7% of staff. Whilst important, this is not the devastation of the sector.

So, Should We Be Worried?

Improvements in AI and internet-based customer transactions will reduce the volume of calls which human beings need to handle, we can’t argue against that. We can safely assume therefore, that we will need fewer agents overall as the future comes to meet us.

However, here at CCP we can’t imagine a future where the human element of customer service and outbound contact doesn’t play a major part. How many times have you waited to hear “Press 5 to speak to an agent” simply because you want to know that a human being will be dealing with your issue?

AI will improve to the point where it can take care of many repetitive scenarios… but contact centres will continue to provide that human element for those in-depth enquiries that our automated friends simply can’t deal with. This means that agents may need to be better trained to deal with more complex situations, which should increase their value as individuals and is likely to improve the loyalty of the ultimate owner of the customer relationship (the High Street Retailer, Bank, Utility Company etc) to their contact centres.

This means that finding the right contact centre with the right skills and trained agents will be more important, to promote better customer experiences and improved loyalty from the customer to the brand, and from the brand to the contact centre.

Perhaps the future isn’t so scary after all?

What do you think? We’d appreciate your thoughts… Respond to this article or get in touch with one of our humans here at CCP!



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