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Virtually Speaking

AI Will Work for the Workforce -- Just Look at Call Centers

Posted by Jen Snell on Mar 7, 2017 3:05:57 PM


Over the past year, we’ve seen many dramatic reports covering the impact AI will have on the workforce. The fear of automation replacing jobs has overshadowed the potential opportunities and even benefits of AI.

Those concerns are not without merit, of course, as any evolving means of production and technologies will invariably change the way we work. Meanwhile, AI has certainly started to transform the workplace. The reality, however, is that AI isn’t displacing human labor so much as enabling human-machine collaborations that are best described as forms of labor augmentation, not automation.

Take a look at the modern call center. No white-collar profession fears automation more than the call-center industry, yet the call-center economy is booming. The sector has shown 2.3% annual growth from 2011-2016. In early 2015, it was estimated that 3 million workers are employed in call center facilities across the U.S., and millions more work offshore.

In general, we should be optimistic about the impact of AI. Let’s take a look at three ways AI will benefit, rather than displace, tomorrow’s workforce:

1 – Humans will be freed to perform more valuable work.

The difference between AI and previous forms of labor automation like mechanization – think ditch digger becomes backhoe operator – is that AI performs tasks that previously required the human brain rather than human muscles. Regardless of how far removed the self-driving car may be from the backhoe, there’s a continuity between AI and previous forms of work automation.

It’s this continuity that is largely responsible for fears about AI putting people out of work. We’ve certainly arrived at an inflection point where the mundane “brain work” performed by humans is poised to be relegated to machines, but this doesn’t necessarily mean AI will steal human jobs. As we’ve seen in every industrial revolution to date – the effect will be a market with intrinsically higher-value jobs.

In the call center, humans will be able to spend less time answering basic FAQs, and more time providing greater value solving complex problems. Technical support will be freed to deliver a great customer experience rather than rushing to close the ticket and get off the phone.

2 – More room for growth and upward economic mobility.

Once employees are trained in these higher-skilled jobs, the opportunity for growth and economic mobility will gain steam. The shrinking market need for low-skilled workers will be a forcing function for teaching and developing new technical skills. With new skills, more employees will be on the frontlines for upward mobility.

There’s a well-documented talent shortage across major industries including technology, healthcare, and business services. Recent reports call out that 81% of recruiters are struggling to find candidates with the right skills to fill open positions. Notably, positions that require technological, data-mining and analytical skills multiply while talent supply stagnates, or dwindles as boomers retire.

These are high-skill and high-paying jobs. Starting salaries in technology and data science often eclipse the average household income in the U.S. As AI makes the choice to invest in retraining and continuing education a necessity, countless workers are going to find new careers that have more upward mobility than any opportunities previously available to them.

3 – Wage growth, stability, and higher margins.

The business argument for automation takes into account the fact that machines, in the long run, cost less than employees. It’s quite possible that layoffs and wage freezes become an artifact of an old economy -- an unnecessary maneuver in a world where labor is no longer 80% or more of the operating costs of a business. Executives will have new levers to pull in the event of a downturn, and there will be an obvious disincentive to laying of rarer talents and skill sets.

Furthermore, the entire business will benefit from higher margins due to less overhead and wages spent on manhandling the automatable tasks. If done right, AI investments could create a virtuous cycle that ultimately creates stability for businesses and the people who work for them.

Call centers experience some of the worst employee turnover rates of any industry. Most studies confirm that call center employee turnover is 30-45%. The resulting instability wreaks havoc on most call center operations. The cost to replace one of these employees, on average, ranges from $10K to $15K, and therefore increases the costs to the business and depresses the wages that can be offered. In short -- call centers are subject to a vicious cycle.

The call center of the future, in contrast, can use AI to take over the facets of the job that are dissatisfying to the people in this profession. The result is a series of new roles that warrant higher compensation and offer a much more compelling employee experience. The business gets less volatility, higher margins on the whole, and a workforce as committed to the company mission as senior management.

Productivity is bad for no one

The reality of AI in the workforce is that it is bringing about an entirely new wave of efficiency and higher productivity. Efficiency and higher productivity have always been to the great benefit of workers and consumers.

Perhaps the most overlooked benefit of AI is the delivery of a customer experience that is much more human in tone and tenor. Consumers will be put on hold less frequently and for less time. Agents will no longer have to scramble for several stressful minutes to find basic information, and managers will be able to focus on creating more empathetic, human connections with customers and workers alike.

Consider for a moment that AI has been relentlessly scapegoated for the loss of good service jobs. What if it is the tool by which service jobs are elevated to new heights? What if, to the great benefit of individuals and the broader economy they participate in, AI is not competing with people for jobs, but is creating the job they always wanted?

At Next IT, we not only deliver AI solutions for businesses to engage and support their customers, but some of our most powerful solutions have been supporting workforces through natural language interactions for over five years to shorten training times, improve response accuracy, accelerate time to insight, and decrease escalation calls to management. If you’re interested in hearing more details on how AI works for the workforce, get in touch.

Topics: Business, Next IT, Tech