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Time to hang up the phone? The impact of Covid-19 on the world’s call-center industry

Time to hang up the phone? The impact of Covid-19 on the world’s call-center industry
Researchers at the UK’s Strathclyde University recently expressed alarm over the illness levels of call-center workers in the country during Covid-19. And, post-pandemic, the industry’s prospects look set to go from bad to worse.

For call-centers the world over, the writing has been on the wall for a while. With the rise of automation, in tandem with advances in natural-language processing, the industry has realized it no longer needs real people to facilitate its calls.

Now, with Covid-19 to contend with, it’s found that, in many cases, it’s not even allowed to have humans working in situ anyway, with social distancing and lockdowns having become the global norm. All this is beginning to make the call-center look obsolete.

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The implications have been stark. In India, millions of call-center workers in the nation’s US$100bn-plus IT, data, and call-center industry were asked to work from home in March, resulting in widespread reports of lags in service.

In the Philippines, which is home to a sizeable outsourcing sector, similar measures have been taken. This has led to huge relocation costs, further highlighting the inefficiency of the industry’s current modeling and forcing businesses to look to other solutions to navigate whatever lies ahead.

Even in the public sector, Covid-19 has sapped call-centers’ dwindling relevancy. In the United States, for example, public-sector call-centers have been hit as state administrations have ordered reductions in governmental staff. At the same time, inbound calls from the public have increased as callers search for guidance during these uncertain times, leading to an unworkable situation.

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In response, businesses have turned to technology. IBM’s Watson Assistant, a chatbot for businesses, saw a 40 percent increase in traffic between February and April. Smelling opportunity, Google launched its Rapid Response Virtual Agent, a chatbot that’s similar to its Contact Center AI, at a lower price to help seize on the increase in demand.

A chatbot works like any other voice assistant, but instead of having an application for the purchasing of food, for example, it is instead programmed with a script of FAQs that it can understand and respond to. If it is unable to do so – a situation that will likely decrease as chatbots advance – it will reroute the call to an actual human.

Yet even with the human backup required, the fact remains that chatbots are easy to build and fast to deploy. Even more problematic for the millions of people whose livelihood depends on working at a call-center, they are inevitably cheaper than employing hundreds of real people. With the worst recession in a generation on the horizon, it’s difficult to find a reason why they won’t remain in place after the pandemic has passed.

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