CLEVVA CEO Ryan Falkenberg & Neville Cousins head of special projects and digital ITO development at BPESA
Digital is non-negotiable for business process outsourcers and call centre owners, says Neville Cousins. He is the head of special projects and digital ITO development at Business Process Enabling South Africa (BPESA), the industry body and trade association for global business services – aka the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector in South Africa.
“Digital is affecting everything we do,” says Cousins, “particularly the perpetual problem of customer service costs.”
No business can afford to service customers perfectly, which means they’re constantly trying to deliver the best possible service for the least possible cost, he explains. This is where technology – and the changes it is bringing – comes into it.
“Virtual agents (VAs) bring consistent, repeatable service experiences that can be tweaked live as needed. Compare this to human agents, who perform well or badly depending on various factors, and need to be trained and then retrained if something changes. It’s a constant cycle of making sure that these agents are performing at an acceptable level and it’s costly.
“However, there is no question of whether or not digital is better than human agents,” he states, “An effective agent will outperform an automated process because humans connect with humans in very specific ways and can create value far in excess of what a digital channel offers. This is not always the case with digital, as anyone who has had a bad chatbot experience knows.
“What digital offers is consistency,” he states, “With human agents you get a dynamic of good service one minute then bad the next. With digital channels you get good service, which you can maintain to provide a consistent level of service. Customers then buy into that channel, get used to it, get comfortable with it and start to appreciate it because they know what to expect.”
This assumes the digital channels have been set up correctly and Conversational AI-powered chatbots effectively trained, says CLEVVA CEO Ryan Falkenberg.
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“People often find dealing with chatbots frustrating because they don’t understand that person’s specific context. People then opt out and try to engage directly with a live agent which, for call centres looking to manage costs and performance, isn’t ideal.”
The solution – as it so often is with technology – is balance, and taking a ‘horses for courses’ approach. Virtual agents (VAs), a form of digital agent that are a step up from chatbots, are good at establishing context and can quickly work out what a person wants, however badly phrased, the same way a human agent can. Chatbots often cannot do this as they are very specifically scripted and unless you ask them the correct, direct question, they’re unhelpful.
Virtual agents are also often better at sensitive conversations than humans are. For example, says Cousins, a virtual agent calling you to ask about your debt status, and discussing your options with you is a lot less mortifying than a human agent calling you.
Virtual agents can also help remove the abuse customer service agents routinely experience. Cold calling, for example, results in agents being cursed, insulted and yelled at, which they all (understandably) hate and which takes a huge mental health toll. Instead, says Falkenberg, a VA can qualify a lead and hand it over to a human only when there is a very high chance of success (and a concomitant low chance of abuse).
“Virtual agents need to be looked at holistically across all channels and used for the right reasons, where they can generate the best outcomes,” Falkenberg notes.
In South Africa, the BPO Sector and the Department of Trade, Industry and Competition have set a joint goal to create half a million new jobs in the sector by 2030. As a result, the global business services sector is growing contributing $323 million to the country’s export revenue in 2022.
South Africa has recently been recognised as one of the most popular destinations globally for customer experience outsourcing in the Annual Ryan Strategic Advisory 2023 Front Office CX Omnibus Survey. The survey found that South African consumers are increasingly using mobile and social media channels, which local BPO companies have deep expertise in. It also found that companies that invest in technologies like AI and chatbots see improvements in customer satisfaction and efficiency.