By Jenina P. Ibañez
“HI THERE! My name is Victor and I will be helping you today!”
The customer service agent’s tone is kind and peppy. He’s fond of exclamation points. He offers detailed responses and does it without pausing to think.
In the Philippines, there are more than a million people employed in business process outsourcing (BPO), an industry that makes more than $20 billion a year. Many of these employees are call center agents answering queries and calming down exasperated customers.
But Victor is not one of them. Once faced with a question he hasn’t been trained to answer, he simply replies: “I think my human colleagues can answer this for you.”
ChatbotPH, a 20-employee company in Pasig City, creates artificial intelligence (AI) units like Victor. Using natural language processing, the bot is trained to understand and respond to human speech. The company collaborates with the client to build a personality for Victor, deciding whether interjections such as “Awesome!” or “Great!” fit the company brand.
For the past few years, AI has slowly been integrated into the local BPO industry. With multitasking robots that never sleep, the service offers the industry efficiency and 24/7 customer service.
But by using technology that seems human, the industry is facing tough questions about whether it threatens call center employment.
ChatbotPH thinks artificial intelligence complements employment. “Robots in general should work with humans,” ChatbotPH Business Development Manager Albert G. Sarabia said in an interview.
The IT Business Processing Association of the Philippines’ (IBPAP) targets 1.8 million direct jobs by 2022, although its has recently been missing its growth goals.
Mr. Sarabia said outsourcing employees can work with technology that frees them from repetitive work and gives them time to do higher-value tasks.
“It’s quite similar to farming. When the tractors arrived — it didn’t remove people from farming, it just helped them to make their work easier, to be more efficient,” he said.
“I think it’s the same thing for BPOs. If they have the chatbot, the humans won’t be gone. They just need to adapt and learn new skills like how to use chatbots to make their work more efficient.”
Call center agents don’t need to learn programming, but will be given a platform to train chatbots to respond to simple questions.
But when ChatbotPH pitches its services to clients, it touts reduced labor costs — “instead of hiring one more person or five more people to do the job, a single chatbot can do it for you,” Mr. Sarabia said.
With robots taking on routine customer service jobs, workers are racing to gain skills that robots do not have.
Jerome B. Pineda, who worked as a call center agent for years taking on telecommunication billings, booking services and technical support, said he never really enjoyed his job.
“It was a good way to earn money without a degree,” Mr. Pineda said by telephone. “Even if you’re not a college graduate, you’ll still earn a lot of money if you can speak well.”
Technology is changing the qualifications required for employment in the industry. Asian Development Bank (ADB) economist Elisabetta Gentile said this is happening because chatbots are now doing the work of customer service agents.
“BPOs in more technology-intensive sectors such as animation or medical transcription fill roughly 70% of their entry positions with college graduates, as opposed to the BPO industry average of 13%,” Ms. Gentile said in an e-mailed reply to questions.
“The skill composition of the BPO labor force is skewing towards college-educated, skilled workers.”
New technologies signal a decline in jobs in an industry that, as recent as 2016, had almost half of its employees working on “process-driven tasks requiring little abstract thinking,” according to ADB’s 2018 Asian Development Outlook.
There are new employment opportunities driven by greater demand for complex services, but they require more specialized training, it said.
Bench R. Cosme, ChatbotPH engineering director, sees chatbots less as a risk to the BPO industry, but as a personal alternative to less interactive mobile applications.
“Our competitor is not the BPO industry,” he said in Filipino in an interview. “Our competitor is the mobile application. Chatbots are just another interface of service that Web sites and mobile applications make.”
Mr. Pineda said he’d be happy to return to the industry if he could skip the repetitive routine and apply his new skills in emergency medicine. He’s interested in answering emergency calls, where he can teach people how to do CPR.
ChatbotPH wants to go beyond its current version of AI to machine learning, which will allow a chatbot to train itself.
For now, many customers think chatbots are still not smart enough to get the job done. Consumers may favor them for only the simplest queries that can be done quickly, such as tracking an order or finding basic information.
“Empathy — that’s something robots can’t do,” Mr. Pineda, the former call center agent, said.
“Only a person can build rapport with customers.”