Voice assistant technology is in danger of trying to be too human. Picture: 123RF
Voice assistant technology is in danger of trying to be too human. Picture: 123RF

Companies providing customer-call services must offer the right mix of human and automated interaction if their industry can meet the expectations of providing more than 500,000 jobs by the end of this decade, say executives.

Tobias Vogtlin, CEO of Lufthansa In Touch, says SA has the skills, the environment and the cost base for the sector to thrive. The German airline’s customer service network recently celebrated 20 years in Cape Town — one of seven offices around the world.

“What has kept us rooted here is that Cape Town has an enormous pool of qualified professional talent. The country’s pricing is competitive, it’s in the same time zone as Europe and there are cultural similarities along with a solid telecommunication infrastructure,” he said.

Lufthansa runs its own operation. Merchants SA is one of a number of specialists running call centres on behalf of other companies. MD Zain Patel says the government hopes the sector, also known as business process outsourcing, could provide up to 750,000 SA jobs by 2030.

That’s not necessarily good news for consumers who find call centres an obstacle, rather than an avenue, to information and support.

Vogtlin says Lufthansa’s Cape Town centre, one of seven around the world, handles up to two-million contacts annually. As demand grows across the sector, providers will inevitably increase automation.

He disagrees with the view that the human touch will one day give way completely to artificial intelligence (AI). Many of the traditional person-to-person interactions, such as booking tickets and checking timetables, have already shifted overwhelmingly to online. But there will always be a need for personal interaction, as long as staff are properly trained.

“It’s a conflict between cost and service,” Vogtlin said.

Patel says automating routine activities allows human staff to concentrate on value-added services.

“In customer interactions, robots and AI technologies aren’t replacing humans. They are enhancing the delivery of the human touch,” he says.

Rather than reduce staff, Vogtlin says Lufthansa In Touch plans to grow its Cape Town presence.

“Our aim is to increase our staff complement a further 20% in the next five years, and to branch out and work with more airlines that would like to outsource their customer service operations.”

Patel says SA is recognised as a world-class service provider, and contributes regularly to the setting of international standards.

Local centres provide services to customers all over the world, including North America, Europe, Australia and Africa.

“SA has great capability in dealing with complexity,” he said.

furlongerd@businesslive.co.za