Future call centers could shift work to computers

Capitol One’s decision to leave Sioux Falls by the end of the year and take 750 jobs with it has been pinned on its struggle to keep its workforce at capacity.

Artificial intelligence might eventually solve that problem for companies competing to fill their call centers in a low-unemployment market, the Argus Leader (http://argusne.ws/1PxVLnQ ) reported.

When IBM’s Watson computer turned its massive data banks and its artificial intelligence capabilities into a victory over Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings in February 2011, the potential for machines to analyze questions and respond in ways that sound almost human was unleashed.

In his book “Rise of the Robots,” California software developer Martin Ford notes that within a year of Watson’s triumph in Jeopardy!, IBM was already working with Citigroup “to explore applications for the system in the company’s massive retail financial operations.”

Whether that has affected Citi’s operation in Sioux Falls is difficult to assess. Janis Tarter with Citi’s Consumer Banking Public Affairs declined an interview, though she noted that digital efforts are a significant part of her company’s continuing effort to improve customer experiences.

“But we’ll always have a need for skilled customer service phone agents who can engage with customers, particularly for more complex transactions,” Tarter said in an email.

That’s probably true, Ford said. But he referenced what he called a well-known 80/20 rule in customer service that says 80 percent of all calls are about roughly 20 percent of the problems. If IBM and other competing systems “can develop technologies that focus on issues that come up again and again and make them bulletproof, I think it’s easy to imagine disruptions” where computers replace humans, he said.

“Within specific areas, it will get to the point where you’ll be on the phone talking to a machine and it won’t be obvious,” Ford said. “And so what if Capitol One said, ‘Let’s invest in technology to address the (workforce) problem.’ It starts in South Dakota. But before you know it, you’ve got a technology that can replace a lot of people, not just in South Dakota but everywhere.”

Ray Apple, head of Wells Fargo’s Virtual Channels Contact Centers, said automation in his company’s centers that enable customers to punch buttons on a telephone and get answers to simple questions have already reduced the need for human intervention. The same with speech recognition software that allows customers to speak into the phone and get responses from an automated voice.

“Yet we have the same number of folks calling us and talking to humans,” Apple said. “I just think there’s always going to be a need for human-to-human interaction. Fundamentally, I don’t see that the technology is eliminating jobs.”

While Wells Fargo’s employee numbers are probably down 10 percent locally from 2010, company officials aren’t linking that to automation, but more to restructuring after the merger with Wachovia and its move out of federal student loans.

And like Capitol One, Wells Fargo has simply had a difficult time keeping its employee numbers up in Sioux Falls because of the competition for workers, Apple said. “I have the space there, and I have a great workforce and would love to do more,” he said. “It’s just been tough to hire people.”

Is it possible that the evolving automation and technology movement will change that dynamic in 10, 20 years? In Rock Rapids, Iowa, Frontier Bank’s video banking manager Mark Radtke isn’t making a call one way or another. But he’s not oblivious, either, to the societal changes wrought by ATMs and mobile banking apps, and the possibilities that the continuing technological evolution will bring.

His bank’s branches here in Sioux Falls and into Iowa at Rock Rapids, Little Rock and George see a lot less people coming through the doors, especially among the Millennial generation, as they rely more on technology.

“That generation is so used to trusting technology and doing things from their phone that they’re going into branch banks a lot less frequently than others,” Radtke said.

In a nod to that, his bank has started using virtual teller technology at its various branches. Now a customer in Sioux Falls can deposit checks, take out cash and coins, and have transactions posted immediately — all while having a video conversation with a teller back at company headquarters in Rock Rapids.

And even better, they can do it at 7:15 in the morning or 6:50 in the evening.

“It allows us to extend our hours without extending our branch hours,” said Radtke, who added that as opposed to reducing workforce needs, it actually increased it because they had to add a teller at Rock Rapids.

“We didn’t look at it as a machine replacement for people,” he said. “It’s more of an extension.”

Whether that changes depends on the coming generations, he and Jon Pederson, vice president of technology at Midcontinent in Sioux Falls say. Ford could be right about automation and its displacing of human workforce in the next decade or two, they say. It depends on the technology. But mostly, they add, it will depend on who that technology is serving and what they want.

“I think it’s a generational thing,” Pederson said. “I think a lot of younger folks would prefer not to talk to human beings at all.

“We see customer service as a differentiating feature because everyone else is trying to decline customer service. But as more people get more comfortable getting on their iPhones, calling up the Internet and getting the help they need, who knows? If the customers, the younger generation, get more comfortable with that, and that’s the way it goes, then sure, it could impact our business model in the future.”

Information from: Argus Leader, http://www.argusleader.com

This is an AP Member Exchange shared by the Argus Leader

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