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Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) and the evolving role of human agents

Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) has supported business strategies for decades. By entrusting non-core operations to third-party service providers, companies can focus on their core competencies, leading to more innovation, greater efficiency, reduced costs, and improved service levels. However, like all sectors, BPO is undergoing a transformation, particularly in the role of human agents. Let’s explore the dynamics of this evolution.

Traditionally, BPO has been synonymous with contact centres and customer service operations. Human agents have been at the forefront, managing customer inquiries, complaints, and services. Over the years, BPO expanded into areas like finance, HR, and IT services. But the consistent theme has been human expertise driving these outsourced functions.

With the surge in technological advancements, particularly in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation, the BPO sector is undergoing a significant shift. Tasks once handled by human agents are now often managed by automated systems or AI-driven solutions. Virtual customer assistants, for instance, now handle many customer inquiries through generative AI, large language models and machine learning (ML), and robotic process automation (RPA) tools streamline repetitive back-office tasks.

However, while automation and AI are taking over specific tasks, in our experience, the role of human agents is not diminishing but evolving. When leveraged correctly, technology can support skills development and create a more competitive organisation through the characteristics that only people can bring to the table:

  • Complex problem solving: Automation excels at handling repetitive and well-defined tasks. Human agents, on the other hand, are increasingly managing more complex, nuanced issues that machines cannot yet address. Their role is becoming more analytical and decision-centric, and since we have more access to data and analytical tools than ever before, this can lead to significantly better business outcomes.
  • Emotional intelligence: While AI has made strides, it hasn’t yet replicated the emotional intelligence of humans. In customer service scenarios requiring empathy, understanding, and nuance, human agents remain irreplaceable.
  • Training and supervision: As machines take on more roles, human agents transition into supervisory roles, ensuring that automated processes run smoothly and intervening only when there are exceptions. These exceptions are then investigated and machine learning (ML) is used to improve processes.
  • Continuous learning and adaptation: The rapid pace of technological change necessitates that human agents continuously upskill and adapt. They need to understand new technologies, tools, and methodologies to remain relevant, and since the more manual side of their work can be automated, they have the time to spend on upskilling.

Creating a hybrid model

Forward-thinking BPO providers are adopting a hybrid approach, designing processes where automation handles routine tasks, and human agents manage more complex, high-value activities. This synergy ensures efficiency while preserving the human touch essential for specific interactions.

A few years ago, many businesses viewed BPO strictly as a cost-saving measure. Today, that narrative is changing. BPO providers are now seen as value-added partners, often playing a consultative role. They provide insights, suggest improvements, and work collaboratively with businesses to enhance processes and customer experiences.

This shift in the role of human agents in BPO presents both challenges and opportunities. First, responsible and forward-thinking BPO providers must invest in comprehensive training programmes to ensure their human workforce can take on new, advanced roles. With machines taking on more tasks, there may also be concerns about job displacements, particularly in a country like South Africa where unemployment levels are so high. At FunxionO, we focus on emphasizing the irreplaceable value of human insight and judgment and leveraging people and technology working together, creating future-fit workforces. We also work closely with our clients to define and realign their operational strategies, determining the right balance between automated and human-driven processes.

Ultimately, the future of BPO isn’t about humans versus machines but humans augmented by machines, collaboratively driving business growth and innovation.

By: Mike O’Donghue, Managing Executive

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