To paraphrase the famous playwright George Bernard Shaw, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, outsource”. For many companies, business process outsourcing (BPO) allows them to contract certain back-office and front-office functions – such as customer relations, HR management and even accounting – to third-party solutions providers. This in turn frees up resources which can be used to enhance core competencies. In Malaysia, the BPO market is a fast rising one, and is ripe to be augmented with technology, as Sudhir Agarwal, CEO of Singapore-based BPO company Everise Holdings, explains to International Business Review.
What is the current landscape of the BPO industry in Malaysia and other parts of the world?
On a global scale, the BPO market is forecast to reach US$262.2 billion by 2022, with the Asia Pacific region receiving 8.5%, a major share of the growth. While the regional BPO industry is dominated by the Philippines, which employs over a million people, Malaysia is becoming a player in its own right, with a BPO and business services market that is predicted to hit US$1.4 billion in 2021, at a CAGR of 7.9 percent, thanks to an increase in demand for customer care and high-end analytics solution by Malaysian enterprises. Human resources and the finance and accounting sectors formed 75 percent of the total BPO market in 2016, with customer care sector at 14 percent and the procurement sector at 9 percent.
Are we seeing companies increasingly integrate Artificial Intelligence (AI) into its operations? Why or why not?
In general, BPO companies tend to concentrate more on utilising human manpower on an offshore basis to complete work using the same processes and systems that have been previously used. Technology has been adopted in terms of cloud computing, business analytics software, social media platforms and process automation software, thus enabling businesses to cut costs and become more effective. The industry has used technology to establish the infrastructure for service delivery and is now beginning to leverage technology as a source of innovation and advantage.
With an increase in customer demand and clients expecting more from their customer service agents – from speed and cost efficiencies to the quality of care and service – technology needs to be incorporated by companies so as to augment their employees, providing them with the tools to meet these customer demands. As such, I believe the next stage in the industry will be the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI), as it provides a level of analytics that we have yet to see in the industry.
The business services industry has started using AI to automate routine processes and is looking to disrupt the industry by further leveraging it to offer a more personalised customer experience which is powered by employees who are fuelled by this knowledge and data. With AI, many of these repetitive and mundane tasks that were performed by staff can be managed better, faster and at a reduced cost. AI also enables flexibility in firms and allows them to provide better service with 100 percent accuracy, thus enhancing the overall customer service experience.
Why does the BPO industry need an AI platform and what effect do you think such technology will have?
Malaysian and international consumers are becoming more and more demanding when it comes to customer service. They not only require that their issues or questions be dealt with accurately and effectively, but immediately and through multiple devices (phone, mobile, e-mail, WhatsApp etc), anytime, anywhere. This poses a challenge to many businesses in Malaysia who are relying on yesterday’s technology and techniques and so are unable to provide the high level of service, both consumers and our clients, expect and need.
An AI-powered platform will target voice, video and text interactions and deliver an unprecedented intelligent, customer-centric experience. It will also allow a level of analysis that has yet to be witnessed in the industry.
Front-line agents will be able to evaluate and act on customer sentiment faster than before and be able to deliver a better experience as they will spend more time interacting with customers and less time on routine and monotonous tasks.
Engagements through chat, e-mail and text will also improve with higher accuracy, leading to a more effective and efficient customer service and overall care. Furthermore, AI enables business service entities to initiate and incorporate innovation into their business processes and for their customers, thus establishing a competitive advantage in this ever-evolving industry.
As such, we believe this ability will enhance the value of Malaysia’s business services sector, enabling it to offer an elevated level of service offering and analysis for both local and international firms, allowing the sector’s growth to progress.
How will technology augment, not replace, human BPO workers?
In the BPO industry in particular, technology will be an enabler as it will make processes more efficient, allowing things to happen faster. There will always be a need for human interaction in the BPO industry as customers opt to speak to a fellow human when in doubt. AI and technology will not only aid BPO employees to do so much more at a faster rate but also provide a better level of service and quality.
How can AI specifically enhance the Malaysian BPO employee’s competitive edge – human empathy?
Malaysian BPO centres need to serve their clients through multiple channels including voice, text, social media and chatbots, with ever growing client demands and the need to provide higher-value, more complex services. Technology will allow the Malaysian sector to do this. AI, automation and other innovations will take away many of the repetitive and monotonous tasks that
are currently carried out by BPO employees, allowing them to concentrate on higher-value jobs that involve customer engagement.
The Malaysian BPO and business services sector will ultimately be future-proofed with AI delivering a higher level of analysis for clients and being able to merge and connect all customer services channels from online to text to voice, resulting in better service. AI can also go beyond and provide information on the customer that is more in-depth, relevant and accessible, leading to better customer service and outcomes.
A 20-year veteran in the BPO industry, the Chief Executive Officer of Everise, Sudhir Agarwal led the company into a partnership with Microsoft in 2018 to develop an Artificial Intelligence (AI) platform to disrupt the Contact Centre and Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry. He also inked a joint venture with UBASE, Korea’s largest BPO to form Globee, a multilingual centre in Malaysia that is powered by native language speakers. In August of 2018, Sudhir was awarded the prestigious “CEO of the Year Award” by Asia’s Outsourcing Excellence Awards presented by CMO Asia.
How will technology actually increase the number of mid and high-skilled jobs, lifting the country up the value chain?
Usually, BPO companies focused on utilising manpower on an offshore basis to complete work due to lower manpower cost in countries such as India and the Philippines. However, with an increase in customer demands and client expectations, Malaysian BPO and business services firms need to look into up-skilling their employees. For example, taking up the study of analytics and data science will be an advantage in the future. Together with the arrival of a large amount of diverse information, skills-based positions like data scientists, designers and digital marketing experts are here to stay and are also expected to be in high demand.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) provides a level of analytics that is yet to be experienced, allowing the level of customer service to be transformed and go beyond by providing value added services. With AI, many of the repetitive and mundane tasks that were performed by staff can be managed better for a mere fraction of the cost. AI also enables flexibility in firms and allows them to provide better service with 100% accuracy, thus enhancing the overall customer service experience.
By merging the efficiencies of AI with the personal touch of human interaction, BPO companies can provide the best of both worlds to their customers. As Sudhir Agarwal explained, “Technology will augment BPO employees, instead of replacing them. It will usher in a demand for higher-value jobs, moving the sector and its millions of employees up the value chain. By taking over many of the rules-based tasks, it allows staff to concentrate on customer engagement, enabling them to provide a higher level of customer service.”