With fast emerging technology such as automated voice messaging (AVM) and Interactive Voice Response (IVR) being increasingly introduced into the call centre-run debt collection industry, employers are able to increase productivity and reduce staff head count by up to 50% – and still get the same amount of work done.

This new technology – as it is harnessed increasingly – could lead to the loss of tens of thousands of jobs in the call centre industry.

Andrew van Niekerk, MD of Teleforge Communications, a specialised call centre solutions provider, said with new technology a 10-man call centre can now handle the work of a 50-man call centre – if “new technology is harnessed, such as IVR, ABM and predictive dialling”.

But he added that companies would become more productive – and could therefore arguably grow, something that would not necessarily lead to job losses.

He said a company with 500 agents chasing 100 000 accounts without harnessing technology such as AVM would take five days to “work through” the accounts. Whereas, with technology automation, this process could be achieved with half the workforce, in the same amount of time.

AVM is a personalised pre-recorded message that is transmitted to thousands of cell phones or landlines in a short period of time. The recipient of the call also has the option to interact, or to be diverted to a call centre by simply using the phone’s key pad.

It can also string together sentences to provide real-time information on account balances, authentication, and so forth, in a very similar manner to what a real person would be able to do.

With AVM, consumers are even able to select the language of their choice, again by being prompted to push certain buttons, such as “push 1 for English, push 2 for Xhosa”. They are ultimately taken through an entirely automated process, leading up to the actual chasing of the debt owed, and being given an option to pay. Or making a promise to pay (PTP) by a certain date.

Call centre agents are now handling 80% of all calls, and computers 20%. But in the next five years computers will take over – and will handle up to 80% of calls.

“Theoretically, this means call centres can collect more money, faster, for their clients – meaning them, and their clients, make more money. This would potentially give them the capacity to take on more work – resulting in less job losses, or perhaps, very few.”

The jury is out on the outcome as, naturally, there has to be enough additional work for companies to take on. So the spectre of major job losses remains.

“This could be the precursor to the Second Industrial Revolution,” Van Niekerk says. “Where computers carry on replacing humans – and not just in the call centre industry.

“With the new technology, where inbound and outbound correspondence is handled in an increasingly automotive manner, there is less for call centre agents to do. Human interaction – and the human voice – is undoubtedly occurring less and less.

“But if increased productivity led to more business – and more company revenue – jobs might not be lost to such an extent. Or maybe would happen at a subdued rate. Call centres could even take up overseas work due to increased productivity, which would also attract government subsidies,” said van Niekerk.