Are call centres and outsourcing still a sure thing in the Caribbean?

Increasingly, Caribbean countries seems to be relying on offshore outsourcing to drive much needed economic growth; but is that a safe bet in this current technological age?

 

Outsourcing, call centres, BPO (business process outsourcing), are words with which we are becoming increasingly familiar – even the man on the street. Across the Caribbean, and with regard to outsourcing, there has been the long held view of sweat shops and of flight by night establishments that set up and start operating one day, but suddenly and without notice shut down leaving employees and supplier in the lurch.

However, many Caribbean countries are banking on outsourcing to help them turn their economies around – by providing much-needed jobs to their educated, but unemployed youth population, along with stimulating the local business environment through the need for a broad range of goods and services, and providing revenue to Government through various taxes. As a result, many Caribbean governments have been actively positioning their countries as attractive locations for offshore outsourcing investment.

However, with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics taking root in IT-enabled services, such as BPO, the outsourcing industry has been changing. Tasks traditionally filled by humans are not being assigned to robots, which are faster, more consistent, and even more accurate that their human counterparts. Additionally, the competition for foreign direct investment (FDI) is high. Developed and developing countries worldwide – not just in the Caribbean – are eager to attract such investment for all of the benefits that can result. In the face of all of this, can the Caribbean still make more inroads in the offshore outsourcing space?

The short answer is yes. As much as companies are excited about the impact of AI and robotics, outsourcing continues to be a strategic consideration, as it allows companies to focus on their core business, and get expert and cost-effective support for activities that do not need to be done in-house.

However, it must be emphasised that AI, robotics and automation have begun, and will continue, to change the game. The key is to try to be strategic and forward-looking in order to identify the tasks and segments in which human will still be required.

One of those areas is customer facing support. Although chat-bots, automation, along with a host of other digital tools, are already being in customer service, there still comes a point when human intervention is necessary. This is especially the case when cognitive thinking and discretionary decisions are required, such as when dealing with difficult problems or challenging complaints, for which the scripted approach will not resolve the issue.

Having said this, it must be emphasised that whilst there might always be the need for human intervention in customer facing situations, the number of humans needed is becoming fewer. Additionally, there will be an even greater requirement to possess exceptional reasoning, problem solving along with other cognitive skills, which would be developed through advanced study, and not at high school.

In summary, Caribbean countries ought to be realistic about the gains they can be realised in focussing on offshore outsourcing.  Our relatively small population size already puts us at a marked disadvantage when compared with other countries, such as those Latin America. Further, the days when the industry could be relied upon to absorb large number of the unemployed are coming to an end. There is a growing demand for well-developed (and even specialist) skills, which cannot be realised through just a few weeks or months of focussed training, but is developed over years of consistent schooling and learning.

It is thus important to manage expectations with respect to what we as countries can offer, versus our limitations, and the impact of the wider environment. Further, whilst offshore outsourcing can still be an avenue Caribbean countries pursue to secure much needed FDI, it should not be the only option upon which we are relying to drive our continued economic growth and development.

 

Image credit:  Richard Blank (flickr)

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