Digital transformation, like many industry buzzwords, covers a whole host of disparate technologies and ideals defined by myriad different goals. However, one inescapable theme of the move to next generation technologies is the very real impact on employees.

The so-called human element was one frequently brought-up by experts at TM Forum’s recent flagship Digital Transformation World 2019 event, held in Nice.

Vendors selling into operators and internal digital teams are quick to point to cost-efficiencies enabled by AI and automation, but to many the word efficiency screams job cuts.

This is clearly an issue close to mind, with a number of speakers in Nice eager to state a switch to digital should come alongside “culture change”. A large part of this seems to be taking employees along with operators as they update systems.

The need for training staff in new areas was noted early on at the event by Rob Visser, the CIO of Italian operator Wind Tre, who urged fellow operators not to forget their people when introducing digital technologies and emphasised the need to retrain employees.

One example of digital experience already becoming prevalent in many operator’s networks is the use of virtual assistants and chatbots to take some customer queries.

Jobs for the bots
In an interview with Mobile World Live, Jose Ramon Gomez Utrilla, senior product manager at Telefonica’s AURA virtual assistant unit, dismissed the prospect of his company eliminating call centres in favour of AI.

He said it was the combination of the convenience of an automated bot and expertise of physical agents which would increase customer satisfaction going forward.

“There is obviously a change, but that change doesn’t need to be a lay-off of people, rather [this is] a chance to train the people in the skills that are more valuable instead of answering things that could be answered by a bot.”

Citing the vast number of irrelevant calls made to its centres, including queries on the timing of the next Barcelona and Real Madrid football matches, he said “let’s turn people into consultants rather than answering these types of questions.”

Deutsche Telekom representative from Board Area Technology and Innovation, Erik Meijer, said his company placed a huge value on physical call centres and was continuing to invest in them, as he believed it provided an area of differentiation.

“It’s very hard to replicate a call centre,” he explained. “We just want a bot if we have a network issue or maybe an outage and we need to communicate very rapidly. That’s perfectly fine for very mundane tasks.

“For things where you just want to check-in and check-out, parties don’t want to talk to each other. However, when parties are interested in talking to each other, please talk.”

He added as the operator partners with other companies, such as automotive brands on connected cars, there may be an opportunity to also provide call centre service to businesses partnering on smart products with the operator.

Discussing its Djingo assistant during a session on churn reduction, Orange project director for standardisation and institutions Sophie Nachman warned chatbots were “far from being like people and behaving like people.

“We have guidelines, the customer should not be fooled. It has to be clearly identified as a chatbot not an agent. We have some tests in some shops, but it’s very limited. It’s not really accepted by the customer, certainly not in France.”

While operators are swift to vocally back employees, a number of companies in markets now politely defined as “competitive” have already cut back on staff.

Over the last two years BT in the UK, Telenor in the Nordics and Vodafone Italy are three of the many operators to target a reduction of employee numbers, as they seek to achieve improved profitability and in some cases reduce debt.

Ultimately, time will tell what proportion of queries and back office tasks can be dealt with by automation without creating a negative overall impact.

On the other hand, having physical staff taking customer queries may be an expense, but for operators the human touch is something many internet-first challengers will not be able to match and could provide a key differentiator as quality of connection becomes less of an issue.

The editorial views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and will not necessarily reflect the views of the GSMA, its Members or Associate Members.