Some days the robot future feels closer than others. At the annual Google developer jamboree in California last week, the tech giant wowed the audience with the language skills of its virtual assistant software, now so fluent it can make calls without the recipient realising the voice does not belong to a human.
It’s a long way from Silicon Valley to Swansea, where less than a fortnight ago nearly 800 call centre workers were blindsided by Virgin Media’s surprise decision to pull out of Wales’s second-largest city in 2019. While Virgin did not blame the march of technology for the decision to close its Swansea base, the move is symptomatic of dramatic changes sweeping the UK customer services industry.
The majority of customer-service workers are concentrated in a few hundred large operations around the country, each employing 250 staff or more. So when they close job losses are significant: Virgin’s Swansea site had 792 staff while the closure of Tesco’s Cardiff call centre in February eliminated 1,100 jobs.
Anne-Marie Stagg, chief executive of the Call Centre Management Association, said machine-learning was the latest stick being used to beat a resilient industry.
“It’s is the current bogeyman,” said Stagg. “Every couple of years there’s a bogeyman that’s going to take jobs,but we are not seeing it. Call volumes are declining but those that come through are more complex and take longer to resolve. If there is an area finding it tough it’s retail, as the industry has been impacted by online shopping.”