As India announced a three-week lockdown in March to curb the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, [24]7.ai had a problem on its hands. The American business process management (BPM) company has offices in Bengaluru and Hyderabad, which house over 5,000 people—half of its worldwide talent pool. With India shutting down, [24]7.ai had to figure out how to continue responding to the customer support needs of several clients in the United States—in real time.

The company began transporting 1,300 computers and nearly 1,000 back-up power systems to its employees’ homes in vans labelled ‘Essential Services’. And it wasn’t alone.

According to an official with direct knowledge of the matter, Sopra Steria, a technology consultancy from Europe, transported more than 8,000 uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems to its employees in India. IT giant Wipro dispatched 30,000 desktops to its employees across the country.

However, the pace of enabling remote working was hardly ideal for the companies. It involved a cumbersome process of obtaining approvals from local authorities. To ensure this delay did not affect its operations, [24]7.ai decided to increase its capacity in other countries like Colombia. The South American nation has reported fewer Covid-19 cases (~3,500) than India’s 14,000-plus.

Apart from reshoring its operations, the company also accelerated its path to automation. “We started seeing more volumes in the automated channels,” said Shanmugam Nagarajan*, co-founder of [24]7.ai. The automated channels refer to bots that respond to customers without the need for human intervention. “All put together, we were able to save the day.”

At another BPM firm in the healthcare industry, nearly 38% of its claims in March were done by bots, according to an official who requested anonymity as they were not authorised to speak with the media. The figure typically hovers around 22%.

“The speed at which automation will come into play for BPO BPO Business Process Outsourcing BPO is the practice of a company hiring a business process management (BPM) company to perform its operational processes and tasks activity will increase right now,” said Bhanumurthy BM, president and chief operating officer, Wipro, during the company’s fourth-quarter earnings call last week. “Different opportunities will emerge in the BPO landscape.”

But a Renaissance moment doesn’t make the present any easier for India’s $33 billion BPO industry, which employs 1.3 million people across over 3,000 companies. The sector has been built on a delicate seesaw model. For long, it has been about balancing the needs of enterprise clients from the US and Europe on one side, and trained human agents on the other.

The greater the demand from the West, the more India’s industry has reinforced talent (human agents) for its customers, snaring more than 35% of the global market share. Now, trade body Nasscom has appealed for a bailout package for smaller BPO firms to help them partly compensate entry-level professionals.

AUTHOR

Kunal Talgeri

Kunal is a Bangalore-based business journalist who has dabbled in editing and reporting since 2001. He has covered the technology industry for the Indian editions of Fortune and Forbes, as well as The Economic Times. A commerce graduate, Kunal also studied at the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.

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