Plenary Speaker



Dr Jane Lockwood

Research Centre for Professional
Communication in English

Department of English
The Hong Kong Polytechnic University

The Perpetual Fantasy: From Offshoring and Outsourcing to Artificial Intelligence (AI) in the Contact Centre Industry


20 years ago companies from developed English speaking countries began to outsource and offshore their customer service support operations to developing countries such as India and the Philippines. This was enabled by technological advances in fibre optic cabling. So Prasad in Bangalore was pretending to be Chuck in Houston. Such a fantastic transformation however challenged companies in areas of communication and culture that they had hardly considered, and the wisdom at the time within the BPO industry was that accent neutralization and accurate English language grammar would solve problems in communication between Prasad and his English speaking customers. We know now after two decades of collaborative research between the academe and the contact industry that this is not the case and the communication challenges have been indeed more linguistically and culturally challenging than first thought.

Now 20 years later, we are in the grip of another fantasy. Prasad is still Chuck but Sophie, the AI virtual assistant, is poised to displace both of them. This second fantastic transformation is perhaps even more challenging in areas of communication, and companies are only just beginning to consider how further advances in technology and AI will impact high quality communication at contact centres. Questions such as:

  • Can Sophie speak, chat and write competently to customers?
  • What level of service makes Sophie a viable virtual assistant? 
  • What do we do when Sophie gets only 71% CSat rating?
  • How do we upskill Prasad to take more complex enquiries?

This plenary paper provides both a retrospective and prospective account of the challenges the global contact centre industry have faced, and continue to face in providing excellent customer service to English-speaking customers.