"There will be no closures of New Zealand call centres as an outcome of this process," Vodafone NZ boss Jason Paris told the Herald this morning as the telco's restructure continues.
His reassurance, of sorts, comes after Paris responded to a reader comment on possible call centre offshoring: "As a proud and passionate New Zealander my preference is to keep roles in NZ, but when the customer service is the same or better and at a much lower cost then it's tough to ignore this option. Just to clarify that in these overseas call centres we pay the agents well based on their local market and cost of living."
Vodafone NZ customers currently have their support calls sent to helpdesks in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, or one of three offshore call centres - two in the Philippines and one in India.
Rather talk to an app than a person
Paris says the total number of call centre staff would only be lowered if the pain points that trigger helpdesk calls can be reduced first.
He also tells the Herald that more self-service and automation options are in the works.
"When you're dealing with an organisation, you'd much rather deal with us for an app or digital channels than talk to people, in the main, unless it's a big decision or a complex problem," he says.
On LinkedIn, comms executive Nikki Wright agreed, posting "I recently rang both Spark's and Vodafone's 0800 numbers whilst messaging their chat bots online and had x2 quotes in my inbox before either had answered the 0800 number. Efficiency wins."
"We've spent a lot of money on trying to acquire new customers and probably haven't done as good a job as we would like to demonstrating to the existing customers how much we value their business," Paris says.
Automation will be part of the mix as the telco seeks to lift its game.
Services will be digitised on many levels. One initiative saw a virtual human, "Kiri", introduced via smart kiosks introduced to a number of Vodafone NZ stores shortly before Christmas in an AI trial.
"We're Kiwi as, bro"
If Vodafone NZ does end up offshoring more call centre roles, rivals 2degrees and Vocus (owner of Orcon and Slingshot) can be expected to make hay.
2degrees has long used the fact that all of its 350 or so call centre staff are based in New Zealand as a marketing point - something spokeswoman Katherine Cornish underlined this morning as she told the Herald, "We're Kiwi as, bro."
And last year, Vocus promoted the fact it had brought support roles from Manila to Auckland (culling helpdesk numbers from 100 to 60 in the process).
There are nuances here, however. Spark got a lot of stick when (as Telecom) it moved most of its centre operations to Manila in 2006.
But a Spark insider notes that migrant staff are common at call centres in New Zealand (and 2degrees' Cornish confirms her company approached the Government last year to negotiate a prior approval process to help onboard call centre staff from outside NZ, or to help them get their work visas renewed). That means - if it bothers you - that you might not hear a Kiwi accent when you dial a help desk in Auckland or Wellington.
IT roles already offshored
An ex-Vodafone NZ staffer tells the Herald that the telco outsourced around 40 IT roles to India last year, under an offshoring deal with Infosys.
To rub salt into the wounds, the axed Auckland staff had to spend eight weeks training the people who would take over their jobs, he says.
A Vodafone NZ spokeswoman confirmed a round of IT department outsourcing did occur in 2017, but said the company could not provide any details due to commercial sensitivities.
Paris says that while outsourcing and offshoring are possibilities, there could also be "in-sourcing" - if that makes financial sense.
He says Vodafone has 26 Centres of Excellence around the world, and routing helpdesk calls or other work to them could be the best option in some cases.
The Vodafone NZ boss also emphasises that call centres are just one element of the restructure. All 10 company's business units are being assessed, he says, as managers and staff are asked for their input.
Earlier this week, Paris confirmed that 10 senior management roles would be axed.
Rank-and-file staff will learn their fate by the end of March.
The telco currently employs around 2700 people in NZ. The widespread assumption among staff is that hundreds of positions will go, but Paris says it is too early in the process to give any figure.
Vodafone NZ missed targets last year, Paris says. Cost-cutting is needed to improve profitability, and to free-up cash for investment in new areas, ahead of an IPO planned for 2020.