Vodafone New Zealand has asked almost all of its staff if they want redundancy as its sweeping restructure continues.
"Vodafone NZ employees were offered the opportunity to express interest in taking voluntary redundancy," spokeswoman Kathy Gieck said.
"Voluntary redundancy gives employees the option to elect to leave the business for personal reasons, and to receive redundancy compensation."
Around 600 front line call centre and retail staff "were exempted from this offer to avoid any disruption to customer service while we work through our company-wide review of our operating model," Gieck said.
She added that the voluntary redundancy offer was separate to compulsory redundancies that will affect a so far unknown number of the telco's 2800 staff.
So far, "only a low single-digit proportion of those eligible to express interest have taken up the offer," Gieck says.
"We are currently in the process of working through these expressions of interest and will make decisions based around maintaining or improving customer service levels, preserving business continuity and retaining or developing skills we require for the future."
Insiders have told the Herald there is a broad expectation that the voluntary and compulsory redundancy processes will see around 400 staff culled. However, new chief executive Jason Paris has emphasised there is no set number. It won't be fixed until the review wraps up at the end of this month.
Last week, Unite Union organiser Shirley Wang told the Herald that 50 of her members who worked at a Vodafone NZ contact centre were in the gun. She expected their jobs to be offshored.
A "climate of fear and anxiety" had been created by the restructure process, Wang said.
"There will be no closures of New Zealand call centres as an outcome of this process," Paris said.
However, Paris did early acknowledge the possibility of some contact centre roles being offshored, saying: "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.
"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.
Paris said 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.
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.
Paris said earlier that his brief as incoming CEO was to get Vodafone NZ into shape for an IPO in early 2020.