Does directory inquiries have a future offering advice to the elderly?
The 114 Information Service, the Korean directory inquiry service, is on the brink of disappearing as more people turn to their smartphones and the internet to look up phone numbers.
While the call center’s days may be numbered, a growing number of elderly callers are turning to the service to find solutions to problems they face in the digital age.
The 114 Information Service is the only business directory in Korea where artificial intelligence and robot operators have failed to replace humans. Phones are open around the clock with human counselors on standby to pick up calls in less than 10 seconds.
The number of calls to the center, however, has dropped to a tenth of what it was 18 years ago, according to data released by KT last week.
The number has dropped significantly from more than one billion calls in 2002 to half of that, or 549 million calls, in 2012. Last year the annual total was 168 million calls.
The number of operators hired to answer inquiries also plummeted. Call centers located in the Seoul and surrounding metropolitan areas stopped hiring inbound operators in 2008. The total number of counselors working in all 114 call centers dropped by a whopping 83 percent in the last 20 years to 691 people. Two decades ago, more than 4,000 people worked for the service.
Industry officials say digitization may be inevitable, even for the 114 call center, considering many other call centers have already replaced staff with automated systems and artificial intelligence chatbots. The push is gaining strength, especially since the coronavirus pandemic, following a number of cluster infections traced back to call centers in Seoul.
On the other hand, experts argue that human counselors are still meaningful and necessary. A large number of users of the service today are senior citizens who live alone without much access to technology and are in need of human help. In fact, the 114 Information Service has received various inquiries related to the pandemic, such as the location of coronavirus test sites and details on emergency disaster relief grants from the government.
Some questions require creative answers. The call center explains that there have been incidents where elderly people have asked operators to help them find their daughter’s house, or who they can call to fix their gas valve.
The amount of time spent to answer inquiries has also increased, according to operators working at the call center.
“When we receive inquiries for phone numbers, it takes on average 10 seconds to handle them. But for elderly people who ask us other inquires that require some internet searching, it takes around five to eight minutes to finish them,” said one 114 call center representative.
Technically, operators are not allowed to handle such inquiries, as Korea’s Telecommunications Business Act stipulates that special call center numbers, such as 114 or 119, are obliged to only answer the inquiries they are responsible for and nothing else. This means it's effectively illegal for 114 call center representatives to answer general inquiries related to day-to-day life.
KT, which operates the 114 call center, says this calls for a change in the center’s role and responsibilities, considering how the call center has become even more important for those having difficulty using mobile devices.
“Elderly people have a hard time using automated services. They don’t know what to do when a robot operator asks them to 'press one,'” explained one 114 call center employee. “They call us to find out how they can pull up the smartphone keypad. The 114 Information Service needs to transform into a general inquiries service for older people.”
Experts say the government should revise the law so that 114 call center employees can handle various inquiries and transform the service into a form of telecommunication welfare for the digitally marginalized.
“As digitization accelerates, almost every service we use in our ordinary lives — such as calling for a taxi or banking — is done through smartphone apps, and a growing number of senior citizens feel left out,” said Kwak Keum-joo, professor of psychology at Seoul National University.
“The government and regional offices should restructure the 114 Information Service to increase convenience for elderly users and lower the stress for operators.”
BY PARK HYOUNG-SOO [firstname.lastname@example.org]