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Call center agents ... without the call centers

Americans dialing for customer service are increasingly being connected to call center agents without call centers. The move to home-based agents started as a trickle in the late 1990s. But it is picking up speed as a low-cost alternative to traditional call centers.
Nancy Allor works from her Arlington, Texas home last month. Americans dialing for customer service are increasingly being connected to workers like Allor — call center agents working from home.Donna Mcwilliam / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

“Hello, is Jennifer there? Jennifer at extension 43?”

Nancy Allor tilts back from the workstation at the foot of her king-size bed, momentarily puzzling the voice on her headset. A soap opera flickers silently on the TV behind her. Inside the otherwise hushed suburban townhouse, Allor’s parakeet chirps.

Whoever Jennifer is, she’s not here.

“I’m sorry,” Allor says, grinning. “I’m in a call center and we can’t transfer. But I’d be happy to help you.”

Americans dialing for customer service are increasingly being connected to workers like Allor — call center agents without call centers. The move to home-based agents, working from bedrooms and kitchen tables across the country, started as a trickle in the late 1990s. But it is picking up speed as a low-cost alternative to traditional call centers.

It’s not as cheap as offshoring, the shift of operations to countries with pools of low-paid but well-educated workers. But companies bent on cutting costs also see home agents as a way to avoid some of the consumers complaints common to overseas call centers.

More than 100,000 U.S. workers now field customer service calls from home, according to a recent report by consulting firm IDC. Over the next two years, one of every 10 U.S. call centers is likely to shift at least partly to home-based agents, according to another report by consultant Gartner Inc.

Some dub it “homeshoring.”

Call in an order to Inc. for Mother’s Day, and there’s a good chance it will be handled by a home-based agent. The same is true for consumers calling The Vermont Teddy Bear Co. or to book a room at a Wyndham International Inc. hotel.

Retailer Office Depot Inc. is closing 10 of its 12 U.S. call centers this year, replacing 900 full-time agents with home-based agents. They include Allor, an agent for Plano, Texas-based Working Solutions Inc., one of several virtual call center firms.

Cutting costs is not the only selling point of virtual call centers, but it’s a large part of the appeal.

Getting rid of call center buildings saves money on real estate. Most of the home-based agents work part-time or as independent contractors, so employers don’t pay for health insurance and benefits. Unions, which represent workers at some large call centers, will be hard-pressed to reach workers spread across thousands of homes, analysts say.

In addition, home-based agents for most companies pay for their own equipment. And companies say the workers are better qualified and more content than those at traditional call centers saving on recruitment and training.

“We are actually realizing some pretty good double-digit savings from this,” says Julian Carter, the Office Depot executive in charge of the call center switch. The company expects savings of $15 million a year.

It’s not just the cost savings, though.

Fielding calls with home agents “gives you the ability to staff with local people who speak the language well, that have the same culture, the same trends, that basically live in the same place,” said Esteban Kolsky, a Gartner analyst. “That’s very appealing to most customers.”

Some of the biggest advocates of virtual call centers are home-based agents, who say the arrangement provides flexibility unavailable in traditional office jobs. Customers of, for example, have no way of knowing that when agent Barbara Leeper-Zilk picks up their call at her home in Littleton, Colo., she’s often is doing a load of laundry between calls.

“I get up at 10 to 6, let the dogs out, grab a bottle of water, go upstairs and turn on the computer and I’m at work,” says Leeper-Zilk, one of nearly 4,000 agents working for Alpine Access Inc., a Golden, Colo.-based virtual call center firm.

Leeper-Zilk first signed on for extra spending money. Many other home agents are mothers of young children who work during school hours, and older people who want to work limited hours or pick up supplemental income.

“If I was to have a desk job and was required to sit seven out of eight hours, that would be too much for me,” said Pam Brackett, who takes calls from her home in Bellingham, Mass. and whose daily routine is limited by severe rheumatoid arthritis. “If it wasn’t for doing this, I wouldn’t be doing anything.”

The virtual call center concept has been around since the 1990s, but companies were reluctant to give up the managerial control and supervision of a brick-and-mortar call center.

One of the earliest adopters was JetBlue Airways Inc., in 2000. The airline now has a 900-agent network of work-at-home reservation agents, all in the Salt Lake City area.

“We have this pretty much down to a science of where our peak demand is and how many hours we need on the phones,” said Steve Mayne, JetBlue’s manager of business processes. Agents “can bid for an ideal schedule, but it’s awarded on seniority. We tell them they need to be flexible.”

Not everybody — or every home — is suited to call center work. Companies make that clear, and frequently listen in on calls to ensure agents follow the rules.

“This is not alternative childcare. This is a special work environment — no kids, no pets, zero tolerance,” said Tim Houlne, CEO of Working Solutions. “We can’t afford for the dog to start barking when the FedEx man comes to the door.”

Still, Houlne says, compared to a traditional call center the work-at-home arrangement requires a level of trust that has strong appeal to many people.

“Instead of bringing people in to work, we would bring the work out to them,” said Jim Ball, co-founder of Alpine Access. “We basically have an unlimited pool available to us.”

Many of the agents work 15 to 20 hours a week. But some have fashioned it into a financial mainstay, jockeying schedules and making the most of incentive rules, sometimes juggling multiple accounts.

Take Allor, the suburban Dallas agent. She switches from taking orders for printer cartridges and legal pads to booking hotel reservations, timed to the make the most of both the morning rush by office workers to place orders, and the midday pickup in people making travel plans.

Late in the morning, Allor’s older daughter, Carrie Cerneka, tiptoes upstairs and signs on at another workstation on the other side of the bed. In between calls, mother and daughter joust over who’s the most productive home agent.

“Hey, look, I got 4 — 4 reservations!” Allor teases.

“That’s what she says to make herself feel better,” says Cerneka, 23.

On this account, Allor earns 22 cents per minute on the phone and 75 cents for each reservation. The pay averages better than $14 an hour. Allor usually works 50 to 55 hours a week and says she earned about $27,000 last year, when she worked fewer hours.

The rap on jobs like Allor’s, an issue even the virtual call center companies say people should be mindful of, is that it can leave some agents feeling isolated. But agents say it beats trading office gossip around the watercooler, and eliminates office politics. The proof, Allor says, is the constant stream of messages she volleys with co-workers around the country.

“I have friends on here that I truly adore,” Allor says of her virtual colleagues. “Sometimes we hang up at night and the last thing you want to do is get on the phone. But we do. We’ll call each other and root each other on.”