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Outsourcing comes home

Companies are turning to 'home agents' in the US to provide customer service. Workers like the hours – and the 15-second commute.

By Marilyn GardnerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 22, 2007

For five years, Martha Libby has enjoyed an ideal commute: just 15 seconds from her bedroom to her home office. Seated at her desk, she logs on to her computer, adjusts a corded headset, and begins another day as a home-based customer service agent.

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"No traffic, gas, car-maintenance costs, high heels, or dry-cleaning bills," she says, ticking off some of the advantages.

Ms. Libby, an employee of Alpine Access in Denver, is one of more than 110,000 home-based agents in the United States, 80 percent of them women. Their ranks are expected to triple to 328,000 by 2010, according to market-researcher IDC in Framingham, Mass. As their phones ring, agents take orders, make reservations, check on deliveries, and answer customers' questions about products and services.

"The home-based model is actually redefining how Americans will work in the future," says Christopher Carrington, CEO of Alpine Access. "It's also providing a new competitive edge for Americans on a number of jobs that had been going offshore."

Several factors are fueling the popularity of these jobs: Parents and caregivers need flexible hours. Workers in gridlocked cities want to avoid long commutes and the high cost of fuel. And growing ranks of retirees are eager to supplement their income.

At the same time, a backlash against outsourcing customer service to other countries is prompting some companies to bring work back to the US. This countertrend, called homeshoring or inshoring, is increasing the demand for home agents.

"Not every type of call works well when you send it to India and the Philippines," says Tim Whipple, vice president of agent services for LiveOps, which has 16,000 contract workers in the US. As Michael Brown, a customer-service consultant in Los Angeles, notes, "You can't easily train 5,000 people at a call center in Bangalore. Here you have more control."

Home-based workers enjoy having greater control, too. Like other agents, Libby sets her own hours. "I get to tell Alpine when I want to work," she says. She typically chooses a morning shift and logs 15 to 20 hours a week, answering calls for a national florist, a financial-services company, an upscale clothing catalog, and an office-supply firm, among others. Her former job as a clinical services director involved a 25-minute commute each way.

Employers of these agents also find advantages: They can draw from a national pool of applicants and, in a 24/7 economy, staff phones around the clock.

When Mr. Whipple ran large call centers, he had only a limited area to draw from. "I got kids out of high school who had never had a job before," he says. "Now I have a nationwide reach. I can choose people who have some relevant experience. My clients get a better quality of agent than if I'm in a small town in the Midwest with a 20-mile radius."

Alpine Access, which employs 7,500 people, received more than 200,000 applications in the past 12 months, Mr. Carrington says. The average age of his workers is 41, and 80 percent have some form of college education. About 10 percent hold an advanced degree.

"They bring 10 to 15 years of work and experience in the particular industry they're serving," says Carrington. For a sportswear company, for example, he looks for people who studied fashion merchandising in college or worked for a clothing store. "They can help make products [in catalogs] come to life as they talk about fabrics and durability."

One company, Home-Base USA, specializes in hiring military spouses, enabling them to keep a job wherever military postings take them.

Airlines such as Southwest and Jet Blue both use many work-at-home mothers, Mr. Brown says. Carrington employs people with disabilities, too.

Depending on the company, agents are paid by the minute, the call, or the transaction. "Agents starting out can expect to probably make $7 to $9 an hour," Whipple says. "I have agents who are invoicing $15 to $20 an hour."

Agents must have a quiet workplace, away from distractions: no children's voices, no dogs barking, no doorbells.

Being able to answer a phone is not the only qualification, says Christine Durst, CEO of Staffcentrix. "You need high-speed Internet, DSL or cable, great computer skills, a separate phone line, and a pleasant phone voice. Nobody wants to talk to Sponge Bob."

Prospective home agents beware: scams abound

Plenty of "work from home" offers are found in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet. Christine Durst, who screens ads for home-based workers on Rat­, offers tips for spotting scams that ask for money up front or make false claims:

• "Work at Home" appears in the ad header. There's a good chance it's a come-on. It's the bait on a scammer's "hook" as they fish for desperate people to reel in.

•The ad claims that no experience is necessary and no résumé is requested. A legitimate ad will tell you what you need to be able to do.

•You're required to pay a fee for more information. Legitimate jobs do not charge you to inquire about a position.

•The ad promises unbelievable pay: "Make $5,000 a week working part time!" Beware exaggerated claims of income.

• There is no job description. What exactly is the ad for? Most scams will give little or no description of the type of work you are to perform.

•The ad contains pictures of palm trees, mansions, and expensive cars. Successful scammers often bag their prey by dangling enticing things in front of them.