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.
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Not everyone is cut out for home-based work. "It wouldn't be good for somebody who needs a lot of guidance and structure, or somebody who has a hard time reading," Whipple says. "If you find it de-energizing to talk to people, don't apply."Skip to next paragraph
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Lisa Hammond of Goessel, Kan., works with LiveOps, handling calls for everything from knives and appliances to workout programs: "You must be motivated and self-disciplined."
As a former assistant manager at WalMart, she earned $40,000 and worked 70 hours a week. "With three children, by the time I paid day care and fuel, I was only netting $600-800 a month." She says she nets more now, working 15 to 20 hours a week.
Cindy S., an agent in Florida for the past three years, lives in a rural area with few job opportunities. Health issues in her family prevent her from taking an 8-to-5 job, she says.
Instead, Cindy, who asked that only her first name be used, fields calls for infomercials and big toy stores, handles product recalls, and arranges conference calls. Noting the variety of businesses using home-based agents, she says, "The next time somebody orders holiday flowers, they're probably getting some nice woman at home taking orders."
Some at-home work is unconventional. Ted Werth, CEO of PlumChoice in Billerica, Mass., employs 250 home-based technicians who access and repair computers via phone connections.
Michelle Brown, an engineering supervisor for PlumChoice, works from home in Santa Rosa, Calif. She works from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., Pacific time, to serve technicians on the East Coast. Before joining PlumChoice three years ago, she commuted two hours each way to her job as a computer technician.
On the subject of working remotely Ms. Brown says, "A lot of people have the misperception that it's a cakewalk and not a real job. I work just as hard, if not harder, working at home. It's harder to walk away. But I get so involved that I don't want to walk away."
After hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross needed help reuniting displaced people with relatives. Whipple deployed 350 agents in three hours to answer calls to a special 800 number.
"We built a data base of lost people," he explains. "Callers would say, 'I'm looking for Susie Smith.' We'd say, 'Yes, she's at the Astrodome in Houston.' The tears of relief, it was amazing. It was the highlight of my career."
Whipple also likes to hire retirees. "I've met some of my retired people in Florida. They walk the beach in the morning, then take calls. I love their discipline, dependability, and maturity."
Among the reputable companies employing home-based workers are many unethical ones, says Ms. Durst, who runs RatRaceRebellion.com, a website offering screened work-at-home job leads.
Last year she and her staff did a study of work-from-home ads on the Internet. "For every 51 jobs we researched for inclusion on our website as a legitimate lead, 50 turned out to be questionable," Ms. Durst says.
Despite the advantages, home-based agents find tradeoffs.
"I don't think you're going to get rich," says Cindy. "You're not going to get paid unless you're on the phone." In addition, some companies hire only contract workers, who receive no benefits.
Other agents mention the isolation. "If you need social interaction and enjoy camaraderie, that might be difficult," Hammond says.
To minimize loneliness, some firms keep home-based workers connected electronically. "They can instant message each other, or they can discuss situations openly in our chat room," says Carrington.
But for agents like Libby, the advantages trump disadvantages: "I'm about to have two baby boy grandchildren, and I want to have some time to hang out with them," she says. "This gives me the flexibility to do that."
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 RatRaceRebellion.com, 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.