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.

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.

"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."

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."

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.

She suggests looking at message boards on websites like workplacelikehome.com and wahm.com. "If somebody has been ripped off or scammed by work-at-home scam artists, no details will be spared."

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."

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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.

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