'Homeshoring' gains popularity
CINCINNATI - An operator is standing by - at home.
Companies that supply customer service agents to businesses around the world say they are saving money and attracting better employees by letting them work from their own houses. Using Internet telephone technology, the operators are able to answer questions and hear out complaints as if they were working in a sprawling call center in an office park.
"It gives us access to some high-quality labor that wouldn't work in a call center," said Andrea Ayers, president for customer management for Convergys Corp., an outsourcing company that is ramping up the number of agents who work from home.
Convergys and rival companies say they're being swamped with applications. The first spike came a few months ago, when gas prices topped $4 a gallon. Now, they're surging again as unemployment soars.
Home agents often start at $8-to-$10 an hour, earning more depending on the skill and knowledge required for specific clients. Besides gas, home-based operators save on car maintenance and the cost of keeping up an office wardrobe.
Sharon Castor had never given much thought to working at a call center, and even less to going back to an early rising, traffic-fighting work life she had for nearly three decades before retiring. But after the ailing parents she helped care for passed away, the Kentucky resident was getting antsy after five years off and needed some extra income.
After researching at-home work opportunities she came to Convergys.
Soon, she had converted an extra bedroom in her home into an office, where she helps customers with insurance matters and other questions on behalf of a healthcare company. It's among the many companies that don't want their use of outsourced customer service made public; Convergys says it does work for many Fortune 500 businesses.
The Cincinnati-based company has been rapidly expanding its at-home workforce. It has some 1,200 home agents and expects to triple that next year.
"We're ramping up very quickly," said Ayers, whose company has 75,000 employees worldwide.
An industry expert notes that using home agents also means companies can cut down the costs of running their call centers. Donna Fluss, president of DMG Consulting, said technology advances and growing experience in coaching and managing virtual staffs are making it more practical for home employees.
Convergys' home agents use Voice over Internet Protocol for communications through broadband Internet connections, and computer firewalls keep information secure. Agents communicate with managers and colleagues by instant messages and online chats, and managers can monitor their work virtually.
Christopher Carrington, chief executive of Alpine Access, said the 10-year-old business that specializes in using at-home agents is booming. And applications are up 10 to 15 percent over a year ago.
The Denver company started slowly, but the spread of high-speed communications has enabled it to grow from fewer than 1,000 agents in its second year to more than 7,500. He said many US companies who outsource prefer to use US-based employees - called "homeshoring" - instead of those in call centers in India or other countries.
Arise Virtual Solutions, a 10-year-old company in Miramar, Fla., is also seeing rising interest. The company contracts with home agents who work as incorporated entities, creating their own small home businesses.
"The economic downturn has allowed us to be even more selective," said Mary Bartlett, an Arise vice president. She said the company is attracting people with extensive sales and technical support backgrounds, such as veteran real estate agents who need work because of the nation's housing slump.
The company spends a lot of time questioning, testing, and training people before giving them work.
"Everybody wants to work at home, but it is not right for everyone," Bartlett said. "Working at home requires you to be very disciplined."