Work & Family: Call Centers Tap People Who Want to Work at Home

For many years, demand for at-home employment far outstripped supply, giving rise to a perennial crop of work-at-home scams, from pyramid schemes to phony job referrals.

Now, working at home is taking a leap forward — in the customer-service arena. Instead of sending call-center work to India or the Philippines, a growing number of consumer-products and -services companies, from Office Depot and J. Crew to Wyndham Hotels and Sears Holdings, are outsourcing work to people in their homes here.

The development, driven by expanded broadband access to the Web, cheaper computer technology and improved call-routing systems, has opened the door to an entirely new group of at-home workers. Home-based call-center agents have tripled since 2000, estimates Art Schoeller, a senior analyst for research concern Yankee Group. A survey last August of 350 U.S. and Canadian call centers by Yankee Group found that 24 percent of agents, or 672,000 workers, are now based in their homes. IDC, a Framingham, Mass., research concern, sees the growth continuing, with home agents increasing at a rate of 24 percent each year from 2006 through 2010.

The pay for home agents is limited, and most jobs come through outsourcing firms and lack benefits. Also, the work — such as taking telephone orders for things ranging from airline reservations to workout gear — can be wearying, repetitive and stressful.

Nevertheless, such jobs are a potential boon for people who care for children or elderly family members at home. There’s so much pent-up demand for home-based work that people who would never dream of taking a job in a brick-and-mortar call center are flocking to become home agents. Research firm Gartner Inc. says 70 percent to 80 percent of home-based agents have college degrees, compared with 30 percent to 40 percent of workers in call centers. Most are in their 30s or 40s, older than the average call-center employee, and they often have management experience, say outsourcing firms. Mark Frei, a senior vice president of West Corp., Omaha, Neb., which operates both home- and office-based call centers, says home-agent turnover is only about half the 40 percent to 100 percent attrition in traditional call centers.

Melanie Qaiyyim, a 46-year-old single mother from Chicago, has a bachelor’s degree and formerly worked as a sales manager for a health-club chain. Now, she works six to eight hours a day from home selling rotisseries, makeup and other products for clients of outsourcing firm

LiveOps of Palo Alto, Calif. She sets her hours around the needs of her teenage daughter. In 13 months with LiveOps, Ms. Qaiyyim has recruited 20 new agents to the firm.

Flexibility is the primary draw. Home agents typically apply online for the weekly schedules they want, in shifts as short as 15 minutes. Kathy Thill, 40, of Westminster, Colo., a former corporate advertising manager with a master’s degree in communications, wanted to supplement her family’s income after leaving her career to stay home with her three children. Now, as an agent for Alpine Access, an outsourcer in Golden, Colo., she works only early mornings and afternoons when her kids are sleeping, and weekends when her husband is home.

The trend opens doors for the disabled. The $35,000 a year Katey Glass, who is legally blind, makes as an Atlanta-based agent for outsourcer Working Solutions enabled her to get off Social Security while caring for her husband, a dialysis patient and double amputee.

The downside: With a few exceptions (including employees of airline JetBlue, who are allowed to work from home as reservations agents) most home agents are independent contractors, lacking benefits. Workers must equip themselves with a computer, costing about $600, outsourcing firms say, plus a phone line and Internet access.

And income potential is limited. The most a full-time agent usually makes, outsourcing firms say, is $25,000 to $40,000 a year, although a few hard workers surpass that. Agents usually take only incoming calls and typically are paid by the call or by time spent talking, usually amounting to $8 to $18 an hour, plus incentives for selling products and services callers aren’t requesting.

Calls are closely monitored, so that some agents feel like Big Brother is watching. “No kids, no pets, zero tolerance,” says Tim Houlne, CEO of Working Solutions. “If there’s a dog barking, that’s not just a red flag, that’s probable cause for termination.”

Some calls can be stressful. Lydia Chang, 43, Pembroke Pines, Fla., an agent for Miramar, Fla.-based Willow CSN, once took a call for roadside assistance from a customer stranded in Ohio by a tire blowout. The man was livid that a previous agent had hung up on him and was unable to tell Ms. Chang where he was. Enduring a stream of cursing, she studied an Ohio map, called the man’s aunt on another line, and searched landmarks online until she figured out where he was. She stayed on the phone with him 40 minutes, until a tow truck arrived.

The setups are also a fertile field for workaholism. Cathy McAlister, Murfreesboro, Tenn., routinely works seven days a week. She loves being able to combine running her farm with working flexible hours for West, she says.

But the drawbacks aren’t even close to quenching demand for agent positions. Willow CSN will probably accept only about one-fifth of the 34,000 applications it expects to receive this year, says CEO Angie Selden.

Home-based jobs may soon expand further, as outsourcers look beyond call-center work. ARO Outsourcing of Kansas City, Mo., employs 225 home-based auditors, insurance salespeople and underwriters, says Michael Amigoni, chief operating officer. He adds, “A lot of other kinds of jobs could be workable under this model.”

Working From Home

The typical home-based call-center agent:

Has a college degree

Often has management experience

Is female

Has family care duties, such as kids at home

Is between 30 and 50 years old

Sticks with the job twice as long as regular call-center workers

By Sue Shellenbarger, The Wall Street Journal

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