Phonesourcing: Bringing Call Centers Back to the U.S.

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Once upon a time, phoning it in signaled failure. Now it's a strategic move. As the U.S. economy slowly rebounds, companies are increasingly relying on a decentralized workforce of domestic, home-based call centers. The old mantra: route service calls overseas to cut costs in half. The new idea: bring call centers back home, but not to bulky, brick-and-mortar phone banks. Use hourly workers sitting in home offices, managed on someone else's payroll. Call it phonesourcing.

Phonesourcing basically means contracting with a private firm to hire, train and manage a small army of local or regional call handlers. That enables companies to ramp up or tamp down their services flexibly, without the political controversies that are associated with outsourced, overseas call centers. Handing off call handling isn't new — people have been grinding their teeth on hold for outsourced help since the dawn of voice mail more than a decade ago. What's new is the growing scope and scale of the U.S. home-based call sector. Datamonitor projections show the number of U.S. home-based call agents growing at an annual clip of 20% between 2009 and 2012, from about 50,000 to more than 80,000. That's much faster than the growth rate for calling centers in India (4%) and the Philippines (9%), though foreign outsourcing remains a more popular and cheaper corporate option.

Home-based call centers in the U.S. handle both routine calls — questions about product prices, bank balances or resetting a password — and more complex ones, for technical questions, debt collection and business sales. They also provide answers by instant message or e-mail. Because call handlers are instructed not to mention that they are working for a third party, most customers of the particular bank, wireless firm or retailer have no idea they are not speaking with a company employee.

The hiring firm drafts the script and dictates what greeting and style the call handlers adopt. Agents are most eagerly sought after in the wireless industry, in which increasingly complex smart phones result in bewildered calls about new features or spotty service.

Phonesourcing (also known as homesourcing) is drawing new attention from Fortune 500 companies that are retreating from cost-motivated overseas outsourcing as foreign labor markets tighten, currencies appreciate and home-based call centers offer increasingly competitive local call handling. If an experienced technical specialist who knows the local lingo and understands regional business concerns can manage customers' calls, the argument goes, why route them halfway around the world?

Demand for home-based call agents is also rising among retailers, financial institutions and service organizations. Pittsburgh, Pa., recently suffered its snowiest February ever, stranding many local AAA employees during repeated storms. AAA, which helps get stuck drivers back on the road, shoveled off many of its calls to Alpine Access, one of the fastest-growing companies in the home-based calling business.

Because Alpine's employees were working from home, the storm didn't impact their availability. "These aren't agents at home with a TV playing or a crying baby in the background," says Steve Popovich, director of automotive services for AAA's Pittsburgh operation. "The service quality is excellent, and when storms hit and our call boards light up, they can add people quickly." Hiring and training new call handlers can take about two months, but once trained, handlers are ready for extra shifts when necessary.

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