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

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Alpine, which has also worked with companies like J. Crew and Office Depot, has doubled its annual revenues since 2005, to more than $50 million. Other major home-based calling firms include LiveOps, which has 20,000 agents (its 2009 revenues exceeded $100 million) and has worked with companies like Kodak and eBay; and West at Home, which has 14,000 agents and says it is getting 4,000 job applications a month.

These U.S.-based calling firms aren't always the cheapest available. Typical all-in costs (including technology and phone routing) for a client average about $20 an hour per call agent, as compared with costs as low as $12 per hour for an agent based in India or $16 per hour for one based in the Philippines. Still, hiring one of these companies can be substantially cheaper for companies than adding a $30-per-hour in-house staffer. "We're at an inflection point," says Alpine CEO Christopher Carrington. "In seven years, there will be no reason for employees to drive into a brick-and-mortar cell center."

Carrington says Alpine's at-home call handlers recently demonstrated their value to a client by selling 30% more office supplies to medium-size businesses than a comparable Philippines-based team had. At an average age of 41 years old, Carrington points out, his employees are older and more experienced than most foreign-based operators. In addition to 150-plus hours of training, top call handlers benefit from incentives, so they earn more when callers buy more, which is not always the case for cheaper outsourced services. What's more, says Carrington, it helps to have regional call handlers who understand local mores and office routines — and who work with just one company at a time. "We work with large retail banks, and they don't want someone taking a private banking call one minute and a pizza call the next," he says.

Much of the growth in the at-home agent workforce comes from work-at-home moms. At LiveOps, 75% of the call handlers are female, and a growing number are experienced retirees. About 85% of West at Home agents are female; Alpine's workforce is 71% female. That gender breakdown may be starting to shift, however; half of new Alpine applicants are male.

The attrition rate for these workers is also relatively low, says LiveOps marketing executive Paul Lang — about 10%, compared with the 70% to 80% that is typical among factory-like brick-and-mortar call centers. Call handlers like being able to set their own hours and goals, Lang says, and many use their LiveOps work to supplement income from other employment.

Nevertheless, the pay is not much better than that of burger flippers. Alpine employees typically start at $8 to $9 an hour, even with decades of work experience, moving up to $12 an hour in some cases. On an online discussion board, an Arizona-based call agent complained about the low pay, arbitrary rule changes and a general lack of respect, and wrote that "Alpine Access, in my opinion, is a 21st century sweatshop." However another agent, based in Georgia, praised Alpine's 401(k) plan and "amazing" training, and said he had repeatedly recommended the company to others.

Home-based calling may benefit from new federal attention to flexible workplace initiatives. LiveOps CEO Maynard Webb last week attended a White House forum on workplace flexibility, during which President Obama announced that his chief technology officer, Aneesh Chopra, is developing a plan to enable more federal employees to "telework," or work remotely.

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