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Customer Service Agents are Helping America from Home


For years now, Americans have noticed that when they call to purchase an airline ticket, or to get help with a problem they have been having with a cell phone or computer, the person they end up talking to is often not an American-even though the call they placed was to a domestic number. That is because many of the companies that run these call centers have shipped their operations overseas-often to India-in an effort to save money.

The practice has generated criticism. But now, industry leaders think they have found a cost-effective alternative that is "domestic" in more ways than one.

The practice of routing calls to overseas help-centers has not proven to be popular with consumers. Craig Foucht, a finance manager in New York City, says he was routed to India three times when he called about a problem he was having with his computer. "I could tell from their accent, even though they used very Americanized names like 'Jennifer' or 'Rob,'" he recalls. "On the whole, the experience was unsatisfactory, because it didn't seem like the staff was trained enough to handle my problems, and (they) seemed quite distracted, and didn't really give me the service I was expecting."

The complaint is a common one. Often, American consumers say, agents in places like India and the Philippines are unfamiliar with the issues faced by American consumers, or else they have only an 'academic' understanding of these issues, with no 'hands-on' personal experience.

Angie Selden, chief executive officer of WillowCSN, which finds and hires customer-service agents for a number of large, Fortune 500 companies, understands this complaint. She says international agents are fine for some industries, but in others, there is no replacement for Americans.

"Many of the health-related questions around Medicare and Medicaid," she points out, "(Or) insurance claims processing, are much better answered by people in the United States, who are familiar with the health-care terminology and the health-care experiences here in the United States."

That may be why the model that was pioneered by WillowCSN in 1997 is becoming more and more popular. Willow supplies clients with American customer-service agents… but it does not charge those clients the expensive overhead costs-like rent and electricity, typically associated with American call-centers. That is because Willow does not actually have any call centers. Its agents do not report to a warehouse filled with phones and computers; instead, they work out of their homes -- their living rooms, dining rooms, kitchens -- wherever.

According to Angie Selden, all it takes is the right computer and telephone equipment. "There's a very rapidly growing interest in corporate America now around having certain types of customer calls serviced by agents who are working from home," she says. "It's a very cost-effective way for these companies to get access to U.S.-based people."

Angie Selden's company now has 3,000 customer service agents in 30 states working for its clients. That is four times as many people as it had just 18 months ago.

Nebraska-based West Corporation, another call-service company, has increased its number of at-home agents from 3,400 last year to 7,300 this year. Dave Pleiss, who oversees public relations for West, says the at-home model has allowed his company to bring on qualified people who would like to make a little extra money, but would not necessarily be willing or able to travel to a centralized call-center.

"So perhaps licensed nurses or real estate people," he says, "We can easily get a network of 300 or so of those together across the country, where we wouldn't be able to get 300 licensed people in a call center."

The at-home model has also allowed call-service companies to decrease their turnover rates. Annual turnover at a typical U.S. call-center generally ranges from 60-100%. That is because most workers reporting to these centers are in their 20s, and they all plan on doing something else with their lives.

But the average age of an agent at Willow CSN is 38, and that works out marvelously for Virgin Atlantic Airlines, one of Willow's clients. John Riorden, the airline's Vice-President of Customer Service, says the company prefers to have agents with a little 'life experience.'

"The type of calls that are handled by us in the airline business are reservations, queries about reservations, and a whole myriad of other things that require a pretty significant knowledge base on how international travel works," Mr. Riorden says. "So we do need people who have traveled, and have traveled abroad extensively, because that knowledge is a tremendous advantage in being a good airline customer service agent."

Right now, just 118,000 of the more than five million customer service agents in the United States are working from home. But Angie Selden of Willow CSN expects that number to grow considerably in the coming years-particularly as more and more Baby Boomers retire and look at the challenge of caring for their aging parents. She says the time flexibility -- and the extra income --provided by at-home customer service work will probably appeal to people in such situations.

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