I've written a few times about contact center agents who work from their own homes. Last time I did so, a little more than a year ago, I cited a Christian Science Monitor story in which the CEO of a company employing such agents said the model would redefine how Americans will work in the future. At the time, IDC was predicting the number of home-based contact center agents in the U.S. would nearly triple by 2010, from 110,000 to 328,000.
Technologies such as broadband Internet access and VoIP communications make it possible for agents to provide the same kind of customer service from home as they can from a traditional call center. They typically stay in contact with managers via instant messaging and online chats.
Current economic conditions may make the idea of home-based agents even more appealing, to both employers and potential employees. Convergys, an outsourcing company that says it counts more than half of the Fortune 50 among its clients, expects to triple the number of home-based agents it employs in 2009, according to a BusinessWeek story. Some 1,200 of its 75,000 employees currently work this way.
Convergys is being flooded with applications as the country's unemployment rate rises. It offers job seekers a starting salary of $8-to-$10 an hour, sweetened by the fact that they save on gas, clothing and other work-related expenses. It's a similar story at Alpine Access, another company that employs home-based agents. Applications are up 10 to 15 percent over last year, says its CEO.
And an executive from Arise Virtual Solutions says the company is attracting experienced job candidates with extensive sales and technical support backgrounds. I assume at least some of them are job hunting because they've lost these kinds of gigs at companies that are trimming their workforces to save money.
Though he doesn't specifically mention home-based agents, ZDNet blogger Phil Fersht recently wondered whether the U.S. could successfully redeploy some of the workers facing mass layoffs, such as those in the automotive industry. Could the U.S. become a competitive BPO location, he asks.
That's an interesting question. Though tough times can open people's minds to opportunities they might not have previously considered, will workers from these types of industries be willing to acquire the needed skills for positions where they will receive lower salaries and fewer benefits? While retraining displaced workers is a worthy possibility, I think it may be more effective to reach out to students at high schools and community colleges, making them aware of the kinds of customer support positions that AT&T had trouble trying to fill earlier this year.