When Ball and his partner Steve Rockwood sold the call center in 1997,
they decided the next business would be radically different: Customer
service agents would work from home.
"We said, 'It's the holy grail,'" Ball says. "It's the only way
you're going to keep and retain people."
The idea was slow to
catch on with customers. EAS Sports Supplements was the first to sign on
with the new business, called Alpine Access. Then a few others followed, including
My Twins, Checks Unlimited and several direct marketers.
13 years. Alpine Access now has 3,000 employees in 1,000 cities that
take calls for clients such as America Online, Office Depot and Fortune
100 financial companies. The company booked sales of $53 million last
year -- and employee attrition is about half of what it was under the
bricks-and-mortar setup, Ball says.
"It's gone from a trickle to a
stream to a raging river," says Christopher Carrington, who became the
company's CEO three years ago.
out from scammers
The work-from-home field is rife with scams,
where job seekers are asked to pay for "training" or supplies. Alpine
Access is one of the few companies with a proven track record of being
Alpine's job applicants go through an extensive interview
process, just as they would with a traditional company. The 2% of
applicants who are offered jobs pay a $45 fee for a credit and
background check, but they don't pay for training or for "monthly
service fees," as some work-from-home jobs charge.
company hires make a starting salary of $8 to $12 an hour, and have
access to benefits including a 401(k) and health insurance. Alpine
Access doesn't contribute to health care costs, but it does offer a
corporate match to the retirement fund.
Employees don't have your
typical 9-to-5 schedule. Their shifts vary: a worker might clock in from
6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and then again later in the day from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Employees must work 20 to 30 hours a week -- or at least four hours a
day and five days a week.
A custom computer system enables Alpine
Access' workers to clock in and field phone calls, but it also
contributes to a company culture. Call center agents can mingle in chat
rooms to gossip about work and life, sharing everything from recipes to
"We chat about our kids, how we're doing," says Don
Noblin, a 47-year-old Alpine Access employee who takes calls for AOL (AOL)
from his Phoenix home. "You bond with the people you work with even
though some are 2,000 miles away."
Alpine Access managers,
meanwhile, check in electronically, monitoring calls and wait times to
measure productivity and using customer satisfaction surveys to gage
employee performance. Workers also touch base with managers through
instant messaging and video conference calls.
A changing market
Hundreds of companies
moved their call centers overseas over the past decade to cut costs, but
Carrington says the center of gravity for U.S. businesses is shifting
back: "Seventy-five percent of our revenue growth is from companies that
came back from India and the Philippines," he says.
In the past
four or five years, things have really picked up for the entire
industry, says Peter Ryan, an analyst who follows the call center sector
for Ovum, a London-based research and consulting firm.
least 20 call centers companies -- including Convergys (CVG),
TeleTech and LiveOps -- have adopted the same work-at-home model.
key driver is companies' ability to hire older, more educated -- and
typically more stable -- agents who can handle longer, more complex
calls. Companies also cut the overhead costs of having workers in
Ovum projects that around 48,500 people are now working
from home answering customer phone calls, a number it expects to grow
to 83,100 by 2012.
Despite the growth, not everyone is sold on
home-based call centers. Some corporate executives worry that if calls
are taken at home, workers will have too many distractions and too
little supervision, Ryan says. Concerns about the security customer
information also abound.
Just 1,700 of Cincinnati-based Convergys'
70,000 call center employees work from home. But that home-agent
business is growing 20% a year at the $2.1 billion company, says Brad
Kinhop, a vice president in charge of Convergys' home division.
Convergys' home agents also claim 5% to 10% better customer satisfaction
than their cubicle counterparts.
"I think Jim Ball and Steve at
Alpine access were pretty visionary to come up with the idea," says
Krinhop, who once worked at Alpine Access. "It just makes sense. Fast
forward two to three years from now, and people will say, 'Really? You
have to drive into work? You can't work from home?'"