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Outsourcing comes home

Companies are turning to 'home agents' in the US to provide customer service. Workers like the hours – and the 15-second commute.

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For five years, Martha Libby has enjoyed an ideal commute: just 15 seconds from her bedroom to her home office. Seated at her desk, she logs on to her computer, adjusts a corded headset, and begins another day as a home-based customer service agent.

"No traffic, gas, car-maintenance costs, high heels, or dry-cleaning bills," she says, ticking off some of the advantages.

Ms. Libby, an employee of Alpine Access in Denver, is one of more than 110,000 home-based agents in the United States, 80 percent of them women. Their ranks are expected to triple to 328,000 by 2010, according to market-researcher IDC in Framingham, Mass. As their phones ring, agents take orders, make reservations, check on deliveries, and answer customers' questions about products and services.

"The home-based model is actually redefining how Americans will work in the future," says Christopher Carrington, CEO of Alpine Access. "It's also providing a new competitive edge for Americans on a number of jobs that had been going offshore."

Several factors are fueling the popularity of these jobs: Parents and caregivers need flexible hours. Workers in gridlocked cities want to avoid long commutes and the high cost of fuel. And growing ranks of retirees are eager to supplement their income.

At the same time, a backlash against outsourcing customer service to other countries is prompting some companies to bring work back to the US. This countertrend, called homeshoring or inshoring, is increasing the demand for home agents.

"Not every type of call works well when you send it to India and the Philippines," says Tim Whipple, vice president of agent services for LiveOps, which has 16,000 contract workers in the US. As Michael Brown, a customer-service consultant in Los Angeles, notes, "You can't easily train 5,000 people at a call center in Bangalore. Here you have more control."

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