NEW YORK (Reuters) - People who reach Esther DeJesus when they call Office Depot Inc.'s customer service center have no idea that she's sitting at home in a room decorated with pictures of Garfield and Betty Boop.
The Orlando, Florida, resident, who works on the retailer's account for call center contractor Willow CSN, is one of a new breed of customer service representative.
Rather than commuting to a crowded office, she puts in 37 to 40 hours a week at home and sets her own schedule.
"It is really convenient," said DeJesus, who likes the setup because it allows her to take care of her grandmother. And she shares her home office with her twin daughters, who work part-time for Willow while going to college.
After some unsuccessful attempts to move call centers abroad, U.S. companies are shifting some of that work back to this country -- and into people's homes.
Besides Office Depot, JetBlue Airways Corp., General Electric Co. and Staples Inc. are among the companies that have been using stay-at-home customer service representatives as an alternative to traditional call centers in the United States, India and the Philippines.
Home-based workers are usually happier, which means better service, these companies say. The arrangement also allows employers to schedule people in small part-time slots when call volume is higher, rather than hiring regular call-center workers who get paid whether they are busy or not.
To work at home, employees need a computer that meets certain specifications, such as high-speed Internet access. After taking a training course, they're ready to start answering calls that are routed to their home phone.
Companies are passing on some of the savings they're realizing in rent and office equipment. Stay-at-home customer service representatives generally command $13 to $14 an hour, while the industry rate for call center workers is $8 to $9.
Office Depot plans to close nine of its 11 call centers by the end of September and replace them with home-based workers. The Delray Beach, Florida-based company now has 1,400 remote agents and plan to double that number in a year.
"We chose to go with virtual agents as a means to keep work done domestically and also get the best quality and cost," said Julian Carter, director of operations.
Office Depot said it halved its attrition rate to 30 percent almost immediately after it started using home-based workers 3 1/2 years ago. Now attrition has fallen even more, to a low-teen percentage rate, allowing the company to save training and recruiting expenses.
Industrywide, the annual turnover rate of 25 percent to 30 percent for work-at-home agents is significantly lower than 35 percent to 70 percent for call center workers, according to Gartner Inc.
The research firm expects that 10 percent of all contact centers will use home agents as part of their overall customer services by 2006.
There are already more than 100,000 home-based agents in the United States, according to technology research firm IDC.
Home-based agents are one response to the growing political backlash against offshoring. Top personal-computer maker Dell Inc., for example, is retreating from India because customers have complained about the difficulty of understanding the workers' accents.
"Expectations about the benefits of offshore will mature," Alexa Bona, a research director at Gartner, said in a report. "More creative responses to outsourcing, such as work-at-home agents, will start to gain ground."
West Corp., as well as closely held companies like Willow, Alpine Access and Working Solutions, has carved out a profitable niche as an intermediary between home-based workers and the corporations that use them.
JetBlue already has about 900 agents based at home and is looking to add more. The discount airline said its customers like to talk to its workers, who are comfortable as they answer calls in their slippers and pajamas.
"When employees are happy, revenues are going to go up," said G.R. Badger, a customer service supervisor at JetBlue.
For people who chose to stay at home and answer calls, the convenience is the biggest draw.
Daniel Boord, a father with two children, has a full-time job as a laboratory worker. Each weekend, he also works 15 hours helping American Automobile Association customers from his home in Phoenix.
"The flexibility is superb," Boord said. "For my second job, I don't have to leave the house. I just need to walk 50 feet to my office."
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