Outsourcing gets homey

It's not surprising that 1-800-Flowers.com sees its business spike around Valentine's Day, Mother's Day and Christmas. What might surprise you, however, is that the company meets its increased call volume with customer-care agents who just might be answering the phone in bathrobe and slippers.

1-800-Flowers.com is among a growing number of companies turning to service providers that employ home-based call center agents or let their internal customer-care agents work from home if they choose. The trend has been gaining momentum for a few years, but it's one that IDC says is poised to take off.

"It's really something that is exploding as far as I'm concerned," says Lou Orsi, director for vendor relations and strategic projects at 1-800-Flowers.com. "When you think about it, it really makes a lot of sense."

According to a recent IDC study, there were about 112,000 home-based agents in 2005, but that number is expected to nearly triple over the next few years and surpass 328,000 by 2010.

IDC says there are several factors making work-at-home arrangements attractive. Not the least is advanced technologies, such as wider access to broadband, that let home-based employees be as productive as their brick-and-mortar counterparts.

Add to that the savings in gas and commuting time and the convenience of rolling out of bed and into an office without setting foot out the door, and it's no surprise that companies say they attract and retain higher-caliber employees with the work-at-home approach.

Analysts don't expect the use of home-based call center agents -- a practice IDC terms homeshoring -- to displace offshoring, but they do expect the work-at-home option to play a larger role in an enterprise's outsourcing strategy.

"Rather than think of [homeshoring] as an alternative to offshoring, I think of it as companies enhancing their portfolio mix of services," says Stephen Loynd, a program manager at IDC.

Some calls may go to India, others to another near-shore market, such as Mexico, "and then there are a certain amount of calls that would best be handled in the United States and, by extension, by a home-based agent," Loynd says.

In situations where geographic familiarity or culture and language are particularly important, the calls could go to a home-based agent, rather than going offshore, Loynd says. Companies cut real estate costs with home-based agents, so while costs aren't at the offshoring level, they are reduced.

"It's a little bit more expensive than going offshore, but I think you get what you pay for," Orsi says. "And it's less than your traditional brick-and-mortar pricing models. Second, the quality of the person you're getting is far superior."

Alpine Access (which Orsi uses), VIPdesk, West and Willow are among a growing list of outsourcing firms that use home-based agents. Alpine Access says homeshoring has let it tap into employees more attuned to the business of its customers, which include 1-800-Flowers.com, J.Crew Group and Office Depot.

"The clients want experts in their subject matter, and we're able to do that because we're not geographically limited like a traditional call center," says Brad Krinhop, COO of Alpine Access.

By removing physical limitations, companies such as Alpine Access also are putting together more highly educated, dependable workforces.

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