At-home call center agents promise savings, but reservations linger

JetBlue is among several companies that tout use of stay-at-home call center agents; still, not every business likes them.

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JetBlue Airways has two simple reasons the majority of its service representatives work from home: money and happiness.

Known for its low-cost flights, JetBlue further limits its overhead expenses by employing 1,500 stay-at-home call center agents. And by allowing those agents, many of them mothers, to build their work schedules around busy home lives, they are happy, the airline said.

“We have happy people representing JetBlue, and the cost to run our reservations function is dramatically lower than other airlines because we don't have to build and maintain reservation centers,” said Tamara Young, manager of corporate communications for the airline.

JetBlue, though, has taken a step that not every business is willing to take. According to Art Schoeller, a principal analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., while many companies employ at-home call center agents, many others have reservations about employees working outside of headquarters.

“People like to talk about it as a trend,” Schoeller said. “It’s always one people are intrigued about … but when they want to do it, they hesitate.”

Companies balk at hiring stay-at-home agents because they worry about a lack of control, Schoeller said. The technology is there for almost any company to have agents work from their living rooms, but the fear of not being able to fully manage the employees gives businesses pause, he said.

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“Are they going to protect the company data?” Schoeller said. “You also have the classic barking dog and crying child. So you need the assurance that they will control those things.”

Companies also have to stay mindful that at-home agents can get lonely, missing the camaraderie found in a call center at an office building, Schoeller said.

Counting at-home contact center agents
Precise numbers of at-home call center agents are hard to come by but Schoeller and Bruce Belfiore, the CEO of BenchmarkPortal, a Santa Barbara, Calif., call center training and consulting firm, agree the use of at-home agents has “taken hold.”

In 2006, when the use of at-home agents was gaining steam, several sources estimated there were about 100,000 of them. The research firm IDC in Framingham, Mass., went as far as predicting that in 2010, the number of homebound agents would triple to 300,000.

IDC contact center services analyst Melissa O’Brien said recently her firm had not updated that prediction, but will offer a new data forecast on at-home agents this summer.

Along with Apple and 1-800-Flowers, JetBlue is well-known for employing at-home agents. The airline received industry kudos for being one of the first to tap this strategy -- although customer complaints about a 2007 snowstorm that canceled flights jammed the agents’ phone lines and ultimately prompted JetBlue’s CEO to produce a “customer’s bill of rights.”

The 1,500 at-home agents represent the majority of the airline carrier’s “Reservation Crew” in the Salt Lake City area, said Young, the JetBlue spokeswoman. An additional 500 contact center agents work at JetBlue’s Salt Lake City headquarters.

Most JetBlue agents are women and most of them have children, Young said. Those who work from home can select their schedules, including the number of hours they want to work, and build that time around their children’s activities, she said.

Part-time employees can work a minimum amount of hours or more hours if they need money, Young added.

All JetBlue asks is that agents have a quiet home environment when they are on the phone with customers, she said.

“Other than that, they have full freedom in conducting business on behalf of JetBlue,” Young said.

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JetBlue also requires at-home agents to live within the Salt Lake City area. This stipulation allows them to attend monthly support and training meetings at headquarters and, by extension, keeps them connected to the organization, Young said. Overall, the airline has 14,000 “crew members” -- full and part time -- in offices, support centers and airports across the country.

CommVault hasn’t moved quite as far as JetBlue in letting contact center agents work outside the office. The Oceanport, N.J., data management software company permits agents to stay at home only when operations at the company are affected by weather, said CommVault’s vice president of services, Robert Brower.

If working from home is done for a short, defined period of time -- say, for no longer than five days -- CommVault’s contact center “doesn’t lose any momentum,” Brower said.

But the company prefers to keep its agents at the office, with the contact center arranged in a bullpen format, he added. Having agents work together enhances performance, he said.

Call center management pros, cons 
Still, many companies have decided to break form and employ at-home agents, BenchmarkPortal’s Belfiore said. Instead of using contact center agents at overseas firms to save money, companies can boast of helping the U.S. economy by hiring at-home agents from around this country, he said.

With at-home agents, Belfiore added, companies can choose qualified candidates from a larger geographic pool instead of being limited to their own local markets, where there may be fewer employees with desirable skills and competition from other businesses.

The trick for companies, though, is getting their human resources departments to recognize which candidates will work well from home and which ones won’t, Schoeller said. 

“I’ve worked from home for a very significant percentage of my career,” Schoeller said. “The challenge is to know when I’m at work and when I’m at home. You need the right, motivated kind of people. I think generally, the at-home agents … they’re dedicated. This is a work-life option they’ve chosen.”

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