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North Texas 'Virtual' Call-Center Agents Reverse Trend of Off-Shoring

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

North Texas 'Virtual' Call-Center Agents Reverse Trend of Off-Shoring

Dallas, TX –

Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Welcome to Heidi Hess' Plano home, and workplace. The independent contractor's been a virtual agent for a dozen years or so, working for web and phone survey companies, and businesses from hotels to Office Depot. For this customer service, and order-taking job, Hess says she's studied Office Depot catalogs, literature, and business procedures. She has computer access to client accounts and contact numbers to help resolve problems she cannot. She says it's not like bricks and mortar call center work she did part-time in college.

Heidi Hess, Work-at Home Agent: Typically, the mentality of someone in a call center is that this is a temporary job. It's not a career, it's a temporary job. For myself and all the people I've ever worked with in virtual call centers, it's a career choice they've made. It's not a disposable job.

Zeeble: Hess loves the job and has studied many different companies she takes calls for. She works a flexible 40- to 45-hour week in her closed home office, earns in the 30-plus thousand dollar range, but saves on business clothes, a second car and insurance, and gas. She gets no health insurance. Next to her high speed computer is a router switch, her invaluable light-weight head set, and a muted TV monitor, tuned to news or the Weather Channel. It's not for entertainment.

Hess: If somebody calls and says, "My delivery is late," I can say, "Oh, I see you're having terrible whether in Kansas. I bet the driver is on his way but I see you just had three inches of rain." They say "Yes, OK, and they feel a connection with that, so that's why I have that up, so I know what's going on around the country and can reference that if I need to.

Zeeble: At 39, Hess is older, more experienced, and better educated than typical call center operators. She's not the young mother in a busy household, which is what people expect, says Tim Houlne. He's the CEO of Plano-based Working Solutions, which counts Heidi Hess among its 22,000 contractors who take calls for various clients.

Tim Houlne, CEO, Working Solutions: We try to focus on the higher value transaction that requires a dynamic, thinking agent. That will enable them to get high results, whether it's an enrollment program, sales program, customer support program...

Zeeble: Houlne says better service from home-based workers warrants higher salaries and still saves companies 20 to 30% off bricks and mortar call centers. His company's grown rapidly over the last year and a half, after Dell moved some of its offshore call centers back to the U.S. Professor Michael Davis, at SMU's Cox School of Business, considers the growth of at-home workers a positive, but relatively small trend. Out of some 4 million call center agents, about 100,000 work at home.

Michael Davis, Business Professor, Southern Methodist University: If you think about it, what virtual call center do is give more options to everybody. There are more people who might be able to do this kind of work. So if you have a population of retired people, or just people between jobs while they're training, this could be a win-win for all.

Zeeble: Even, says Hess, if some of her callers may seem like losers.

Hess: A guy who wanted to know how come he couldn't have a reservation that was beach-side in Orlando, Florida. I said because Orlando doesn't have beaches. And he said, "But it's a very thin state."

Zeeble: Hess says no matter what the caller's like, she strives to be courteous and friendly. She's learned never to take bad calls personally. For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.


Email Bill Zeeble about this story.