'Homeshoring' to trump offshoring?

Study says companies are using home-based U.S. employees for call center duties, which can avoid problems tied to offshore workers.

The next customer service agent you get on the phone may well be sitting in slippers and a bathrobe.

A report released Tuesday from research firm IDC says a number of companies are turning to a new method to meet call center challenges: getting workers to handle calls from their homes.

So-called homeshoring or homesourcing in certain situations can boost productivity while cutting costs, according to researcher IDC. The practice also can avoid a potential pitfall of sending such work overseas, IDC suggested: foreign agents less familiar with U.S. customers.

"There are currently upwards of 100,000 home-based phone representatives in the United States," IDC said. "Compared with traditional outsourcing and offshor(ing), companies utilizing home-based agents can access highly skilled representatives that are closely attuned to the U.S. market at very reasonable cost."

The report may give some comfort to those concerned that the offshore phenomenon is undercutting U.S. workers. Research firm Forrester has predicted that more than 3 million U.S. service jobs will go offshore by 2015. But the scope and impact of offshoring is not certain .

Not all offshore deals are ideal. After receiving customer complaints, Dell stopped sending U.S. technical support calls for two of its corporate computer lines to a Bangalore, India, call center in 2003.

IDC said companies are turning to homeshoring in response to call center challenges such as the need for superior agent quality, frequent turnover and the seasonal nature of the business. Alpine Access, Aspect Communications, IntelliCare, West, WillowCSN and Working Solutions are companies with "home-based sourcing methods and strategies," IDC said.

A number of companies in the technology industry are giving more workers flexibility in the way they do their jobs, including the option of working from home. There are challenges involved in telecommuting arrangements, including data security risks. Also, home workers can feel alienated. But homeshoring can help both agents and companies, IDC said.

"Accessing high-quality agents is not limited to those within commuting distance, and agents can be contacted when needed instead of occupying call centers during periods of very little call activity," IDC said.

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