Outsourced Call Centers Return, To U.S. Homes For years, Americans have had their customer service phone calls handled by people overseas. But the rising costs of foreign labor have led a number of firms to bring call centers back to the U.S., and they're hiring more and more people to work right in their own homes.
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Outsourced Call Centers Return, To U.S. Homes

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Outsourced Call Centers Return, To U.S. Homes

Outsourced Call Centers Return, To U.S. Homes

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

If you're used to customer service and tech support from the other side of the world, you may be surprised the next time you place one of those calls. The person who answers might be in the United States. The recession has shifted the scales. Companies are hiring people to answer calls here at home.

As a matter of fact, they're hiring those people in their homes, as NPR's Carolyn Beeler reports.

CAROLYN BEELER: Maureen Quigley-Hogan is the next generation of call center workers.

Ms. MAUREEN QUIGLEY-HOGAN: Hello, good afternoon, this is Maureen, may I have your name, please?

BEELER: Quigley-Hogan is at a makeshift desk in her home office in Virginia. She's wearing pink slippers and she's taking a call from a woman in New Jersey who has a question about her credit card bill.

Ms. QUIGLEY-HOGAN: For verification purposes, may I have the last four digits of your Social Security number, please?

BEELER: Quigley-Hogan was unemployed for 10 years because she says she couldn't hold down a traditional job. She has rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, a disease that causes severe fatigue.

Ms. QUIGLEY-HOGAN: It was hard to get to a job. The idea of going through a regular schedule of getting up and getting ready for work, I would be exhausted.

BEELER: She'd worked in customer service for more than 20 years. So two years ago, she was thrilled to land this job where she can work from home. And increasingly, companies that want to outsource their customer service jobs are happy with the arrangement, too.

Ten years ago, it made a lot of sense to outsource these jobs to the Philippines or India. But that's changing. High inflation and double digit annual raises in some sectors are pushing up the cost of labor in India. At the same time, wages in the United States are falling and companies are rethinking the trade-offs associated with outsourcing.

Richard Crespin is the director of the Human Resources Outsourcing Association.

Mr. RICHARD CRESPIN (Director, Human Resources Outsourcing Association): When a company is deciding where to put something, they have to weigh in the cost of doing that, as well as the inconvenience of having something distant from you and not close in proximity - what I would call like the pain-in-the-neck factor. So, when wages drop in your home economy, you're less likely to move something over as the balance between pain-in-the-neck and labor arbitrage comes more into alignment.

BEELER: Experts say outsourcing is still accelerating for jobs in IT services and manufacturing. But even before the recession started, companies were starting to realize that offshoring wasn't the best option for other services, like handling calls about credit card balances or broken cell phones. That's according to Phil Fersht, an outsourcing analyst.

Mr. PHIL FERSHT (Outsourcing Analyst): People have found that losing the customer service capability for having local staff who can understand products and services well and can deal in context-based situations, it hasn't faired that well in offshore locations like India.

BEELER: Today, Fersht says in some cases workers in India are making only about 15 percent less than workers in, say, Nebraska. He says that's about the point where companies start thinking it's worth it to hire an American worker instead of a foreign one. And one of the cheapest models and biggest trends right now: home workers like Maureen Quigley-Hogan. There are an estimated 60,000 people like her doing call center work from home.

Mr. CHRIS CARRINGTON (Alpine Accessss): It provides a lower cost point than other traditional means of onshore customer service.

BEELER: That's Chris Carrington. He runs Alpine Access, the Denver-based company that Quigley-Hogan works for. He says the low overhead of having home-based workers allows him to charge 20 percent less for the same services that brick-and-mortar call centers in the U.S. provide.

Mr. CARRINGTON: We don't have big buildings and we don't have all of that infrastructure cost, and so we're able to pay our people more, as well as lower the price for our customers that we serve.

BEELER: Even with these cost-cutting measures, American workers are still the more expensive option. But industry watchers say so-called home sourcing will continue to grow as companies look for quality that used to be harder to afford.

Carolyn Beeler, NPR News, Washington.

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