Road to Recovery: Bringing Customer Service Back to America

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Consumer complaints and high unemployment may help reverse the trend of outsourcing customer service jobs to developing countries.

"In the last 10 years, over one million jobs have been sent to India or the Philippines in the customer service call center space alone," said Angela Selden, CEO of Arise Virtual Solutions. "What companies discovered was that, while that was great from a cost perspective, what they were losing was the connection with the customer."

Within the year, Selden's company expects to double the 18,000 customer service agents it provides for its corporate customers in the United States. Arise clients include companies involved in telecommunications, computers, financial services and travel.

The customer service agents work as independent contractors, usually from their own homes. According to Selden, pay ranges from $8 per hour for answering a switchboard to $25 per hour for commission-based sales of cruises or high-end equipment.

The workforce includes college students and retirees with technical skills and flexible schedules, as well as workers facing unemployment or reduced hours.

"The economy kind of went south," said Melvin White, a product manager who reluctantly took early retirement before becoming an Arise contractor. "Looking for a job when you're over 60, you don't quite have the same flexibility. You don't get the same response."

These customer service agents often work for less than they made in previous careers. But with unemployment rates so high, many are previousgrateful to have a paycheck. The ability to work from home and set their own hours adds to the job's attraction.

"It doesn't matter what you're wearing," said customer service agent Patricia Marshall. "You can be wearing your jeans and T-shirt. But we are going to put on that beautiful smile when they get on the phone." Marshall said callers are pleasantly surprised when they find out they're speaking to an American.

"They want to know that you are in the United States because they want to know that their business, or whatever they're paying for-- membership or whatever it is -- is staying here," she said.

The process of bringing customer service jobs back to the U.S. is often called "reverse outsourcing" or "homesourcing." Arise's CEO said customer service agents familiar with the local culture, customs and dialect tend to be more accurate than someone speaking broken English
on the other side of the world.

"Even though the rate per minute might be less expensive offshore, it's actually less expensive to have somebody in market answering those calls," Selden said. "They can answer them in a much more efficient and effective manner."