Monday, August 13, 2007

Customer services agents can work from home


Last week, ABC Good Morning America did a broadcast (Tori Johnson: "Take Control of Your Life" link) on working from home opportunities. Although they are quite varied as to credibility, the broadcast mentioned three companies that offer the opportunities for persons to become home customer service agents for various kinds of retail and catalogue sales and other services (sometimes insurance). The pay can be over $20 an hour. Most jobs require a minimum of 15 hours a week (preferably more) and most new agents will be expected to work nights and weekends.

The tradeoff, in exchange for no commuting, is that associates must supply their own computing and communications hardware and software (properly licensed, of course). There needs to be a quiet room in the home where family members do not intrude, and some space for business materials. On the computer itself, there needs to be certainty that business and personal stuff will not be intermingled.

The report said that up to 10000 home customer service agents might be hired by December. Job applications usually require a background investigation (for fraud convictions) that the applicant may have to pay for. There is also a series of progressive home computer skill and phone skills interviews. Many people who apply are not hired.

The main companies are
Alpine Access, with two important sublinks: one on being an employee instead of a free-lance agent, and one on agent skills and computer requirements.

Live-ops FAQ's.

Arise, whose computer requirements (pdf) are more specific. Arise automatically checks home computers linked to its system for the presence of other software that it believes could compromise security and also checks for spyware or malware.

Generally, companies require a stable home computing environment with at least Windows XP (Professional preferred) and a dedicated land business phone line and a hard-wired high-speed Internet connection (DSL or Cable). Agents may need two separate ISP’s and must use business-only email addresses (and not use popular free services or use services usually thought of as home products like AOL). As of now, companies are not willing to work with agents who would use Wireless, although my own observation is that wireless is improving and becoming more stable and more secure. This situation could well change in the future. Some companies are starting to work with Vista, but not all client groups can support it. Vista is more secure, and it is likely to become standard in the future. Some companies and client groups cannot accommodate MacIntosh, but that could change in the future as computer experts tend to consider MacIntosh more secure.

Some companies say that they cannot work with Internet Explorer 7.0 yet, although it seems to be in production from Microsoft and well tested.

All companies insist that home computers be well secured with a complete computer security anti-virus suite and anti-spyware tools. Companies like McAfee, Norton and others offer packages that need to be checked to be sure that they include all components. Among the companies, Arise, in particular, is very strict about not having software on the “work computer” at home (or networking it in certain ways) that could make the computer more vulnerable to hackers (leading to compromise of client information). As a result, an agent could find it more practical to purchase a new computer just for work. Generally, an adequate setup is available from Dell or similar company (like HP) for $500-$700, usually with McAfee or Norton pre-installed, and will typically work properly when set up. (Some software might have to be removed or never enabled.) Be careful if the new computer comes with Vista.

But these companies have some work to do in keeping up with rapidly changing personal PC platforms.

Update: Jan. 28, 2008

NBC Nightly News tonight had a story on companies returning call center work from overseas (where there were language problems) back home, so there may be a considerable boom in the need for home telephone agents, with a larger list of clients. The CEO for Alpine Access was interviewed.

Update: Feb. 27, 2008

There is a story today on AOL giving a large list of companies that hire home workers. The link is here.

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