Sidebar: Use of Home-based Agents Challenging

Companies such as Office Depot Inc. and 1-800-Flowers.com Inc. that have outsourced customer service to firms that use home-based agents have had to overcome some unique challenges.

The biggest challenge for Office Depot when it began outsourcing sales and service support to Golden, Colo.-based Alpine Access Inc. five years ago "was convincing people that quality wouldn't erode," said Julian Carter, director of operations and strategic partnerships at the Delray Beach, Fla.-based retailer.

To overcome those fears, Office Depot assigns workers to listen in on customer calls periodically to ensure that agents are meeting productivity targets and adhering to quality requirements. Office Depot personnel make sure that agents follow up on sales leads and follow the right procedures, said Carter.

The biggest concerns for 1-800-Flowers before signing up Alpine Access for customer service were fears that the outsourcing firm's training capabilities wouldn't meet its needs, said Lou Orsi, director of vendor relations and strategic projects at the Westbury, N.Y.-based gift retailer.

"I was 100% wrong -- these guys [at Alpine Access] have built a great Web-based training application," Orsi said.

Sandy Ward, vice president of sales and marketing at Alpine Access, said his firm maintains traditional customer service controls, such as call recording, reporting and supervision for the at-home workers. The company encourages its home-based agents to have high-speed Internet connections and requires that they have a second phone line for redundancy.

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