Need Flexibility? Work From Home

There's a growing option for moms or others who are looking for jobs with a lot of flexibility -- employment at a virtual call center. As customer service representatives, agents at a virtual center take incoming calls and handle requests through a computer networked within the company -- and they can do it all from home.

This is a great opportunity for stay-at-home moms, military spouses, disabled or physically challenged men and women, and those who are the primary caregivers to children or parents. It offers the ultimate in flexibility -- you schedule your own hours. In this case, working from home is not only a benefit, it's a requirement of the job.

There are about 100,000 home-based agents now in the United States. That number is expected to triple to 300,000 by 2010, according to industry research group IDC. That's because large companies recognize enormous financial savings from using home-based agents. About 1,000 businesses in the United States are doing it now -- and more are catching on daily because there is lower turnover, improved productivity and no costly overhead.

As holiday planning kicks in to gear toward the end of the year, there is always great demand for customer service representatives. It takes anywhere from three to six weeks to get hired, so you'll want to start right now to get onboard with this line of work.

Tools and Temperament

There are two crucial, must-haves for doing this kind of work -- the right tools and the right temperament.

For tools, a computer, high speed Internet access, a land-line telephone to handle incoming calls, and a quiet work space are necessities. There are no exceptions to these four firm requirements.

If you meet those, then you can fill out an online application. Get started by visiting the sites of three leaders in the field: Alpine Access (www.alpineaccess.com), VIPDesk (www.vipdesk.com), and Willow CSN (www.willowcsn.com). Hiring is handled online and on the phone, which mirrors the type of work you're doing. Expect to be tested in typing, writing, language and computer skills. And some companies also require drug testing and background checks.

There's a sophisticated screening process to determine whether someone has the right personality and temperament to work as a home-based agent. During the interview, expect to provide anecdotes that speak to some of the key traits they're looking for.

You need to be a self-starter -- motivated to work without a manager looking over your shoulder. Even though you're working at home, punctuality is a must. They will be counting on you to log in at a specific time to cover the phones. You must be organized to keep track of your own schedule.

And you have to be entrepreneurial. This is a home-based business, and if you want to succeed, you really have to focus and go for it. Not everyone is cut out for this kind of work -- you have to thrive on running your own show. If you work best as a member of a team, or in a more structured environment, this kind of home-based call center work probably isn't for you.

Business Opportunity or Employment?

Alpine Access is the only major virtual call center that hires home-based agents as employees. Willow CSN and VIPDesk, for example, require agents to incorporate as independent contractors. The main difference is that contractors must handle all their own taxes. Tens of thousands of agents do this with ease -- it's like running your own home-based business, which makes that entrepreneurial sensibility even more important.

All three of the companies will allow you to decide the types of clients you'd like to service. If you love flowers, maybe you'll be assigned to handle calls for a national florist. If money matters are your cup of tea, then a financial institution could be your client.

So have an idea of what types of businesses you're interested in when you start the interviewing.

Potential Drawbacks

Loneliness and isolation must be considered before you enter into this kind of work. If you thrive on the camaraderie of the workplace and you don't like to work independently, then this isn't right for you.

Alpine Access, Willow CSN and VIPDesk are well aware of this potential problem. To help agents overcome the isolation, they work diligently to create a strong sense of community through regional events, conference calls, contests and mentoring relationships.

Time and Money

Most companies will want you to commit to working at least 15 to 20 hours a week -- otherwise the training and scheduling isn't really worth it. Some agents work 40 to 60 hours a week if they can handle that volume.

Expect to earn between $8 and $15 an hour, based on experience, call volume and the type of clients you're handling. A retailer might not require the same skills and knowledge as a financial institution, so the pay scale might differ a bit. Many agents can earn commissions for successful sales and upgrades on the incoming calls.

Some companies pay based on the number of calls you take -- so you're only paid while you're on the phone. Others pay by hour, from clock-in to clock-out, so be sure you ask about how you're paid before committing to one company over another.

Training is Often Unpaid

You're trained specifically for the company you're handling calls for, so you'll know their products and policies inside and out, and you'll learn their technology too.

In some cases, the training period is considered an investment on your part, meaning you usually do not get paid for it. For the employer, it helps ensure that you're really motivated to make money in this fashion.

Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor on "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. To connect directly with Johnson, visit www.womenforhire.com.

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