Aug. 31, 2006 -- We were inundated with responses from Wednesday's segment on home-based customer service agents.
Based on questions from viewers interested in learning more about how to pursue this line of work, we're providing more details for your consideration.
This growing trend throughout the country is focused on agents handling incoming customer service inquiries from their homes while connected to a network via computer and phone.
It's replacing the traditional bricks-and-mortar call centers and helping to keep jobs in the United States as opposed to outsourcing them offshore.
For customer service agents, this offers the ultimate in flexibility.
You can schedule your hours and determine how much or how little you're willing to work.
In this case, working from home is not only a benefit, it's a requirement of the job.
Companies also can tap into a diverse pool of sophisticated workers who wouldn't ordinarily want to work in a bricks-and-mortar call center, but who would be thrilled to handle this type of work from home.
The result is improved customer service without the often-challenging cultural barriers, which is proving more important than ever for many of America's top companies, including banks, airlines, retailers and more.
Do you have the basic requirements?
To become a virtual customer service agent where you'd accept incoming phone calls from customers of large companies, you must have a computer, high speed Internet access, a landline telephone, and a quiet work space.
You must provide all of that at your own expense. You will be not reimbursed.
Are you a punctual self-starter?
Are you entrepreneurial? Not everyone is cut out for this kind of work. You have to thrive on running your own show. If you work best in a more structured environment, this kind of home-based call center work probably isn't for you.
Do you have a pleasant phone manner, common sense, and a desire to solve problems efficiently?
Prior sales or customer service experience is a plus, but not a requirement. Bilingual skills are also an asset.
In addition to typing, writing, language and computer tests, be aware that the application process, which differs with each company, may include background checks, credit checks and drug testing.
Hiring is handled online and on the phone, which mirrors the type of work that you will be doing.
Research the companies you might want to work for.
There are two distinct business models in this industry: independent contractor or employee.
One company, Alpine Access (www.alpineaccess.com) hires virtual agents as employees.
Other companies, including Willow CSN (www.willowcsn.com), LiveOps (www.liveops.com), and VIPdesk (www.vipdesk.com), among others, require agents to incorporate, and they're hired as independent contractors.
The main difference is that as a contractor, you are responsible for managing and paying your own taxes, as well as some other start-up costs. Visit their sites and explore the sections on how to become an agent.
Aside from determining on your own -- or with the advice of an accountant -- whether employee or contractor status is best for you, there are several factors to consider when deciding where to apply:
Location: At any given time, one company may be hiring virtual agents in your state while others are not. Check with each company to determine its current and ongoing needs for your area.
Type of Client: You'll likely want to work on clients that you have a connection with. A horticulturist would enjoy working on a 1-800-Flowers account through Alpine Access. A savvy traveler might want to work for Willow CSN as an agent for Virgin Atlantic.
Compensation Structure: Hourly wages range from $8 an hour to $15 an hour, which is determined based on experience, skill level, and the specific needs of the client you're serving. Ask in advance how the company pays its agents. Some pay hourly from when you clock in until you clock out. For others, the meter runs only while you're on an actual call; you're not paid for downtime between calls.
Volume: While most companies want you to commit at least 15 hours to 20 hours a week, ask about the anticipated workload. Find out whether they'll have enough work to keep you busy consistently or on a seasonal basis.
Some clients have low volume in summer months, and they're swamped during the holidays.
Other clients experience high volume in the evenings, while others peak on the weekends. This is important when trying to determine how much time you can devote and how much money you can make.
Upfront fees: Some companies, such as Alpine Access, have no fees to get started. Others may require applicants to pay for their background and/or credit checks. These fees are typically under $30. Others require you to pay for a training manual or to attend unpaid training sessions. This will depend on the company you work for, as well as the types of clients you opt to serve.
If you become an independent agent, you'll have to assume the costs of incorporating in your state.
A Willow CSN spokesperson says most of the company's CyberAgents say they have recouped these costs within their first paycheck.
While insurance and other benefits are not paid for by the companies, virtual agents often can purchase coverage through designated providers that offer group rates.
Rest assured, becoming a home-based customer service agent is not an envelope-stuffing scam and it's not a pyramid scheme where you're signing up simply to recruit other people.
This is legitimate home-based work for which more than 100,000 people across the country are being paid for their part- and full-time services handling customer inquiries for some of the biggest brands in the world, including AAA Auto Clubs, Walgreens, Virgin Atlantic, 1-800-Flowers, J. Crew, and many more.
Tory Johnson is the workplace contributor for "Good Morning America" and the CEO of Women for Hire. Connect with her directly at www.womenforhire.com.