JUST DON'T ASK IF THEY'RE IN PJS

That operator taking your next order may not be in Mumbai; she might be sitting in her bedroom. A growing number of companies are hiring U.S. home-based call agents as an alternative to more expensive in-house operators or less-qualified offshore call centers.

Office Depot saves 30 or 40 percent on the cost of each call because it's not providing work space or benefits for its home-based call-center workers, says Julian Carter, the company's director of operations. JetBlue's entire reservation system is handled by 900 home-based workers in Salt Lake City. The company claims it allows them high worker retention and more satisfied customers, along with blizzard-proof phone operations.

The home-based phone phenomenon has grown rapidly, and more than 100,000 workers are now answering calls from their homes, according to research firm IDC. That's largely because phone and broadband technology now makes it simple for companies to forward their calls to home-based workers and allow them access to internal corporate database systems, says Merle Sandler, an IDC analyst.

Some companies that outsourced their call centers to workers in other countries are finding themselves disappointed with the results. Some are hiring their own home-based phone workers; others are contracting out to companies like Willow CSN Inc. in Miramar, Fla., a firm that runs call centers for other companies.

JetBlue says customers think home-based workers are friendlier and happier, and home-based workers like the fact they can use their breaks to throw in a load of laundry or defrost dinner, says JetBlue's G. R. Badger. The commute's nice, too.

JUST DON'T ASK IF THEY'RE IN PJS | News