For 20 hours a week Julie Sardelli fields HSN sales calls in her Pinellas Park home office with two big dogs curled around her feet and two smaller ones parked on the desk, flanking her home computer.
"There's no commute, I can work in my PJs, and when my shift ends, I can go right to bed," said the 50-year-old mother of two grown kids. "It's perfect. I'd quit if they try to send me back to work in the call center."
Not likely. A growing contingent of headphoned workers armed with their own personal computers linked to HSN's St. Petersburg headquarters miles away helped lift the network's once-dismal customer satisfaction ratings.
About 900 of the 1,400 part- and full-time workers who handle orders now work from home in three states. The TV shopping network is experimenting with sending some of the 300 employees who handle customer complaints home, too.
"We have so many home agents now that we're considering letting some of their supervisors work from home to give the agents a career path," said Gary Richmond, an HSN vice president who heads work-at-home.
It's a response to the backlash to customer care companies cutting costs by shipping calls to offshore contractors in India and the Pacific Islands.
"It's a coming big trend, but nobody has taken work at home as far as HSN," said Bruce Belfiore, research director at the Center for Customer Driven Quality at Purdue University.
The technology has been around 20 years. But so far it has spread only to a few huge call center contractors that field customer care calls for multiple companies.
HSN, which must be prepared to juggle spikes of 500 calls at once for a hot selling item several times a day, got a leg up learning the home agent business when it owned a stake in one of the initial home agent startups, Arise Virtual Solution Inc. in Miami. The TV shopping channel also recruited 100 telecommuters in Nashville when their TV shopping channel employer Shop at Home went out of business.
HSN finally soured on foreign outsourcing after farming some of the job to contractors in the Philippines, which coincided with a dive in customer satisfaction ratings and a drop in sales.
Companies "are starting to bring the jobs back to the states," said David Hadobas, president of the CCNG International, a Dallas-based trade group. "Virtually all big centers are trying work-at-home agents, but most fail."
Unplugging the last of the Philippines experiment a year ago and returning more of the call volume to its own employees became part of HSN's solution to a bigger problem.
Call centers in the Tampa Bay area were locked in a wage war to woo experienced employees. So HSN sidestepped the pay scale race by crafting a more flexible job opportunity for prospects who don't relish an hour commute for a three- to six-hour shift.
"It opened our applicant pool to a whole new group with untapped job skills who prefer to work from home," said Rob Solomon, network senior vice president of customer care.
The job attracts retirees, stay-at-home moms, the disabled, and people seeking a second paycheck.
"If I couldn't work at home, I wouldn't be working," said Stacy Salmon, a 38-year-old Clearwater mother of two who wants to be part of their growing up.
Once her two boys became teens, she crammed an HSN work space into a corner of the kitchen. The coffee maker is 10 feet away. The big-screen TV in the living room is within talking distance.
She started at $10 an hour committing to 29 hours a week. She earns about 25 percent more thanks to bonuses for extras like up-selling shoppers with scripted suggestions.
Her phone line access to HSN is secured by a remote control device that constantly scrambles passwords. Salmon's computer can summon pages of HSN product details and customer account histories in seconds, just like the ones in the call center. Supervisors can monitor any call for quality assurance. Benefits include a retirement savings plan, periodic breaks and shopping privileges for deep discounts at the HSN employee company store.
Sometimes she sits waiting for the phone to ring. Other times it never stops for a whole shift.
"I love to shop, and they pay me," said Salmon, who rarely shopped HSN before but now sports boots, slacks, a GPS and jewelry she bought watching hours of HSN on the job.
These days most of HSN's orders arrive in automated form, online or dialed in from a touch-tone phone key pad. But a human voice to answer questions remains a requirement for any direct mail house.
Work-at-home costs HSN more than other options. But that's offset by employee turnover dropping from 120 percent a year to 35 percent. There's no shortage of applicants. The network draws 16 candidates and interviews four for each opening.
In the meantime, the network's customer ratings and sales performance have improved by several measures. It's rated "good" by 200,000 customer reviews at bizrate.com. HSN customer service was rated 16th best among retailers by Big Research, one notch behind Best Buy. But its 69 rating by University of Michigan Customer Satisfaction last fall was below average, although that covers the entire customer experience.
The big stumbling block for work-at-home at most call centers: It's hard for management to make a leap of faith that people working at home stay engaged in the job or don't lose touch with the company culture.
Typically, the jobs only go to a few trusted workers as a reward.
HSN puts carefully screened new hires through a three-week training program at its campus, lets them work in a call center there whenever they want and requires they come to HQ monthly to talk with their supervisors. To cement a social connection, the company stages regular events on campus and potluck dinners. A roving prize patrol even makes rounds with a surprise knock on the door by an Ed McMahon copycat bearing gifts.
Home agents also use an instant messaging network among themselves, have blogs, 24/7 tech support and an online Buddy Trading System to swap work shifts on short notice. Groups of agents also developed their own social network groups.
"We help each other all day on the Web," Salmon said. "So we have a regular lunch group to match a voice with a face."
Mark Albright can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8252.