MELBOURNE – Much has been made the last several years about "Made in America," but how about "Answered in America?"
After years of sending call center jobs to India, the Philippines, Mexico and other countries, companies are bringing them back to the U.S.
An estimated 5 million Americans are employed in call centers, including more than 1,000 in Brevard County, at such places as eBay Enterprise's Customer Care Center, Percepta LLC and TeleTech Holdings, which recently announced plans to hire 300 people at its expanding Melbourne operation.
The trend, industry watchers said, is driven by changes in technology, rising overseas labor costs — and customers demanding better service. For years now, questions from domestic customers — product warranty issues or credit card billing inquiries, for example — have been routed to Brazil, India or eastern Europe, and a language barrier has often arisen as an issue.
Moving calls centers back to the United States helps with some of that customer-to-company disconnect. And it's certainly not bad for a company's image to be hiring more people in the United States.
"We continue to experience growth in all markets," said Todd Baxter, senior vice president of global operations for TeleTech, "but we are particularly proud to have created nearly 3,000 new jobs in the United States in the last 18 months."
At the eBay Enterprise center in Melbourne — formerly GCI — there are about 900 core employees taking calls for customers of major retail clients. The center is preparing its annual seasonal holiday hiring push which will increase its employment by an additional 2,000 workers at the Melbourne site and another 200 to 400 at a new site on Merritt Island.
Richardo Layun, director of operations at the Melbourne eBay Enterprise center, said technology can handle the simple questions. That's the familiar "press 1 for yes and 2 for no."
But more complex questions require the human touch and with someone who has some authority to make decisions, he said, and that's probably why many call centers are moving operations back to the United States.
"The types of calls that are coming through to our agents today, regardless of the client, are more complex, and it's requiring that higher caliber associate. You get a much higher quality associate onshore than the experience I've had offshore," Layun said. "Some models obviously work great offshore, but with our client base, they're looking for the talent base we have onshore."
Call center jobs aren't just growing in Florida.
For example, so far this year, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. estimated, at least 1,400 call center jobs have been created in the state.
"We're all about more and better jobs," said Amy Cell, a senior vice president for talent enhancement at the MEDC. "Call centers offer great entry-level opportunities for new college graduates or people trying to get a foothold in customer-service fields."
Keontay Kelley of Detroit has worked at Dialog Direct's operation in Michigan for less than a year.
He said he enjoys working there. Some calls can be frustrating. But, he said, the job lets him work inside an office, wear professional attire — and, best of all, the work lets him feel like he's helping solve people's problems, he said.
"I like to be the knight in shining armor," he said.
In his experience, Kelley said, callers appreciate that the center is in the U.S.
Doug Kearney, Dialog Direct's president and CEO, said "a lot of jobs are coming back to the U.S." In the next few years, he said, he expects more growth in the industry as customers increasingly turn to social media.
Companies began sending call center jobs overseas years ago because they sought to reduce labor costs, said Matt Zemon, the chairman of the nonprofit group Jobs4America based in Chapel Hill, N.C.
But in recent years, as overseas labor costs have increased, companies have been reversing some of those decisions, he said. Some companies also found that customers were unhappy with the service from overseas call centers.
By Zemon's count, about 180,000 call center jobs were created nationally in 2012 and 2013.
Calls mean money
Paul Stockford, the director of research for the National Association of Call Centers, based in Hattiesburg, Miss., said the nonprofit membership group estimates there are about 66,000 call centers in the U.S., with that number expected to grow.
Companies are still using overseas centers to handle sales calls involving low-price, low-margin items and also to address calls seeking technical help. "The higher the value of the customer, the more likely the job will be in the U.S.," he said.
If a customer is confused or dissatisfied, it could cost a company sales, and they don't want to miss out on opportunities, especially when it comes to big-ticket items. Stockford pointed to airlines, which are selling plane tickets worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
Baxter, at TeleTech, said the company has call centers across the globe. Because it had an operation here — and knew the work force — it was good fit for an expansion.
The local operation is growing because of two TeleTech clients which are among the nation's largest healthcare providers. The clients' names were not disclosed by the company.
"We chose Melbourne for its talent and availability of great labor workforce, as well as strong opportunities for local community partnerships," Baxter said, "and the success we have had there since opening our site over a year ago."