When customers call My Twinn\u2019s toll-free number, they\u2019re toying with plunking down some relatively serious cash for a doll. Not just any doll, mind you. But a doll that\u2019s custom-made to look just like their child?right down to the freckles. So it\u2019s not surprising that these customers have a lot of questions. And that\u2019s why My Twinn is delighted to have agents like Kris Burns, a college-educated mother with five children of her own, handling the calls. The company is able to get such agents because it has outsourced its call center to Alpine Access of Golden, Colo., whose 430 agents work out of their homes on flexible, and often part-time, schedules.A few years ago, Englewood, Colo.-based My Twinn decided to outsource its call center operations because the seasonal nature of the doll business made it hard to justify the overhead of an in-house call center. "When you go from 25 agents to 400 [during the holidays], the effort to recruit, hire, train and provide the space and capital needed to do all that makes it more cost-effective to outsource," explains Gail Hickert, vice president of customer service and sales. "You don\u2019t want to have a facility and equipment and space to use them only three or four months out of the year."But after working with two separate outsourcers, Hickert grew fed up with outsourced call centers\u2019 high turnover rates, which meant that My Twinn\u2019s calls were often going to new reps who weren\u2019t very familiar with the products. What\u2019s more, the average call center employee?a woman in her early 20s who probably hasn\u2019t been to college?wasn\u2019t exactly brimming with empathy for My Twinn customers. And the typical My Twinn customer?a female in her late 30s or early 40s with children, often with a college degree?needs to be convinced her order is in good hands before she\u2019ll pay up to $225 for a custom doll and matching outfit for her child. "The labor force could not relate as closely to the customer as you would like for customer relationship building," says Hickert.In Alpine Access\u2019s home-customer-agent model, Hickert saw the potential to hire a demographic population that "would more closely reflect our customer," she says. Following a successful two-month pilot with Alpine Access, My Twinn turned over all of its call center business to the outsourcer in June 2000.More Qualified AgentsWhen Alpine Access launched in 1998 as a Web-based virtual call center, its cofounders, who had long been involved in traditional call centers, decided to upgrade the labor and hire more sophisticated agents who would be adept at using CRM technology, according to Steve Rockwood, cofounder and president. Using agents who don\u2019t have the education or background to be able to get the most out of CRM software is "analogous to using technology to build great fighter jets but then putting high school graduates?or dropouts?behind the controls," he says. "We\u2019re bringing fighter jet pilots to handle this fighter jet technology." Alpine Access agents have to be technologically savvy, smart and friendly, and "have a wonderful way online and over the phone," he says. In fact, the company requires applicants to audition for the job by calling in to leave a message. Alpine Access then digitizes the resulting "voice prints" and measures their tonality as a way to gauge the applicants\u2019 friendliness, Rockwood says.Hickert is convinced she\u2019s able to get higher caliber agents by tapping into the pool of workers who prefer to work from their homes. An agent who is satisfied with her work reflects a positive attitude that translates into a more pleasant experience for My Twinn\u2019s customers, she says. Burns, for example, is clearly happy with the work-at-home model. She has worked for Alpine Access from her home in Highlands Ranch, Colo., since September 1999. A customer service agent and supervisor, Burns says the Alpine Access motto of "family first" makes it a good company to work for."Working out of the home isn\u2019t going to work if you want to supervise your children,\u2019\u2019 says Burns, whose five kids are 12 and under. "But this enables me to be at home when my children get home from school. And without the commuting time, I can still put in a full day." The fact that Alpine Access works around the call agents\u2019 schedules "makes for much happier, motivated employees," says Burns. Happier employees tend to stick around longer, so My Twinn has the benefit of a seasoned staff and fewer resources that must be devoted to training new reps. Rockwood won\u2019t disclose the average tenure of an agent at his company, which had been fully operational for 17 months at press time. But he insists Alpine Access\u2019s retention rate is "much higher than any brick-and mortar-facility." The number-one reason for turnover in call centers isn\u2019t pay but schedule conflict, says Rockwood. And the virtual model allows Alpine Access to offer its employees greater flexibility than a traditional call center could. "Obviously, the longer you have call center reps in place the better you are able to serve your customers," says Joanie Rufo, a research director at AMR Research in Boston. The average turnover time for traditional call centers is 18 months, she says.As with any work-at-home model, figuring out how to keep agents motivated is an important consideration, says Rufo. "There are certain personalities that thrive when working from home, but conversely, some people do better in a work setting." To keep tabs on agent productivity, Alpine Access monitors its agents over the phone and electronically. "If I need to, I can actually see what the agent is doing online," says Rockwood. "[Agents are] home alone, but they\u2019re never alone. We\u2019re always there to monitor and support them." The company also conducts all of its training online; up to 20 agents can simultaneously log on to Alpine Access\u2019s Web training center to participate in live interactive training sessions. Hickert also can supervise My Twinn\u2019s virtual call center on the Alpine Access website. There she can set measurements that let her monitor the agents and track things like number of abandoned calls, average call length and the percentage of calls that are handled within the parameters My Twinn has agreed on with Alpine Access. For example, 90 percent of the order calls need to be answered within 120 seconds or less, Hickert says.The Virtual Call CenterSo how do at-home agents report to work at My Twinn\u2019s virtual call center? Each agent uses two phone lines. The first is for Internet access to connect to Alpine Access\u2019s website. Through the site, agents log on to the appropriate client\u2019s CRM or order processing system so that all customer data the agents collect goes directly in to the clients\u2019 databases. (Agents handling My Twinn calls, for example, use My Twinn\u2019s Ecometry system from Smith-Gardner to log orders.) Using the second phone line, agents dial in to a master switch that puts them into Alpine Access\u2019s virtual call center, through which phone calls are routed. Then reps enter their name and password to access a particular client company. Burns, who works 35 to 40 hours a week, says the Alpine Access Web center is intuitive, and its agents have plenty of support at their fingertips if a call needs to be escalated. "All the resources and tools have been placed on the website, and any question asked of us can be answered,\u2019\u2019 she says. "That customer doesn\u2019t even know we\u2019re working at home and not at a brick-and-mortar company."When I log on, I\u2019m scheduled for one customer at a time,\u2019\u2019 Burns adds. When it\u2019s time to field calls for another client, she hangs up, calls in to the same switch and enters a different password to access that company. Burns, who is cross-trained to work for six companies, monitors agents for My Twinn. (Client companies represent a range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, financial, travel, copy and fax machines, and health care.)Better Relations, Higher SalesMy Twinn has ample evidence that switching to the virtual call center model was a smart business move. In 2000, Alpine Access agents converted 30 percent more inquiry calls into orders than agents in the brick-and-mortar call center had converted in 1999, according to Hickert. She also says that agent turnover decreased 88 percent, allowing My Twinn to save considerably on training costs. What\u2019s more, the company had 90 percent fewer escalated calls, letters and e-mails from irate customers in 2000 than it had in 1999. Hickert is so pleased, she\u2019s planning to have Alpine Access take over handling My Twinn\u2019s e-mails as well. But that\u2019s not to say that every last call is now managed flawlessly. Devin Golden of Belmont, Mass., says the My Twinn call agents he dealt with were courteous and tried to help?but he repeatedly requested catalogs last holiday season to no avail. Although he got a 10 percent discount when his third call was escalated to a supervisor, he didn\u2019t get a catalog in time to place a Christmas order. Hickert calls Golden\u2019s experience "unusual" and says the company bends over backward to handle as many customer requests as it can, even at the height of the holiday season. And overall, she\u2019s happy with Alpine Access. "Our revenues per labor cost have significantly increased because these people close more sales and they relate better to the customer," she says. Agents are likely to relate well to customers because, according to Burns, the company tries to find people who have a history in the field its clients are in. She says that of all companies she\u2019s worked for as a call center agent, she relates most to My Twinn because of its products, and the fact that her children are at the age where they play with dolls. "When you can relate to anything you can sell, of course you\u2019re going to sell it better,\u2019\u2019 she says. "Most of us who work for My Twinn have children."And if the experience of customer Kim Kill, a substitute teacher\u2019s aid in St. Marys, Ohio, is typical, agents are, in fact, relating well to customers. Kill ordered a doll in 1999 and has since placed three more orders for accessories and matching outfits for her daughter. She says she found that everyone she has talked with at the company "seems to know the needs of little girls and how they want everything just right." Says Kill: "I had asked for a specific dress, and they were out of stock, and the [agent] was very sincere and said how sorry she was and what a cute dress it was, and how they were getting lots of orders for it." Kill notes that even when she had to change a previously placed order for doll accessories recently, there was no problem. "As far as changing my order and getting a different dress, it couldn\u2019t have gone smoother and everything I received in the mail was correct," she says. "I felt really bad calling back, but they were very pleasant." Without commutes, cubicles or dress codes to contend with, the agents answering My Twinn\u2019s calls have less cause to be unpleasant than the typical call enter agent. Alpine Access employee Burns says she looks forward to working because she can literally crawl out of bed and go into her office. "It\u2019s a wonderful job. I have no intentions of going anywhere. I\u2019m able to juggle five children, a 40-hour workweek and all the home responsibilities, and not ever have to leave. It just makes for a happier, more content work environment. It really comes across in my voice."Do you have an interesting customer-focused case study to share? Send your ideas to email@example.com. Esther Shein is a freelance writer and editor based in Framingham, Mass.