Telephone work from home fits the bill for many

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Kandi Genis, of Sewickley, is rearing a teenage daughter. Anna Harrison, of Sheraden, works full time as a marketing representative. Lauran Webb, of Schenley Heights, is a retired Pittsburgh police officer.

But all three women have found the same way to make some extra cash: working from home answering telephone calls for LiveOps, a Palo-Alto, Calif.-based "virtual call center."

LiveOps is the largest of several companies, including Alpine Access and Arise, that employ a fully at-home work force. Agents for the companies work as independent contractors and do not receive benefits, but gain the one perk missing from many out-of-the-home jobs: flexibility.

"You can work 40 hours or you can work 10," said Ms. Genis, "and nobody is mad at you if you only want to work 10."

Ms. Genis had worked both as a preschool teacher and in retail while her daughter was growing up, and "agonized" over the time that she was spending away from home.

So when she heard about LiveOps in December, she quickly applied. The company requires that applicants pay $30 for a background and credit check before their applications can be considered, and that they have high-speed Internet and a traditional phone line.

Perhaps because it was the holiday season, Ms. Genis was accepted as a "home agent" within days and now works about 40 hours per week taking calls predominantly from people seeking to order something that they saw on an infomercial.

The speed of her hiring isn't necessarily typical, however, said Tim Whipple, vice president of agent service. The company receives about 3,000 job inquiries per week, he said, and is planning to hire a total of 4,000 employees before the end of the year.

LiveOps, which was founded in 2000, currently has about 16,000 agents nationwide and 350 agents in the Pittsburgh area. The company's chief executive officer, Maynard Webb, is the former chief operating officer for eBay.

LiveOps agents schedule blocks of time by the half-hour and earn anywhere between $7 and $20 dollars per hour, said Mr. Whipple, with payment coming both per minute of talk time and by performance bonuses -- for example, an agent might gain a bonus by "upselling" a caller to a more expensive product. Agents are graded on a merit system, with the most experienced and best-scoring agents getting the most lucrative calls.

"If a bottom line salary number is the most important thing to you, this may not be for you," said Ms. Genis. "If balance is most important, you can make a really fine income this way."

Because of the sales component, the job isn't for everyone -- many people have trouble dealing with impatient customers, pushing additional products or sticking to a script. Additionally, newer or lower-scoring agents might find themselves having to work less desirable hours, such as nights and weekends.

For Ms. Webb, the retired police officer, the sales aspect wasn't an issue, nor were the odd hours. Even while on the police force, she had sold gift baskets or Avon products.

In retirement, she'd become a full-time pastor at a Church of the Nazarene in Duquesne, but found herself needing additional income to make ends meet.

"I needed a job, and I cried at the thought of having to get a job," she said, particularly when she saw that retail jobs paid only $6 or $7 an hour.

She found out about LiveOps through a conversation with a former agent at a banquet, and has found the job to be exactly what she was looking for -- even personally buying some of the products she sells, such as a set of Ronco knives.

"It seemed too good to be true," she said, "and it is too good to be true."


Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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