By JOAN PATTERSON


Not long ago, Internet retailer Zappos.com, which is based in Henderson, launched a series of humorous commercials featuring human-like puppets taking customer-service calls. In one segment, a caller tells a Zappos employee that she is just not "emotionally ready" for a dress that is shipped to her home in one day and has put it under a tarp in her garage until she can send it back.

"I totally understand," says the puppet, a phone headset strapped to his foam-filled noggin. "You will have to touch the box, though."

The commercials are based on actual calls made to the company, and the idea of the ad campaign is that no matter what the grievance, no matter how outlandish the request, the customer always comes first.

Zappos, which sells shoes and clothing, may not be the typical corporation when it comes to doing business. In fact, employees in its Henderson call center are actually allowed to help customers over the phone for as long as the customers need it -- even if it takes hours.

Yet, what its unconventional approach does illustrate is that no matter how automated the world has become, customers still want to know they can pick up the phone and have someone on the other end taking their orders, listening to their grievances and answering their questions.

According to David Butler, director of the Call Center Research Laboratory at the University of Southern Mississippi, there are 100,000 call centers in the United States of various sizes, and they employ a total of about 6 million workers. In fact, it is hard to find a major business that does not have some kind of call center, whether it is made up of a few employees or hundreds.

Growth in the area has been fairly steady during the past few years and Butler expects it to remain that way for a while. It may not be booming, in other words, but there are jobs out there.

"The only thing that will stop (call centers) from continuing to grow will be a lack of product offerings but I don't see that happening anytime soon," he said. "You go into any Walmart, pick up a product and there's a toll-free number on the back. Every new service and product has to be serviced in some way."

Call center growth is occurring particularly in sectors such as the medical services industry, telecommunications, financial services and durable goods, according to experts.

"There isn't a business focused on the consumer that doesn't have a call center. ... You can't think of a bank, an insurance company, a securities provider, satellite company, cable company, it's virtually everyone," noted Tim Searcy, chief executive officer of the American Teleservices Association, a nonprofit trade agency representing contact centers across the country.

More than 80 percent of U.S. call centers, also referred to as contact centers, are inbound, which means customers are calling to receive some kind of assistance which can include placing product orders, for example, or updating TV cable services. The rest are mainly what Searcy calls "up-selling" or "cross-selling," which is when a business calls existing customers to sell additional products or services.

While the Internet and its self-service approach has had a significant impact with companies such as Amazon that have either eliminated or cut back their call center services, many businesses realize they need "multiple channels" to communicate with customers and that includes personal contact with a representative over the phone, in addition to services such as e-mail and live online chats, Butler said.

Locally, there are call centers of every variety but what most of them have in common is the goal of meeting the very specific needs of their customers.

One of the newest is Telus International, a branch of a telecommunications company based out of Canada, which opened a facility at Sahara Avenue and Decatur Boulevard last year. The company has 12 million customers and generates about $9.6 billion in annual revenue, according to spokesman Shawn Hall.

One of the major reasons it chose Las Vegas for its first U.S.-based call center is the ability to find workers who are bilingual.

"Las Vegas has a great work force that has a lot of experience in customer service and the bilingual skills were very important to us ... so it's opening shop in a community that will offer rich Spanish and English skills," Hall said.

So far, Telus has hired 120 employees for the Las Vegas center. The original plan was to hire about 1,000 workers over the next few years, but that has been put on hold due to the economy. Currently, the company is simply filling any vacancies in already existing positions but expects "to increase the employee base in the future," Hall said.

Expedia Inc., which has become the largest online travel company in the world, operates a call center in Summerlin and has increased its work force at the Las Vegas location by about 140 employees during the past year, including the addition of 40 workers for a division devoted to Canadian travelers called Expedia.ca, according to a spokesperson.

The company also announced last June that it will be adding another 130 positions in Las Vegas to its corporate travel group, Egencia. The positions require previous travel experience, strong technical skills and knowledge of Global Distribution Systems which are computer reservation systems used by corporate travel agents to book rental cars, airline tickets and hotel rooms.

Although in some cases the company will provide GDS training for those who already have customer service or hospitality experience.

The payment-security company Shift4, which is based out of Henderson, is currently expanding at a rapid-fire pace, recently posting openings for 19 positions that include assistant controller, managers, and software and Web developers.

"So we've been able to weather the storm better than some and have just been able to keep growing," said Shift4 spokesman Nathan Casper.

In the call center, where agents handle incoming calls from businesses that use the company's payment-processing service, there are four to five openings every month due to the combination of employee turnover and business expansion. While the company prefers employees with customer service experience and computer knowledge, it does provide training, Casper said.

"There's a lot of growth potential and we do promote from within. ... Most of the folks are local, coming in. There's plenty of talent out there," he said.

Zappos is also "growing tremendously" and hires call center workers on a regular basis, said recruiter Jacob Palmer. Its teleservices training lasts about seven weeks and even includes a trip to the Zappos warehouse in Kentucky so future workers can get a better feel for how the business operates.

The positions pay between $11 and $13 an hour, increasing for workers who also take part in customer services such as e-mail, chat rooms and order verification, Palmer said.

Patrick Canos, recruiting manager for the Hilton Grand Vacations call center located at the Las Vegas Beltway and Decatur Boulevard, has noticed more diversity in the backgrounds of applicants for his telemarketing positions selling timeshare interests to Hilton customers.

"Lately, because of the economy, we've been getting people from all different backgrounds -- teaching, nursing, day laborers," he said.

The base pay is $8 an hour but the job is commission-driven so some employees can make between $40,000 to $90,000 a year, he said. Hiring is ongoing "because all call centers have a certain amount of turnover," he added.

He looks for employees who want to move up in the company and emphasizes that most of the current managers and supervisors started out in the call center as telemarketers.

"After six months a new hire can apply for another position in the company, which is important because there are other jobs that make you wait up to a year," he said.

Mario Gonzalez, the owner of a company that sells travel packages called Worldwise Vacations and Tours, branched out with a second company recently and, as a result, has been steadily hiring during the past year. The new business, Americare Inc., sells wholesale vitamin and food supplements.

"Through the recession everyone has obviously felt it, but I've managed to double the sales (of Americare) and triple the sales staff from 18 to over 60, and it's been in the last 18 months. ... So I kind of had to switch gears. I saw the writing on the wall," he said.

Recently, he was looking for at least 15 employees for the call center, positions that require mostly outbound sales calls. The jobs pay $10 an hour for a six-hour shift, or employees can work on a commission basis, he said.

Gonzalez started Worldwise in a tiny 150-square-foot office back in 1997. He now has more than 120 employees and recently opened a 10,000-square-foot facility off Bermuda Road in the southwest part of the valley.

 

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