Virtual call centers are helping many U.S. businesses trim occupancy costs and boost customer service.

Unlike the typical call center, which consolidates employees within one cavernous building, virtual call centers utilize home-based workers with high-speed Internet and phone connections. Virtual centers also allow companies to keep jobs on U.S. soil rather than far-flung locales overseas where occupancy and labor costs are cheaper.

“Many of these companies are bringing work to the employee, rather than the employee to work,” says Jennifer Dressback, vice president of Global Corporate Services at CB Richard Ellis. The Chicago-based consultant led a panel entitled “Offshoring Alternatives” at last week’s CoreNet Global conference in Denver. “It can also be very hard to find a well-educated, 40-year-old person who will apply for a job at a conventional call center,” says Dressback.

Proponents of the growing virtual call center movement include JetBlue Airways, Sprint, McKesson and the IRS. Not only do virtual call centers have lower employee turnover than conventional centers, but the quality of agent employed by a virtual call center is markedly higher. According to CB Richard Ellis, roughly 80% of all virtual call center agents have a college degree while fewer than 20% of conventional call center agents have a college-level education.

Working from home also lowers occupancy costs. For example, CB Richard Ellis reports that the average U.S. call center allocates roughly 125 sq. ft. per full time worker. But one of the largest “home sourcing” companies in the nation has cut that ratio down to a meager 1.87 sq. ft. per full time employee.

Golden, Colo.-based Alpine Access was founded in 1998 on the premise that an untapped and highly educated workforce could provide better customer service than conventional call center employees. Chris Carrington, CEO of the firm, says that 2006 represented Alpine’s seventh straight year of growth. The company has 7,500 employees, but only 75 of them work from the company’s corporate office.

“We are really able to minimize our needs. Our work-at-home agents are also committed to offering the best service,” says Carrington.

One Alpine Access client is the IRS. Carrington’s agents field calls for the massive government agency, helping taxpayers troubleshoot issues. Carrington says that 86% of Alpine Access agents are women. According to CB Richard Ellis, the average age of a virtual call center employee is 41. For a conventional call center, that average falls to 23.

“Many people view call center jobs as starter positions,” says Carrington, which explains why employee turnover can be as high as 100% in many call centers.

Technology ensures that Alpine Access agents can interact seamlessly with callers. According to Carrington, each agent has Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and high-speed data streaming into their home office via two distinct lines. VoIP allows each agent to place calls over the Internet, or through any other IP-based network.

The Web center is Oracle-based with an entire help desk function. Another Alpine Access agent can patch through to the agent’s call, then communicate via text messages on their computer. A series of secure firewalls ensures that hackers or other Internet scammers never compromise customer information.

“Customer loyalty is a really big part of our model,” he says. “So many people have dealt with poor customer service when dealing with call center employees. Our agents really pride themselves on working through every issue that comes to them,” says Carrington.

Some companies are taking baby steps in the direction of virtual call centers for a simple reason: Working from home can be a tricky practice. What about doorbells and barking dogs, not to mention crying children? Telecommunications giant Sprint, which recently allowed 100 employees to work from home, closely monitors the home-based lines for any domestic disturbances. John Messall, a senior manager at Sprint, says that the company doesn’t tolerate any of these distractions.

The solution, says Messal, often means commuting back to work: “That will send the home worker back to the office.” Messall expects to have 500 or more Sprint workers working from home by 2010.