Interview with Chris Carrington, Alpine Access

Most people are familiar with the trend of outsourcing call centers overseas, and the quality issues that often creates for businesses. Denver-based Alpine Access ( has, over the past few years, turned to a different model, of using home-based workers here in the U.S. to provide customer support and other call center support to companies. The firm has been seeing some very strong growth in the past few years, and we thought we'd talk with CEO Chris Carrington about the firm's model, advantages, and why it has been growing.

Thanks for the time. For our readers who are not familiar with how your model works, explain what you do?

Chris Carrington: Alpine Access uses the virtual call center model, which means that 5000 of our employees work from the comfort of their homes across the U.S., taking calls for the Fortune 100. Those are customer service, technical support, collection calls, and sales calls. It spans the continuum of customer service for the Fortune 100, all using the home-based model.

We imagine you're an alternative to more typical offshore call center firms and physical call centers?

Chris Carrington: We're an alternative to both. Fifty percent of our growth in the past several years comes from calls coming back from offshore. Companies in 2000 went offshore, but found though that it appeared to be less expensive, it cost them customers. So they've been moving back onshore. Alternatively, we're also an alternative to higher cost, brick-and-mortar domestic call centers. Our cost model is 25 percent less expensive than onshore brick and mortar. We're attractive for that reason, but it's also because of the talent we are able to attract. A typical call center operator is 23 years old, has a high school education, and not much adult life or work experience. On the other hand, our average is 40 years old, and they bring 20 years of adult work experience, and a much stronger phone presence, which results in much more productive outcomes to conversations and a higher customer satisfaction score, at lower overall cost.

Can you talk about the technology required to deal with 5,000 remote workers?

Chris Carrington: Thirteen years ago, we had to invent that technology. The simple hypothesis was, instead of bringing employees to work, bring that work to the employees. Thirteen years ago, there was not the technology to redistribute and manage calls. You could aggregate calls into a call center, but there was no technology to redistribute. So, we invented that technology, which allows us to distribute those calls, record 100 percent of those conversations, allow supervisors to listen into any conversation, and even allow them to join. It's as if the person at home is actually in a call center down the street. You also have total control, as you would have in a call center. Obviously, with the ubiquitous availability of broadband and high speed connections, that's given us a much broader population to employ from. That allows us to leverage the technology which is out there in the marketplace, and combine it with our call management technology to deliver the solution. The last and most important part of our technology was our training platform. If you think about it, we have 5,000 employees across the U.S. who never come into a call center to train. We've had to develop a sophisticated, multimedia platform which includes interactive voice, video, text, and collaboration tools so that learners can take 160 hours of class time led by a facilitator. We've delivered more than 730,000 hours of virtual learning through our Alpine Access University.

What has been the hardest part of managing a distributed workforce like yours?

Chris Carrington: I think the thing we took into consideration early on, is that human beings are social creatures. They are used to being in an office environment, and not on their own. We had to figure out how to make them feel better connected into the corporate environment and part of the culture, even though they are thousands of miles apart. We are one of the companies who, years ago, introduced social media into our operations, allowing agents to share pictures of each other, share stories, graduation announcements, recipes, and work programs. What we've come to find, is that people are actually more connected via the Internet now--things like Facebook go to prove that--then sometimes they are in a physical work environment.

Finally, it seems like you are seeing lots of growth - what's driving that growth?

Chris Carrington: We've had four years of double digit growth. Last year we grew by 43 percent, and that continued in Q1, when we grew by 77 percent year-over-year. We're continuing to see growth because mainstream companies, and the Fortune 100 have realized that traditional brick and mortar is just inadequate. The home-based model provides for lower cost per call, and provides higher quality, because of the people we're able to bring to that phone. That results in longer customer relationships with their own customers, and that all adds to their bottom line. Because of that, and the recognition that hey--at home was once an emerging model, and is now mainstream--we're having more and more people move faster and faster to our services.