In a hive of cubicles at the Dialog Direct offices in Highland Park, Mich., Keontay Kelley and other employees answer calls through headsets.
While they work, LED signs on the walls flash reminders: "Manners Matter," "Phone Etiquette," "Yes Ma'am/Sir," "Thank You" and "I Apologize." The room buzzes with conversation, the sound of hundreds of metro Detroiters earning paychecks.
"I was looking for a job, " said Kelley, 26, of Detroit. "This did it."
After years of sending call center jobs to India, the Philippines, Mexico and other countries, companies are bringing them back to the U.S. An estimated 5 million Americans are employed in call centers.
The trend, industry watchers said, is driven by changes in technology, rising overseas labor costs — and customers demanding better service.
Dialog Direct, which employs about 800 people in its Highland Park headquarters, announced recently it is planning to add 500 more — 300 in Highland Park and 200 in its Grand Rapids offices. Another call center company, S&P Data, said it plans to add 420 employees at its offices in Troy.
So far this year, the Michigan Economic Development Corp. estimated, at least 1,400 call center jobs have been created in the state.
"We're all about more and better jobs," said Amy Cell, senior vice president for talent enhancement at the MEDC. "Call centers offer great entry-level opportunities for new college graduates or people trying to get a foothold in customer service fields."
Kelley, a Ferris State graduate, has worked at Dialog Direct for less than a year.
He said he enjoys working there. Some calls can be frustrating. But, he said, the job lets him work inside an office, wear professional attire — and, best of all, the work lets him feel like he's helping solve people's problems, he said.
"I like to be the knight in shining armor," he said.
In his experience, Kelley said, callers appreciate that the center is in the U.S.
Doug Kearney, Dialog Direct's president and CEO, said "a lot of jobs are coming back to the U.S." In the next few years, he said, he expects more growth in the industry as customers increasingly turn to social media.
Companies began sending call center jobs overseas years ago because they sought to reduce labor costs, said Matt Zemon, chairman of the nonprofit group Jobs4America based in Chapel Hill, N.C.
But in recent years, as overseas labor costs have increased, companies have been reversing some of those decisions, he said. Some companies also found that customers were unhappy with the service from overseas call centers.
By Zemon's count, about 180,000 call center jobs were created nationally in 2012 and 2013.
Calls mean money
Paul Stockford, the director of research for the National Association of Call Centers in Hattiesburg, Miss., said the nonprofit membership group estimates there are about 66,000 call centers in the U.S., with that number expected to grow.
Companies are still using overseas centers to handle sales calls involving low-price, low-margin items and also to address calls seeking technical help. "The higher the value of the customer, the more likely the job will be in the U.S.," he said.
If a customer is confused or dissatisfied, it could cost a company sales, and they don't want to miss out on opportunities, especially when it comes to big-ticket items. Stockford pointed to airlines, which are selling plane tickets worth hundreds, even thousands of dollars.
United Airlines has a reservation center in Dearborn.
In addition, he said, while many call center jobs are entry level, they require skills — and expertise — that can lead to advancement.
"Lots of people make a career out of it," he said. "Other people get burned out. If you're picking up a phone, and you've got someone screaming in your ear for something you didn't do, it can be very frustrating."
GM brings jobs back
Last year, General Motors started moving call center jobs from overseas to the U.S.
GM closed a call center in Buenos Aires and moved most of the work to a customer engagement center, where it employs about 300 contractors to address customer calls and social media posts. GM managers now oversee the workers, who are in offices closer to the engineers and top leaders, said Klaus-Peter Martin, a GM spokesman.
To deal with questions and concerns related to recalls and other issues, GM temporarily reassigned more workers to the center, he added.
A big part of the move back to domestic call centers, Martin said, was to shift efforts away from mostly documenting and escalating customer complaints to trying to resolve them quicker and on the same call, if possible.
"We want to provide the best possible service," Martin said, pointing out that a bad experience on the phone with a GM representative could result in a lost sale for the company. "Every touch point is an opportunity."
Job requires patience
At Benton Harbor-based Whirlpool, all of its customer service calls from domestic customers are answered in U.S. call centers.
The company employs nearly 500 agents at a call center in Benton Harbor and another 250 customer support employees in St. Joseph. It also has a center in Cleveland, Tenn., which employs 600, and a center in Knoxville, Tenn., with about 150 employees.
Earlier this year, AT&T announced it was hiring workers in Michigan for call center jobs.
In late 2011, as AT&T was seeking to buy T-Mobile, the communications giant announced it planned to bring back 5,000 call center jobs that had been sent overseas. It touted the plan as the largest commitment by a company to bring jobs back to the U.S. since 2008.
But, the bid was abandoned. AT&T said, "That initiative didn't happen."
Dialog Direct, which employs about 2,000 workers in Michigan, expects to continue growing nationally — and in Michigan. It offers most starting employees from $22,000 to $45,000. In many cases, the company will pay for training and reimburse costs for licenses.
"It's a job that requires patience," said Kelley, who hopes to make a long career out of it. "But, if you have that patience and you are about serving people, you can do it."