Backstory: The L.L. Bean counters

Some 4,000 workers at five sites in Maine field as many as 155,000 calls a day during the holiday rush.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

When Doug Rice puts on his headset and answers the phone at the L.L. Bean call center here, he often finds himself playing meteorologist as much as salesman. "Is it snowing up there?" a caller in Los Angeles wants to know. "How cold is it?" asks the guy from Phoenix.

The questions are understandable. To many, L.L. Bean simply means Maine, and Maine means headstrong weather – in other words, snowbound. Callers want clothes and equipment along with a side order of lore.

Mr. Rice is one of 4,000 customer service people who work in five different locations across Maine. They are, in effect, the voice of Bean – the people who take your orders for everything from the famous "Maine hunting shoe" to the woman's corduroy "big shirt."

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While the $1.5-billion company has been expanding its retail outlets and presence online, much of its business – roughly 40 percent – is still done over the phone. And this time of year the lines are responding: As many as 155,000 calls a day will come in during the peak season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, creating what has to be one of the country's most frenetic phone banks. Some lore.

Many of those orders will be taken at the company's newest and largest call center, in a cheerful room in Bangor. Today, more than 800 people in two shifts will greet customers while sitting in ergonomically correct chairs, in front of computer screens, with an archive of catalogs at hand. There is a comfortable hum of conversation.

"Stay civil," counsels Patrick Rowland, a senior supervisor at the two-year-old facility, to his workers. "But get the order."

Inevitably, many customers want to chat. "People like to talk," says Rice. He doesn't mind engaging in local pleasantries before getting down to business. Nonetheless, he still logs about 100 calls a shift and completes the average order in three minutes. He will give advice on everything from canoes to inseam lengths, while adding in a dash of the Bean mystique – even if he doesn't speak with a Down East accent.

Rice is finding that last year's popular Christmas items repeat: balsam wreaths, "wicked good" slippers, the men's chamois shirts, and the iconic boat and tote bags that the company originated in 1944. Gift cards are always popular. One size fits all. Callers have questions about catalog items, sometimes about the catalog itself, of which the company gives out 250 million a year.

"My wife doesn't throw any catalogs away," says one caller. "You keep sending them. She keeps 'em all. She thinks they'll be worth something someday."

In other words, when you answer the phone for L.L. Bean, you might be dealing with a guy looking at Maine hunting boots on page 10 – of the 1965 catalog. Bean launched the company with the boots. They haven't changed much since. Price has.

Rice is amused by requests to help choose the right shoe size for a grandson or help with color selection on the ladies Donegal turtleneck sweater. That can be tricky. "I'm 5 ft., 2 in. with black hair," says one caller. "What color would you recommend?"

Female callers often request female reps for the delicate questions. But Rice has also heard the opposite: "Yes! A man! I can talk to you about what my husband would like!"

No worries, anyway. The reps have special vocabulary links on their computers to help define colors or sizes. How would you describe periwinkle blue? How large is X-L?

***

L.L. Bean is not one of those companies that seems about to ship its call-center operations off to India. It employs only people in Maine, many of whom wear the appropriate flannel shirts and fleece jackets. The workers vary from college students to retirees. Many, like Rice, are seasonal workers, added during the holiday crush. They're paid from $9.06 to $17 an hour.

While the pay isn't bad by Maine standards, many of the people in the cubicles seem to be here because it's L.L. Bean. Mona Nickerson, for instance, works the second shift at the Bangor facility. She already has a full-time job – as a special education teacher – and is the kind of educator who refers to students as "her kids."

Yet she is also drawn to Bean because of the ethos. "I love working for a company that says, 'Make our customers happy,' " says the woman, who works 70 hours a week between the two jobs.

Similarly, Rob Tukey began working part time at a Bean call center in Lewiston in 1995 just to bring in some extra cash. He was trying to set up his own financial consulting firm at the time. He grew to like the company's work environment, flexible hours, and outdoor ethic so much that he's still there – now working as a supervisor at the Portland call center.

It doesn't hurt in dealing with the customers that so many of the service workers seem to be hunting-boot-types themselves. Rice, a Maine native, is an avid kayaker and cross-country skier. He finds that callers are often shocked to dial up and find someone who is an expert.

Still, not every call goes well. Occasionally, it's: The color is wrong – again. The shirt doesn't fit. Trained to handle problems, Rice says it's a pleasure when he can reply: "I can fix that."

Clearly, however, it's better to get it right the first time, as when one grandmother called with her annual wreath order. She had her catalog open to the balsam-products page and her address book open to the first of 10 recipients, each of whom was to get a different card. She was ready to dictate. Or the lady in Philadelphia that wanted eight items, sent to eight addresses, in 10 minutes. "I'm on my lunch break," she told Rice.

"Would you like to call back when you have more time?" he asked. She slowed down.

***

L.L. Bean remains a family-owned business, but it's not your grandfather's outdoors store anymore. The creaky-wooden factory-building ambience is long gone, replaced by a massive complex complete with an in-store trout pond and kayaking demonstrations in the parking lot. The company now operates 35 retail stores and outlets in the US and Japan.

Yet some things remain constant. The flagship facility is still located in the coastal town where Leon Leonwood Bean founded it in 1912. The company that invented 24/7 still never sleeps: The store in Freeport has only been closed for two days since 1951. And the firm tries to adhere to one other original axiom: "100 percent satisfaction guaranteed in every way."

Take Ms. Nickerson in her cubicle here. Last night, she took a call from a nursing home attendant whose patient has a favorite L.L. Bean cardigan. The wooden buttons are breaking off, and she wanted to replace them, even though he's content with the sweater the way it is.

"She didn't have to take the time to fix them," says Nickerson. "So I wanted to help." Today, new buttons are on their way.

Once, Nickerson got a call from a woman whose neighbors had been burned out of their house. It was days before Christmas, and even the gifts for the children had been lost – including the monogrammed backpacks from L.L. Bean. Nickerson found the family's original order in the computer and helped her get replacements. "People can do good things for other people if they choose to," she says.

Yup, there's little snow in Bangor this season. No, not all Maine natives sound like lobstermen. It's too late to get the dog bed monogrammed in time for Christmas, but it's not too late to order a wreath for Aunt Sally. Operators are standing by. Break time is over on the floor here. The Christmas peak isn't – but it's getting close.

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