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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.