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.
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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."Skip to next paragraph
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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.