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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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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."

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.


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