RENEE ORDWAY

Closure of L.L. Bean’s call center in Bangor is sad but not surprising

Posted Aug. 29, 2014, at 3:03 p.m.
Renee Ordway
Renee Ordway

I am among the 500 or 600 seasonal and 220 year-round employees who heard the news this week that L.L. Bean plans to close the Bangor call center that opened here in 2005.

I suspect I also am one of the many who, while saddened and initially shocked, realized with some contemplation it was not totally unexpected.

The business of mail-order retail is changing, and the need for someone on the other end of a phone line to take your order is declining.

L.L. Bean, in its 100-year history of doing most things right, seems to be going about the unfortunate business of closing its call center in much the same way. The Bangor facility won’t actually close until 2016.

Providing a year-and-a-half notice to its employees and to the city was above and beyond what one would normally expect from a company.

Often when a business closes there is some anger coupled with the sadness and fear that accompany job loss.

L.L. Bean’s announcement this week seems to have been met only with the latter. Perhaps this is in part because they seem to be going that extra mile and because it is a heck of a good place to work.

I first stepped into the call center on Maine Avenue six years ago, applying for my first job in 23 years. It was a temporary job during the weeks of the “peak” Christmas season, when the Bangor call center’s employee count rises.

Having four teenagers in the house, plus a temporarily wayward sister-in-law and having cut back my employment at the BDN to just one column a week, the opportunity to earn some extra Christmas cash, plus a generous discount on its merchandise, was a perfect fit for our crazy household and our budget.

There was some trepidation about working at a call center. I’d heard stories about others. I realized quickly this call center was different.

Most importantly, perhaps, we don’t need to sell anything. L.L. Bean merchandise, I discovered, sells itself. Secondly, employees, even those of us who are temporary, are empowered and trusted to serve the customer well and provided the tools to do so.

A workday consists of taking orders from mostly happy customers around the country who are grateful to be speaking to a “real” person instead of being faced with an electronic menu of options.

Starting pay is well above minimum wage, and schedules are flexible and can easily be traded with other employees. The work environment is pleasant and comfortable and upbeat.

Even after the children left the nest and the sister-in-law moved West, I happily returned.

It is a good gig.

And so it is for all those year-round and temporary employees.

During “peak” season the massive building is full to the brim with stay-at-home moms, retirees and others looking to bolster household budgets through the long, cold and expensive Maine winters.

It is a unique and welcome opportunity for many. It offers seasonal work during the most difficult season to find it.

But, like every business, needs are changing in fast and in dramatic fashion, and survival depends on meeting those changes.

Bangor City Council Chairman Ben Sprague was right on this week when he noted the increase in online retail sales could become a great challenge to the city’s tax revenue.

Google announced this week it is joining Amazon and Domino’s Pizza in experimenting with a drone delivery service, and several retail experts predict the days of walking into a grocery store to do your shopping may one day be obsolete.

One can only hope that as those changes occur other job opportunities will arise.

In the meantime, L.L. Bean’s Bangor call center will operate through two more Christmas seasons and help hundreds in eastern Maine pay their bills.

I was called back to work earlier than normal this year, starting in the spring rather than the fall. I haven’t worked since the announcement was made earlier this week, but I know from co-workers there is little if any anger among employees — just sadness and perhaps some fear as the reality sets in.

L.L. Bean has been a standout company in Maine and around the world because it does most things right. This is a dark time for many, but the company is proving that even unfortunate events can be handled with respect, fairness and empathy. And just like their guarantee of customer satisfaction, it speaks volumes about the kind of company it is.

Renee Ordway can be reached at reneeordway@gmail.com.

 

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