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The do-it-all agent

1-800-flowers.com sells multiple brands through multiple channels. And, somehow, the same customer service reps handle it all.

CHICAGO -- If you wonder why 1-800-flowers.com has a name that includes a phone number and a Web site, think of all the channels that the retailer serves.

The Westbury, N.Y.-based company first began selling flowers on the streets and subways of New York in 1976. 1-800-flowers.com grew and began accepting orders through a toll-free phone number, the Internet and retail outlets. In fact, the company doesn't just sell flowers anymore. It acquired smaller businesses like Plow & Hearth and The Popcorn Factory.

1-800-flowers.com has call centers around the country, including agents who work from their homes in Arizona and Florida. The company also outsources some customer service work to New Delhi and Colorado.

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That leaves 1-800-flowers.com with multiple brands and multiple channels through which it offers its products and communicates with its customers.

"It became clear to us as we attempted to consolidate there were some drastic differences [between brands]," said Rosemary Eady, 1-800-flowers.com's director of planning, at the recent ICCM show in Chicago.

1-800-flowers.com elected to use the same agents for inbound and outbound calls and e-mail responses regardless of brand. The strategy provides a consistent customer experience, optimizes agent work loads and helps retain skilled agents, Eady said.

For example, two years ago the company underwent an initiative to cut costs while increasing revenues. Management closed some of the call centers in the New York area and redeployed them to U.S. cities with lower labor costs. It found many agents were happy to move with the job and others were eager to work from home as remote agents, Eady said. This allowed the company to retain the skilled and experienced agents that it needed to make the transition.

Additionally, 1-800-flowers.com trains agents on multiple brands and how to work across multiple channels. This allows the company to leverage transferable skills across its diverse product line. That's valuable during the holiday rush when it otherwise would have to add agents for each brand.

1-800-flowers.com has also managed to find an interesting solution to its seasonal demand problems. The company partners with Choice Hotels International Inc. and Best Western International Inc. to outsource contact center work during its busy holiday season when the hotel business is slow. In turn, 1-800-flowers.com insources hotel contact center work during its slow summer season.

"We've seen huge gains and it's also increased employee retention," Eady said. "Agents are happy to do the new hotel work. They can now say they took calls for flowers, home and hearth [products] and now hotels."

Melanie Brand, customer contact center manager for Call Centre Nucleus Pty. Ltd. in South Africa, was among those impressed with 1-800-flowers.com's success. Her company takes hotel reservation work and faces the same sort of agent downtime problems.

"If we could think of a regular way to insource like they have, it could make a huge difference," Brand said.

With agents able to move between phone and email, 1-800-flowers.com is able to reach ambitious service level goals as well. Eady said the company responds to 90% of e-mail requests within two hours, a statistic that drew gasps from a room full of contact center professionals at ICCM.

The e-mail response rate helps the company to prevent "channel bleed," said Tom Zito, 1-800-flowers.com's director of operations. If customers who e-mail don't get a quick response, they are far more likely to call back on the phone to make sure their message arrived.

Additionally, since agents are scattered nationwide, the company has built in disaster backup. It was a point made clear one day last December when a power outage hit headquarters, an ice storm plagued the Virginia facility and a tornado warning was issued at the Oklahoma site.

"Because the people in New Mexico were multi-branded agents, they could pitch in," Zito said. "The virtual agent is really the key to the future."

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