Harry & David's contact center is gearing up for the holiday season phone calls, computer orders and — for the first time — online chat sessions with customers.

Harry & David's contact center is gearing up for the holiday season phone calls, computer orders and — for the first time — online chat sessions with customers.

While the newest element in the gourmet food and gift company's quest to connect with its next generation of customers won't kick in until the third week of November, it's yet another example of sweeping changes instituted in recent months.

In the peak weeks ahead, more than 2,000 employees in the contact center (formerly known as the call center) will handle 30,000 to 40,000 calls per day at Harry & David's South Pacific Highway campus. And from leadership to the newest 20-something hires, it's been a season of transition.

Ike Ahmed, the new vice president for corporate sales, made a disconcerting discovery a couple of months ago when he quizzed a class of supervisors, team leaders and coaches about Harry & David's trademark Royal Riviera pears.

"I asked how many had visited the orchards and know anything about pears and how they are grown," Ahmed said. "Out of a class of 30 or 35, I had one or two hands raised; that's disheartening. We had people living here in the valley, working for five to 14 years, who had never visited our orchards. It was time for them to be made part of the family and give them a chance to learn about Harry & David, its heritage and legacy, and that we're a farm-to-table company."

More than 60 contact center trainers were taken to the orchards, the confectionery and bakery to see what happens at the company. They also mixed relishes sold by the company and served them to one another.

"It was a fantastic team builder," Ahmed said. "We want them to know about the components that go into a gift basket. We want them to taste the No. 1-selling product they may have only heard about or seen at the Country Village."

Between now and the first week of December, the contact center will swell to nearly 1,270 full-time equivalents, up a bit from 1,200 last year. The company had 858 customer-service and order-entry employees last December, and has set a target number of 1,110 for the Christmas stretch run this year.

"There is training time because of the learning curve," Ahmed said. "We don't just want to throw bodies at the phones three days before the peak."

Along with seeing and knowing more this year, contact center workers face higher expectations than in the past.

Passing a simple typing test used to secure a seasonal job in the center, but that's no longer the case.

"We're asking people to absorb a lot more information than they have in the past five or 10 years," said Ahmed, noting about 20 percent of the applicants didn't make the cut. "Some were overwhelmed and consequently aren't part of the team; it wasn't for the lack of trying."

Applicants put on headsets, were asked a few questions, and were required to type those questions on the screen with accuracy.

"We want to know who will be successful in the new environment, which requires hands-on learning," Ahmed said.

There has been a philosophical shift, he said. The overall pool of applicants is strong, and those who made the grade have improved their prospects. In addition, inconsistent attendance has been addressed through a bonus system.

"We want people who actively listen to customers' needs. We're setting higher standards, with rewards for those with a higher work ethic."

He said the hourly customer-service rate is 5 to 7 percent higher than in previous years, with a commission structure, allowing contact center employees to earn $12 to $13 an hour as opposed to $9 to $10 an hour in the past.

Online assistance, the equivalent of instant-messaging, is well-entrenched in the digital world but new to Harry & David. High-fives were exchanged when the e-mail communications group was informed chat assistance would be incorporated this year.

"I actually got applause when I introduced it," said Contact Center Director Chris Serafina. "When I got here in July, it was one of the first things the e-com group brought up."

The group will employ 80 to 100 workers when it peaks, Ahmed said. "We've got to take a crawl, walk, run approach. We have to do what's best for our customers, so if you need assistance we're parked here to answer any questions."

Although e-mail response is rapid, generally coming in less than an hour, a chat box is almost instantaneous, Serafina said. "It gives customers another way to reach in to us that might be more comfortable."

Ultimately, he said, additional technology isn't what will boost sales.

"We can put as much technology in front of people as we can," Serafina said. "But if we don't have the right people using the technology, we won't be as successful."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.