How 1-800-Flowers fixed your Mother's Day delivery with IBM's help

The 42-year-old business is modernizing its customer service with the help of the IBM Cloud Garage.

Every year, 1-800-Flowers facilitates millions of flower deliveries, bringing in more than $1 billion in revenue. Not surprisingly, the holidays -- Mother's Day in particular -- are crucial for the brand.

With thousands of customer service calls coming in daily during the Mother's Day season, 1-800-Flowers was looking for a way to save the company -- and customers -- time and money. This year, it's doing so with the help of IBM Cloud.

Before this year, 30 percent of 1-800-Flowers customer service calls came from customers who wanted to modify an order -- they may have, for example, submitted the wrong address, or they may have wanted to change the message being sent with their flowers. The 42-year-old company has had a web presence since the mid-1990's, but its complex backend systems made it too challenging to offer these services online.

This was largely because the company's systems span multiple brands, according to 1-800-Flowers CIO Arnie Leap. When it acquired the Harry & David brand four years ago -- accounting for about 40 percent of the company's revenue -- it took on a completely different set of infrastructure systems and business processes.

"The challenge is depending on the brand, it's different customer service systems, different sales entry systems -- most of which are homegrown legacy systems, very brittle and resistant to change," he told ZDNet. "It would force us into long cycles of development... Over time, systems of that type develop a large amount of tribal knowledge about how things work and why they work the way they do."

Still, with a mandate from the marketing department to offer more digital self-service options for customers, 1-800-Flowers approached IBM Cloud, which was already providing them with some cloud services. IBM suggested the company check out their Cloud Garages -- a network of physical innovation hubs where IBM experts work side-by-side with companies trying to spark innovative new ideas. IBM currently has 12 Cloud Garages across the world, including one in New York, where the 1-800-Flowers team has been working.

After a two-day session in late 2017 with more than a dozen people involved, 1-800-Flowers and IBM devised a plan to build a cloud application that enables customers to modify their orders online after they are submitted. It works with customers over multiple channels, including Facebook Messenger. The application was built on the IBM Cloud with javascript UI and microservices, as well as security features like API Connect and Secure Gateway.

Leap said that once his team realized they had a viable plan for delivering this application, which would be hosted and managed by IBM, "then all of a sudden the barriers started to be lifted, and the defensive posture sort of disappeared."

The project took about seven weeks, and 1-800-Flowers was able to market test it during Valentine's Day, another critical holiday for the flower business. The new service was a success, and it saved the company thousands in call center costs heading into Mother's Day weekend.

During his five years at 1-800-Flowers, Leap said he's steered the company towards cloud services, but the idea is finally "starting to grab hold now," he said.

With the IBM Garage team serving as "sherpas" through the process, 1-800-Flowers is building new customer experiences and investing in new technologies like chatbots and natural language processing.

Still, Leap noted that it takes significant planning to embrace new technologies while continuing to operate the business.

"These legacy systems are still around but insulated appropriately from all this rapid change," he said. "The business logic has been extrapolated out and put in appropriate microservices layers... There has to be an iterative approach to transforming the platform as you move through these interesting and demanding technology times."

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