It’s All Customer Service

Posted October 1, 2008 at 4:03pm

Jeff Bjornstad, chief of staff for Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), fills his job with a fierce and infectious energy that one former colleague described as the approach of a “happy warrior.”

Where some chiefs focus on policy issues or outreach, Bjornstad serves more as a coach. His style is to keep the staff informed, motivated and focused on Washington state. That mindset likely stems from his earliest days as Rep. Adam Smith’s (D-Wash.) only campaign staffer. Bjornstad was a recent college graduate in 1990 and the “only person to respond to my flier” looking for help, Smith said. The two rang 25,000 doorbells to get Smith, equally youthful at 24, elected to the state Senate.

“In college, I learned that a candidate lays out their issues and the people vote on them,” Bjornstad said. “But I realized that people predominately vote for folks because they like them. And we want to make sure that’s always the case.”

That’s why Bjornstad responds to Washington state constituents, executives and local officials with what he calls “Nordstrom customer service” — aggressive, thorough assistance much like the service offered at the noted department store, headquartered in Seattle. The approach is crucial to keeping Murray, who is 2,300 miles away from home when she is in the Capitol, in tune with the state’s needs, he said.

“I try to teach my staff to think about it as dealing with customer concerns,” he said.

And that means everyone, from interns to top advisers.

“The staff assistants are like the home page of the office,” Bjornstad said, using Internet lingo to describe staffers’ roles. “They’re the first point of contact.”

Mentoring the “22-year-old kids” who are part of Murray’s staff is a daily challenge for Bjornstad, who oversees a Senate office of nearly 70 people.

“We ask [Murray] to do 60,000 things. We have to say, ‘Put yourself in the boss’s place.’ If she says no to the 16th thing, it’s not a reflection of your work,” said Bjornstad, who has worked for three Washington Members. “There’s only so much a human being can do in a day.”

Bjornstad set out a rigid schedule for Murray’s office when he arrived in January 2007. Every Monday morning, the entire staff meets to go over the Senator’s schedule for the week. The legislative and communications shops get together next to lay out their week, and finally, Bjornstad phones the West Coast to touch base with the state managers. There is a weekly videoconference between Murray and the state staff, and on Fridays, the Senator returns to the state with binders of summaries from her aides.

The “Nordstrom approach” in Murray’s office was honed during Bjornstad’s years in the House. Smith, Bjornstad’s boss from 1990 to 2000, hailed Bjornstad’s focus — even fixation — on customer service. With Bjornstad assigned to constituents and staff, Smith was able to focus on committee work and policy.

“At its most basic level, this job is about representing people, and Jeff always kept that in mind,” Smith said, noting that Bjornstad “was not heavy on policy. I’m very issue-oriented. I didn’t need a chief of staff to advise me on that.”

Bjornstad’s friendly personality complemented Smith’s more measured and serious tone when the two first worked together on Smith’s state Senate campaign in 1990. Bjornstad, the more competitive and daring of the two, pushed the young candidate into taking a $2,500 cash advance on his credit card to continue funding his underdog campaign. The gamble paid off, and when the two of them arrived in Olympia, Wash., for Smith’s first term, they shared an office with another of the state’s rising stars — Murray.

Bjornstad left Smith’s office in 2000 to work for Rep. Rick Larsen, who was then another rising Washington Democrat from a swing district. The chief had to hire a new staff and quickly acquaint them with his constituent-service approach, which became even more essential when Larsen faced a competitive re-election in 2002.

“I knew that Jeff knew the Hill and he knew the district, so I let him loose to do his job so that I could focus on being a Member of Congress,” Larsen said.

In Murray’s office, Bjornstad answers to a larger pool of constituents — nearly 6 million — and works for a Member with a leadership post and two subcommittee chairmanships. Murray, her state’s senior Senator, serves as Conference secretary. The stakes are higher for Bjornstad in the Senate, with a larger staff and more constituents, and he relies on a regimented weekly schedule to keep things moving smoothly.

The flow of information starts with Bjornstad and trickles to the rest of the Washington state delegation, which is kept up to date on breaking developments.

“I can assure you, Norm knows Jeff’s direct number,” George Behan, chief of staff to Rep. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), said with a laugh. “Jeff knows what [Murray] is thinking, and for the delegation, that’s important.”

Bjornstad relishes his latest posting. “The Senate is so much better,” he said with a wide smile. “It’s a more intimate setting with just 100 Members, as opposed to 435. You actually have the chance to get to know each other better.”

Bjornstad has flourished in the Senate by forging relationships with chiefs of staff from both sides of the aisle. They talk about everything from policy negotiations to office management.

“We face the same basic issues in every office,” from promotions and sick leave to intern programs and hiring decisions. “Those issues are never partisan,” he said.

Rick Desimone, Murray’s former chief of staff for 10 years who now runs the Seattle-based public relations arm of McBee Strategic Consulting, said Bjornstad’s energetic style fits well with the Senator.

“It’s important to demonstrate to Sen. Murray how things will affect her constituents and how it will play out on Main Street,” Desimone said, pointing out that Murray has a history of hiring Washington state natives to lead her office. “You really need to view your job through that filter and be prepared to answer those questions.”

Bjornstad is proud of his Washington roots. He graduated from the University of Washington and lived in the state while he worked for Larsen from 2001 to 2006. He has worked only for Washington Members and offers no hints he would defect.

And while Smith recalled Bjornstad, as a fresh-faced staffer years ago, sharing his own ambitions for higher office someday, the longtime staffer said he would rather stick to his customer-service career.

“I am never running for office. After 17 years in this business, I might be a water commissioner when I’m older,” he said