It’s All Customer Service
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 Smiths (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 thats always the case.
Thats 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 states 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. Theyre the first point of contact.
Mentoring the 22-year-old kids who are part of Murrays 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 bosss place. If she says no to the 16th thing, its not a reflection of your work, said Bjornstad, who has worked for three Washington Members. Theres only so much a human being can do in a day.
Bjornstad set out a rigid schedule for Murrays office when he arrived in January 2007. Every Monday morning, the entire staff meets to go over the Senators 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 Murrays office was honed during Bjornstads years in the House. Smith, Bjornstads boss from 1990 to 2000, hailed Bjornstads 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. Im very issue-oriented. I didnt need a chief of staff to advise me on that.
Bjornstads friendly personality complemented Smiths more measured and serious tone when the two first worked together on Smiths 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 Smiths first term, they shared an office with another of the states rising stars Murray.
Bjornstad left Smiths 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 Murrays 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 states 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 Jeffs 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, thats important.
Bjornstad relishes his latest posting. The Senate is so much better, he said with a wide smile. Its 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, Murrays former chief of staff for 10 years who now runs the Seattle-based public relations arm of McBee Strategic Consulting, said Bjornstads energetic style fits well with the Senator.
Its 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 Im older, he said