Brenda Wensil is the Chief Customer Officer at the Department of Education Federal Student Aid Office. In her role, she is constantly striving to help the 40 million students paying their student loans — as well as the 22 million students who are applying.
Funding your education is obviously a very important aspect of many people’s lives (it’s central to the idea of “The American Dream,” for example), so Brenda’s work has a near-constant importance. It was interesting to talk with her about establishing roles, defining processes, and setting priorities within the context of serving millions and millions of important customers.
Brenda is a senior leader with successful background in leading large corporate initiatives in sales and marketing, brand management, customer satisfaction and retention, and supply chain performance management on both domestic and international levels.
She is most known for building collaborative partnerships, developing teams and assembling cross functional/cross organizational resources to make organizations effective and improve leader performance. Certified and accredited executive coach for senior leaders and managers in large and mid-size companies as well as non-profit organizations.
Prior to her current role, she has worked at Flynn Heath Hoat Leadership, Barclays, Wachovia, and more.
The Scope of Brenda’s role
Brenda’s role was initially defined by an operating committee. Like many CCOs, it was ultimatley part of her role to construct how it would be implemented.
As it’s evolved, her primary focal points include:
- Experience improvement
- Application process
- Call centers
- Additional outreach
How to be relevant and effective off the bat
This is a core challenge of CCO work, because oftentimes you’re entering a somewhat-undefined role and context. Brenda knew that about this role, so she had a four-step approach to making sure she was effective (and getting in the right conversations) from the beginning. If you listen to the episode, we go more into detail about each section; this notes portion on our site is meant simply as an overview.
- Be humble and learn: There’s a lot to take in with these roles — and you need to understand what the true decision-makers and power core care about and respond to. If you then contextualize your work within those frameworks, you’ll get more support.
- Understand the technical and operational elements: You can’t just be “big picture,” even at a higher title. You need to know how the work gets done — the execution, essentially — in order to be effective around setting priorities and assigning work elements.
- What are the key elements of customer experience in this specific role? For Brenda, one obvious “gap” here was social listening. There had been no plan in place to listen to what students were saying about the loan process on social media — but rest assured, they were discussing the loan process on those channels. There needed to be a process here, so …
- … launch a process: In her case, it was a 2011 launch of a federal student aid social media process. Even if that’s not your specific role, there is a lesson here. You should launch/iterate something within the earlier stages of having this type of job. Even if it’s not 100 percent successful (few initial ventures are), it shows action and helps earn you the right to this work.
Relevance to business goals is crucial
In any organization, it’s hard to lean on/collaborate with other offices — Operations, Finance, Marketing if you don’t own that, etc. — unless you understand what their business goals are as well as your own. People have a hierarchy of needs at work, and — for better or worse — some people want to protect their own necks and departments ahead of your needs. If you understand what drives them and what they’re evaluated on — and then propose something that will make that metric look better — it goes a long way.
“What I Know Now That I Wish I Knew Then”
This is my pay-it forward question; I ask it to all my guests, and my hope is that it helps a young customer experience manager or new CCO think about the scope of their work. Here’s what Brenda said (as always, listen to the episode for more detail):
- Know the business: If you don’t have this step, nothing that comes after will work that well. Knowing the business increases your relevance to the other key stakeholders. It’s that simple.
- Be aware of first impressions as you build relationships with other leaders: Crucial, as confirmation bias can be powerful. Constantly work on building and developing your in-company networks.
- Modulate how you handle conflict: In essence, choose your battles wisely. As my (and everyone’s) grandmother used to say, “Is that really the hill you want to die on?”
- Make small contributions quickly: This gets you the right to work on the bigger, more-important-to-other-leaders projects as well. For Brenda, the federal student aid social media process helped earn her the right to work on bigger projects (in the eyes of other federal execs).
We’ll be back Thursday with a new post. As always, reach out with questions!
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