Creativity and an analytical streak power the work and life of the Plan Operations Lead.
It was the largest order yet for Nicole Saunders' business, BExpressive Imprints — 325 T-shirts, designs front and back. She tackled them by size, smalls first, then mediums … pressing the designs onto the shirts in her home workshop. "And then, I paid my father to box and ship," she said.
Garnett Thomas Jr., who also helps out by walking Mr. Butters, Ms. Saunders' Shih Tzu, most likely took it in stride. He married into a family of female entrepreneurs. His wife, Marguerite Thomas, is a licensed cosmetology instructor who owned a salon, and her mother owned a ceramic studio, where she taught children and adults. Ms. Saunders, who also has a full-time role as Plan Services Lead at the Board of Pensions, said her grandmother raised a family of entrepreneurs, most of them in the arts.
"The side of your brain you have to be creative helps bring you joy," said Ms. Saunders, whose analytical side is also strong. She uses that side in BExpressive, which she started in 2009, as well as in her Board position. Skillful questioning, which she began honing as captain of her championship debate team in high school, is critical in both roles.
When a customer approaches Ms. Saunders with an idea for a T-shirt, she "asks questions and listens to get to the root of what they're saying … what sparked the idea, where it came from." From there, she'll create a series of designs for the customer to choose from. The process ends successfully when the customer responds, "This is what I was looking for. This is what I was thinking."
At the Board, Ms. Saunders guides a team of service representatives in eliciting similar responses. Her team answers the Board's 800 line, responds to emails, and takes questions that come into Benefits Connect, the website used by employers and members in the Benefits Plan of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to perform a variety of benefits-related functions.
"Not only are you answering the question, but you're being thorough in answering it," Ms. Saunders said. That means asking a series of questions to "get to the root" of the employer or member question. And, if the answer is not understood, the service representative must be able to explain it differently. Their service is not to be rote, but consultative.
The consultative approach is especially important now. From July 20 through October 9, employers are selecting the benefits they will offer employees in 2021. With more choices and new benefits available in the 2021 Benefits Plan, along with several changes in terminology, service representatives are guiding employers through new territory.
"We're talking a lot about the 2021 plan changes … and the language changes," Ms. Saunders said of readying the front-line staff. "We are preparing them with scenario-based training." The training has been through video, as the Board is working remotely because of COVID-19.
Ms. Saunders, with the Board of Pensions for three years, was well-prepared for the supervisory challenges of a call center during a pandemic. She worked 16 years at HSBC, starting as a call center representative for the bank. She rose to the position of Department Manager/Vice President and oversaw 280 representatives in the inbound call center during a period of great change and reorganization.
A service role, such as those in call centers, matches Ms. Saunders' desire to help others. As an artist, she wants to help clients communicate "without saying a word," as a T-shirt design can. As a manager, she focuses on each individual — because "a happier person and a more content person has the ability to contribute."
Ms. Saunders recently drafted a 30-day workbook and journal, an idea she had with her sister and aunt to share a thought a day born of their experiences. It's designed to help people name what brings them joy. She's found someone to mentor her through the editing process and hopes that the journal will one day be published.
"We are entrepreneurial spirits," Ms. Saunders said. "I know no different."