CEDAR RAPIDS — The digital age whisks Matthew Van Maanen wherever he’s needed each day — Spain, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, somewhere in the United States or anywhere across AEGON’s global reach.
He’s the chipper voice on the other end of the phone — or Skype or videochat — as lead data security analyst in AEGON Global Technology’s Data Center in southwest Cedar Rapids. His winning ways have earned him the 2019 Global AEGON Award for “best employee in customer service.” He was among eight nominees worldwide in his category, and received the award March 12 in Amsterdam, about 40 miles northeast of Aegon’s headquarters in The Hague.
Along with the recognition and kudos, he was presented a check for 5,000 euros — about $5,600 in the current exchange rate. “That is an award for the experience of a lifetime,” he said. “I don’t know what I’m doing with it yet, but I’m really excited.”
Van Maanen, 46, of Cedar Rapids, has been with AEGON for 25 years, starting three days after he graduated from Central College in Pella, a short jaunt from the sheep farm near Leighton, where he grew up the youngest of eight boys.
With a double major in international management and French, he spent a year in Paris on Central’s study abroad program. That experience and expertise transitioned into his first job at AEGON, doing French-English translations for the company, among the world’s leading providers of life insurance, pensions and asset management.
Van Maanen then moved into information technology (IT), and now has his “dream job” in AEGON’s international IT division. He speaks a little Dutch, which helped a bit in the fall of 2015, when he spent two months in the Netherlands as the first participant in the company’s employee exchange program — although most people there speak English, he noted.
“It’s an amazing program to help foster understanding of cultures, different work styles, and helping people work better together,” he said. That’s the part of his job he loves the most.
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Those factors translate to his personal life, as well. Married since 2010 to Robert Lancaster, Van Maanen also is active in LGBTQ causes.
Q: What all does your job entail?
A: I’m really lucky, because my customers are all internal, and I work with IT, so I get to work with people from all over the globe. and when I was young, I knew I wanted to work with computers, I knew I wanted to work with people of all different nationalities and languages and cultures, and I knew I wanted to make a difference. I’m so lucky that every day, I get to do all three of those things. ... It’s really amazing.
Q: Who nominated you for the award?
A: I actually don’t know. I’ve asked, and I’ve just been told it was multiple people. I was very honored when I was told, “You’ve been nominated for this award.” Then I had to submit the entry. I made a 2-minute video, as well. That’s optional. (Youtube.com/watch?v=auaZ-oIeoWY)
Q: (Of the eight nominees) what do you think made you rise to the top for your category in the global awards?
A: This all still doesn’t seem real to me. I’m lucky in that I have a job I really love, that I’m really passionate about. My entry was that I treat my customers like family and like friends, and I think that’s probably what separates me in my customer service. When I talk to someone, I don’t think, “Oh, this person needs help.” I think of them as a friend, and I’m like, “Oh, how are you? We haven’t talked in a while.” Part of that is also that I get to work internationally — I get to talk with people all over the globe. I really enjoy that piece. I get really excited to do my job, so that probably translates into doing my job very well, because I’m really enjoying the people I’m working with and working for.
Q: What do you enjoy about it?
A: At the end of the day, I love helping people. If I can go home and know that I made somebody’s day easier or better or I helped them solve a problem, that is what makes me really happy. I actually enjoy when there are language barriers, because that’s where my background is. ... I’ve always had an interest in language and culture. My brain really lights up when I get to work with people of different languages and cultures, and then to give them that extra help when maybe they wouldn’t get it otherwise from someone else for whom the language might be a barrier, I enjoy that so much.
Q: With the changing face of customer service, when callers have to wade through a recorded menu in hopes of reaching a real, live person, what’s the key to greeting a potentially frustrated caller?
A: I’m not a front-line person. I don’t take the calls — I’m not a help desk. That doesn’t mean they can’t still be frustrated. It doesn’t mean that I can’t work hard to help them (with software issues).
Q: How has your job affected the way you respond when you’re the customer seeking service?
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A: I try to take a step back and look at it like most of the time, the person is trying to do their best to help me with the resources they have. ... In general, when I meet someone, I always try to assume best intent — not always easy. At the end of the day, we’re all just trying to do our best, and sometimes it just requires a little time and patience.
Q: You’ve started, and continued to lead, an LGBTQA employee resource group. What prompted you to do that?
A: I’ve always been really active in diversity and inclusion initiatives, either within our company or community. It goes back to I always want to make a difference. I want to make the world a little better. I want to do everything I can to try to promote a little more tolerance. The group started on a bicycle ride. A colleague and I were bicycling together, and we decided it’s time to start an employee resource group. So we started laying the groundwork, submitted the request, and (four years later) we have a very active and vibrant employee resource group. ... We do a lot of networking events within the company. We try to be active in our community — we’ve been very active with local Pride events and the new Tanager Place LGBTQ youth center. ... We’re really excited to partner with them.
Q: How does a person’s private life factor into the workplace, to the extent that you need a resource community within your organization?
A: For me, personally, I always felt that I couldn’t give a hundred percent unless I was able to be myself a hundred percent. I always equate it to living in the closet is like having a cold. You can go to work, you can do your job, but you’re always at 80 percent. I think it’s so important to be able to bring your authentic self to work and be yourself. That’s how you reach your full potential. That’s probably part of why I won this award, because I’m able to be my authentic self every day.
Q: What is your most proud achievement, at home, abroad or wherever?
A: I’ve had an amazing life, so I have quite a few. About 15 years ago or 20, I lost a lot of weight (110 pounds) and started walking, and then I started running, and now I run marathons and triathlons. All that led to then coming out, and then getting married, and getting to do all these other things. I’ve had so many great moments. Another thing I like to do is give back, and so after losing all the weight, I started a couch-to-5K class in town to help other people start running and find health and fitness. ... I’m most proud when I help someone and then they are able to turn around and help someone else. I love the fact that something that I’ve done either encourages someone or inspires someone to turn around and help someone else, because that’s how you really make change.
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