An award-winning manager turns lessons into leadership practices.
Kristine Hartkopf’s customer service career trajectory is inspirational. It’s a perfect example of the potential for professional development that the contact center environment can provide to those who are willing to take charge of their growth. Hartkopf is the customer experience program manager at Freeman, which provides integrated services for face-to-face marketing and brand experiences, expositions, conventions, corporate events, meetings and exhibit programs. Her professional journey began just seven years ago when she came on board as a part-time customer support rep. Since that time, she has proven her dedication to ever-expanding roles, as well as to her customers, team and the business. In fact, in May, Hartkopf was recognized by the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI) with a 2017 Global Contact Center Award in the Best Contact Center Manager category.
While advancing from frontline rep to management seems like it may have been a carefully planned out career path, Hartkopf says that it all began quite unexpectedly. When she applied for a part-time data entry position at Freeman, Hartkopf had never worked in a contact center environment before. At the time, she was a full-time college student simply looking for a job with convenient hours that would fit around her class schedule. During the interview, though, the hiring director recognized in Hartkopf a skilled communicator who would add more value on the front lines interacting with customers. “She pushed me in that direction, and I’m very grateful that she did because it has been hugely impactful for my career, our customers and the team,” Hartkopf says.
During her first year with Freeman, Hartkopf became pregnant with her first child. To obtain her degree in social work, she still needed to complete an internship with the local police department that required her to work at night. “I realized that I wouldn’t be able to do that,” she says. “So I changed my major to a universal one with three concentrations—sociology, psychology and business writing—which ended up being a perfect fit for my role at Freeman.” This change in her educational career opened her mind to a long term professional career at Freeman, with the potential to build on the knowledge and skills she obtained throughout college.
In fact, Hartkopf soon progressed from part-time to full time and then moved into a contact center coordinator position. After less than a year, she was promoted to contact center manager, a role that she held for five years before moving to the customer experience team in July.
An Early Defining Moment Fuels Passion to Succeed
Most successful leaders can point to an incident, conversation or event that fueled their passion to succeed in their profession—a defining moment that changed everything for them. For Hartkopf, the first moment came early in her career at Freeman while working during a slow weekend shift. Reps were tasked with entering customer surveys into the system in between calls. At that time, Hartkopf admits that she viewed her position as simply a part-time job and wasn’t motivated to go beyond the average expectations of her position, especially when it came to entering surveys on the weekend. As she recalls: “The VP came over to my desk with a stack of surveys and asked why I hadn’t entered them yet. I gave her an excuse and she said to me very directly, but also in a very kind way, ‘Please enter these in. I know you can do it.’ That was a turning point for me—when my view of my position changed from ‘this is just a job’ to ‘this is something that I want to be really good at.’ The VP set an expectation for me, she encouraged me to do it, and she believed in me. It’s such a small thing, but it fueled my desire throughout my career to be my best at all times and to encourage others in that same way.”
While that moment gave Hartkopf insight into the type of leader she wanted to be, a relationship with another executive helped to shape her leadership style further. As part of the company’s mentoring program, she was assigned to an executive whose personality was vastly different from hers. While her new mentor was very candid and direct, Hartkopf was more reserved and lacked confidence in her communication skills. However, they soon found that they shared some important values. “We were able to connect on a more personal level because we both valued our families the most in life,” she says. “He made a point of learning about my family and what was important to me, both at work and in my personal life. That was the second milestone in my career because I realized that a truer sense of leadership is getting to know people on a deeper level and finding out what is meaningful to them in a genuine way. I wanted to do that for other people.”
From Mentee to Mentor: Paying It Forward
The influence that Freeman’s leaders have had on Hartkopf’s career has been powerful. She, in turn, is a thoughtful leader who carefully considers the impact of her actions on her team. “If you want to build a team that will see your vision and join you in the direction that you set, it’s important to be a role model for them,” she says.
Hartkopf has been very intentional about the types of characteristics that she models. She looks for ways to balance high performance with a genuine, human connection. “I try to demonstrate being professional while also being warm, friendly and encouraging,” she explains. “I want to be competent but also welcoming to feedback and adaptable to changes. And then I want to demonstrate how to be hard-working while also having fun and finding ways to incorporate humor and light-heartedness into the work, which is important for us.”
In addition to leading by example, Hartkopf understands that a manager’s primary role is to provide support for the team so they can reach their goals—both personal and business-related. She treats each team member as an individual and looks beyond the skills required for the job to what they need to be successful. She makes a point of learning about each person’s career ambitions and connects them with the appropriate resources to make it happen—whether that involves honing new business skills, networking with other functions or learning more about the organization. “I want to do what I can to help each person to be happy in their role here at Freeman,” she says.
Company, Center and Personal Accomplishments
Hartkopf believes that it’s important for leaders to not only embrace innovation but to look for ways to bring their team into the process. She feels gratified to work in a company that encourages a collaborative environment. “Freeman has implemented a design-thinking approach that has resonated with me. It ensures that our reps participate in the decision-making process. They help to identify where the opportunities are and come up with plans to carry out decisions,” she says. “We also have a debriefing process where we discuss collectively what worked, what didn’t and what we can improve. That has had a tremendous positive influence in their engagement at work. It’s the reason why they’re inspired to do what they’re doing, and why they’re so connected to the core message of the company—to be innovative in servicing our customers.”
During her years as contact center manager, Hartkopf led key initiatives that will have a lasting impact on the operation. A major technology project involved the transition from a highly manual process involving multiple systems to a multichannel cloud-based software platform. In addition to providing a 360-degree view of the customer’s experience, the automated system allowed Hartkopf and her team to spend their time identifying other opportunities to improve service delivery, such as omnichannel workforce management initiatives and increased quality assurance and training sessions.
Last year, Hartkopf also proposed a restructuring of the contact center’s leadership team. Previously, she was solely responsible for the training, interviews and quality assurance process. It was manageable while the team was small, but as the center’s headcount grew, Hartkopf realized that they needed additional leadership positions. She proposed to department leaders that the center add three supervisor positions to manage the day-to-day training, in addition to a separate workforce management coordinator to oversee staff scheduling. It was her first major business proposal to senior leaders, and it was a success.
“The result was that we were able to move four reps from the team into leadership positions,” she says. “It is where those individuals wanted to be, and I’m proud that I was able to be a part of their success story.”
Always Keep Learning, Growing and Improving
What inspires Hartkopf the most about her career? “There is always an opportunity to learn,” she says. “Whether it’s on the frontline or in leadership, I’ve always learned something new every day, which is what I personally thrive on.”
Working at a company that values innovation means that there is plenty of room to grow and develop. The company’s design-thinking approach is currently being applied to improve billing processes and operational alignment between the contact center and other customer-facing business units.
Over the past few months, Hartkopf has been transitioning from her role in the contact center into her new role as customer experience program manager. For Hartkopf, it was a calculated career move so that she can continue to serve Freeman’s customers and the contact center. “The two teams are very interconnected,” she notes. “I wanted to stay in a position that adds value to our customers and the front line.”