Blending teams, technologies, and products – for the win
A Conversation with Tami Criswell
Vice President of Product & Development, Tami Criswell, is in many ways the heart and soul of Grace Hill’s industry-leading talent and performance solutions. And as anyone who works with her can attest, she’s also a whirlwind of activity and positive energy.
We caught up with Tami to get a read on the company’s evolution, on the fascinating role she has played in it — and on why her proudest moment may yet be ahead.
Tami, you’ve been with Grace Hill for a number of years, now in a senior leadership role. Along the way, you’ve worn a number of hats. How has your career path, both at Grace Hill and before, led you to be who and where you are right now?
Well, I’m a pretty loyal employee. I tend to stay around for a long time — whether that be good or bad (laughs). I started my career in retail and ended up training on new software. So, when I went to work as a leasing agent for a top-fifty property management company — 16 years ago now — I knew that I had that skill in my back pocket. The market at the time was booming: the company was doing lots of new construction deals, acquisitions and sales, and I got to dive headfirst into one of their hottest markets. From a learning standpoint, that was monumental for me — a completely different side of the business than I had experienced on the front end, serving customers.
Later, I moved into the software training space and began down the path of, “How do you implement new software within an organization?” And that’s how I came to know Grace Hill: I actually implemented Grace Hill’s first version of courseware as a client.
Eventually, I joined the Grace Hill family — they were very small at the time. When I started, they were implementing the second version of their learning management system, and they brought me on to implement that to their current customer base. That work led me into the customer experience space — which not only taught me a great deal but was hugely enriching as well on a personal level.
Grace Hill didn’t really have a product team at that time — so since my passion is on the technology side, I worked my way through to finally starting it. Eventually, I locked that product team in with the development and quality assurance team becoming one holistic team, which is what I oversee now.
Honestly, I feel really fortunate that I got to have all of the customer-facing experience with Grace Hill first because once you move into behind-the-curtain technology, it’s easy to forget that what you’re doing every day is not just cool and fun — what you’re doing every day is to serve customers. I try to share that lens with my broader team: we’re here to serve customers, whether we see them or not.
It seems as if your own professional evolution — working across so many functions and weaving them together with a larger strategic vision of client service — has dovetailed well with the holistic approach Grace Hill is known for.
Absolutely. One of the things that I think is special here at Grace Hill is that we have a broader, more integrated team than you typically find in the SaaS (Software as a Service) space. It’s a lot of moving parts, and yet, they really feel like one team — a product-centric development team. And that’s the way it should be: because if you think about it, one part of the team can’t do anything without the other.
Another benefit is that this broadens everyone’s scope on everything; our people aren’t backed into one skill. A lot of our engineers are contributing to product ideas because they know the product from the inside out. In fact, that’s been a really special recruitment selling point. Many engineers do want to be creative, many do want to be customer-focused, and sometimes that’s just not possible with the vertical way companies structure teams. Also, all of our engineers work on all of our products, which is pretty rare — and something our Development Manager is really passionate about and helps facilitate as well. So, yeah, that holistic approach — I think it’s a big win for Grace Hill.
Would you say that that kind of holistic team spirit — where everyone feels professionally and personally invested in developing and supporting the organization’s products — is a factor in Grace Hill’s success?
Oh, absolutely. Career pathing is central to who we are here at Grace Hill. We sell career paths and visions of those to our customers — but we do the same thing internally. We always want to keep our people engaged: it’s a win for them and a win for us.
Employee turnover, onboarding — especially for product engineers — can take anywhere from four to six months; it’s extremely costly. Our “blended” approach allows our people to really dive in and get the feel of other things that they might be interested in. And who knows? They may just discover something that they’re actually more passionate about and move in a different direction, internally. It’s so rewarding to see your people get to grow and flourish right here at home.
That philosophy mirrors Grace Hill’s own evolution. Initially, we had one product: courseware. Then, when our growing courseware catalog made it clear that we also needed a way to assign and track training at a corporate level, we developed a learning management system — which eventually began to drive the industry. And now it’s so much more, because we have the PolicyPartner piece, and we have the Validate assessment piece. (More on that later…!)
And so, to have engineers and product folks touch all of those areas not only helps connect the products together, it connects our people together, too.
We’ve just taken that one step further now, with the relaunch of our new Visto platform, a whole new experience that works beautifully! That was a huge team effort, from start to finish: not only were we blended (as we always are) on the product-development end, we were also fully blended with the marketing team — not something we usually get to do from a platform perspective.
I know the science and business of learning and development have evolved enormously over the years — and you’ve both witnessed and helped facilitate some of those changes. I’m curious to hear your take on what role technology has played in that evolution.
Learning and development in our industry are completely different today than they were 12 years ago. When Grace Hill initiated our LMS or learning management system, the majority of the industry did not know what those letters meant. At the time, these programs were managed by spreadsheets and physically taught by trainers on the ground. That became really complicated, not to mention very expensive, as companies expanded from coast to coast.
Another area that’s evolved over the years (always a key area of focus for us) is compliance — which has become more critical than ever, with federal, state and local rules constantly changing and growing. Just figuring it all out and maintaining the correct policies is complicated in itself. Then, of course, you have to comply. And everyone knows that how you handle compliance risk could make or break the organization, so the stakes are really high.
Here, too, we’ve been able to anticipate the digital revolution and leverage our efficiencies and platform — meaning you don’t have to hire 50 people — to help our clients stay ahead of that moving target. There’s no doubt that online compliance training has gone from a game-changer in the industry to a necessity.
How has Grace Hill’s use of technology — for instance, your use of data and customer feedback and business intelligence — informed your products and solutions?
Let’s start with the basics: At Grace Hill, our focus is on listening to our customers. I would say the majority of our customers today would tell you they feel heard — and that, to me, is a big win from a technology and product development standpoint. And we listen to them in two ways: actively and passively.
The active piece is on the front end: we have a live feed — based on our account management and sales team’s real-time customer interactions — which goes to the product development team. We take that feedback, categorize it, queue it all up, and then act on it. A lot of people have very specific requests — like, “I want a button here.” But here’s the thing: we’re not building buttons here at Grace Hill, we’re solving problems. So, the key for the product team is to go through the request and decipher: what problem are they actually trying to solve? Because that’s what they’re asking for — even if they don’t know it.
We bring all that feedback together, roll out a new feature or functionality, and then we go back to our customers, and say, “You know that button you requested? You didn’t get it… but we solved your problem — and here’s how.” And they’re thrilled, and say, “That’s so much better than the button that I thought of!”
That sort of qualitative-driven feedback data is obviously hugely important when it comes to product development and client service. But we’re not only listening to our customers; we’re also listening to the data. We have an entire back-end metric system that helps us identify where, for example, people are struggling on a certain course. Or maybe people are having trouble with certain functionality. We also pay close attention to metrics like customer adoption rates, by feature and product, time to complete a course and a number of completions. (On that note, I’m proud to report that Grace Hill has just hit the one-million-course-completion mark!)
We take all that back-end (“passive”) data, and we blend it in with the front-end feedback gathered by our client-facing teams as they help customers work through specific issues — and then we figure out where we will get the biggest bang for our technology buck. Basically, if there’s a way to solve 50 issues with one step, we’ll find it, and implement it!
Clearly, that killer combination of innovation and service is Grace Hill’s “secret sauce.” So what’s cooking now? Can you share what’s in your product pipeline?
Happy to! A good place to start is with our new Validate assessment product. It’s a first for the industry, and it’s innovative not only in its technology but in its philosophy. In a way, Validate encapsulates the Grace Hill of today — everything we’re about as a company.
Mystery shopping is an age-old, multi-billion-dollar industry. It’s been around forever; it’s used everywhere. But let’s face it: a lot of folks have mixed feelings about mystery shopping — both its effect and its effectiveness.
First, an employee who feels “surveilled” may be working in a perennially anxious state, which could erode their confidence and performance, and make them feel unappreciated and unseen. And second, companies know that because of this anxiety, many employees don’t behave normally — which means the assessment is actually not a true capture of how they would normally behave in a customer-facing situation.
In the multifamily industry, mystery shopping is clearly ripe for reinvention. And that’s what we’ve done: we’ve used technology and business intelligence to flip the paradigm. Validate helps customers take that age-old assessment concept and tie it back to specific skills — not only the skills themselves but crucially how and when a skill is being used. And when someone doesn’t hit the mark, we can immediately serve up training against that very specific issue at that moment.
Remember, our overarching goal here at Grace Hill is to drive talent and performance. To do that, you have to make sure you’re hitting the mark and give people the information they need, right when they need it. So, what you’re doing is not remediation training; it’s not punitive. What you’re doing, in fact, is investing in that person.
That’s what I mean by “flipping the paradigm.” I like to call it upskilled training — because now I feel valued and I feel like getting this type of feedback is going to serve my purposes, professionally. As opposed to the old-school way, where you just get a score — which doesn’t do much to show you how to close the gaps in your skillset.
What we’ve found with Validate is that people don’t mind being assessed — because they feel they’re going to find value in it, be upskilled against it, and improve their own performance. It’s something that can enhance their entire careers. It’s all about the approach. And I’ll tell you, sometimes it takes folks who’ve been doing the same thing for a long time a minute to digest it. But once they do, it’s like a lightbulb turns on.
I love how you’re able to take that “necessary negative” and turn it into a win-win positive.
Well, I really drew on my own on-the-ground experience as a customer-facing person and as a product developer — and you know, I’ve been mystery-shopped, too, and I experienced those same negative feelings. So that perspective informed how I thought about this product, which questions I would or would not ask, and the extensive research we did.
Ultimately, I think of Validate as an assessment tool that enables companies to really understand the value of their people. And that helps build a company’s culture in ways that are both intangible and tangible.
Finally, there’s the question of scale. For a human to manage an assessment program nowadays would be almost impossible. Especially with the size of many of these organizations, they may have hundreds of people being shopped every month. For a learning and development director to sit there and try to figure out, “Well, she only needs help when she’s writing an email,” is impossible. You need technology to capture the true benefit of assessment and upskilling.
So that’s what you’ve done with Validate. What about Vision, your marquee training platform. I heard that you have upgraded it. What’s changed?
I think of what we’re doing with Vision as much more than an upgrade. I see it as an out and out new experience — one that, as with our other products, is laser-focused on meeting our users where they are and serving them from there.
Our user base contains a very wide stream of skillsets — from CEOs to people who’ve never used a computer before, from graduate students to non-native speakers. So you have to have a design standard that is intuitive for all. We chose Google Material Design because they’re unmatched in helping teams build high-quality digital experiences for their customers. I liken it to digital paint-by-numbers. When you log in, you need no instruction. It just feels like you’ve always been there, and you know exactly where your settings are, what you’re supposed to do next.
I think the new Vision experience is going to be game-changing. Because remember, not only is our user base unique, they also aren’t coming to work just to train. They’re not just sitting in a nice, quiet room to take a course; they’re busy — picking up the phone, helping customers, visiting properties. So we have to fit into their day seamlessly.
And — to go back to your earlier question about innovation — I think that touches on what the real meaning and purpose of new technology is. People tend to think of innovation as whiz-bang, all sorts of new bells and whistles. Our approach may seem counter-intuitive because what we’re actually trying to do here is get the technology out of the way so you can focus on learning.
At the end of the day, supporting the performance loop is what we are all about. And that’s what Vision and Visto and the rest of our products are designed to do.
Can you say a little more about Visto and PolicyPartner — and how both fit in that performance loop?
Here’s the idea behind Visto: this industry is always going to have some turnover. And in multifamily, that turnover usually stays internal to the industry — because it’s easy, once you have the right skills, to go get another job. From a management company perspective, that means there will always be a lot of competition for talent.
So Visto is focused on the professional. It enables a single user to create their industry profile and maintain their training credentials throughout their career, which they can take with them wherever they go. They can create a resume, bring it to job interviews, stay up to date on industry trends, continuing education, and so much more. I like to think of Visto as the multifamily professional’s briefcase: they put their name on it, and it’s theirs. And we know that in supporting that professional, we are also supporting this growing industry.
PolicyPartner has been a passionate interest of mine since I joined Grace Hill. It’s a challenge that I find exciting — even though (or maybe because) it’s hard to make policy exciting. But what is exciting is giving people every kind of support they need to perform and succeed in their jobs.
Nobody comes to work wanting to fail… and yet a lot of times, people fail because they didn’t know what they were supposed to do. Let’s go back to that mystery shopper: let’s say they failed because they didn’t follow up with the customer within 48 hours. The number-one thing you’re going to hear from them is, “I didn’t know I was supposed to do it in 48 hours.”
Bottom line: You can’t thrive at your job if you don’t know what the expectations are. And that’s why tying policies, training and assessment together is extremely powerful. They have to all go together, seamlessly, or people don’t feel supported. As an employee, I don’t have to go figure out, what is the policy on this? How do I learn the skill? It is just served up to me — I have all the information I need to learn and develop and be successful.
So Tami, looking at all this wealth of accomplishment to date… what are some of the things you’re most proud of in your career at GH?
The thing I’m most proud of so far would be the ability to grow the full stacked product development team at Grace Hill and create our “blended approach” philosophy. And yet, somehow, I think that my proudest moment is yet to come. That’s why I come to work every day: I haven’t gotten all my wins yet!