bWise – Ep 27: Streamlining Benefits Admin: Real-World Wisdom from Industry Vet Maria Yao

Streamlining Benefits Admin: Real-World Wisdom from Industry Vet Maria Yao

Overwhelmed by the accelerating pace of change in benefits administration? The latest episode of the bwise Podcast is a masterclass in optimizing operations. Listen in as industry heavyweight and bswift advisory council member Maria Yao distills 30+ years of frontline expertise. In this insightful interview, you’ll uncover her three pillars of operational excellence – comprehensive training, rigorous documentation, and continuous simplification – and gain insights into fostering healthy team dynamics. Maria also offers a grounded perspective on leveraging automation and AI in HR tech while maintaining the critical human touch. Tune in for Maria’s straight-shooting advice and elevate your operational capabilities.


View recording transcript >

    Well, Sharon, we’re lucky today to have a member of our advisory council with us. Maria Yao has joined our advisory council late last year at bswift, and as our listeners may know if they’ve listened to some of our prior podcasts, we minted this advisory council in 2023. It’s something we’ve never had before at bswift, but it’s a group of seasoned veterans in our industry who have joined a team to help us develop our business. Maria has been, just by way of introduction, I’ll say she’s been in the business of human resources and benefits and benefits administration, benefits outsourcing for over 30 years. Great long career with Hewitt and Aon and also with one of our competitors, alight, where she was the Chief operating officer. So she has a tremendous background. And Maria, we’re lucky to have you and delighted to have you on the show today. Thanks for joining us. 

    Sure. I’m happy to be here. 

    Alright, awesome. Well, we’d like to just jump right in, Maria today and say we recognize that you’ve had a storied career here in this business, and we’d like to understand a little bit more about just some of your immediate background. Can you tell us a little bit about some of the things that you’ve learned in your career? 

    Yeah, thanks for saying it’s been a long career and not calling me old, so I appreciate that. But as I think back over the 30 plus years, it’s certainly been a career that in the early days, I am not sure I would’ve ever thought, yeah, I’m going to go do this HR benefits thing and 30 years later say, Hey, I’m still doing this HR benefits thing. When I was joining the organization way back then, I knew I wanted a paycheck and I knew I wanted benefits. So great, I got those. And oh, by the way, I got to actually learn a lot about it based on the business I started to join. But I’ve seen a lot from my early days in supporting just our health business as part of the organization. I was with what that meant at the time, it was the back office operation. 

    And don’t worry about what’s back there, it’s just taking care of business, which was true. And we’re never going to talk to participants live on a telephone. Why would we ever do that?  And now we’re sitting here talking about automation and AI and chatbots. And so as I think about those 30 years, you could kind of bucket ’em in these phases of, wow, that really is a journey of the human element, the technical element, and everything that goes with it. So it’s been, believe it or not, fun to be part of and in some ways helping to influence, but in other ways just taking what comes at you as well. So happy to dive into any of that as we go through the conversation today, 

    And we’d love to do that. And I think one of the things that you’ve been really strong at in your career is the concept of outsourcing. And you’ve done so much of that. And I think as we think about many of our customers and many employers across America, what they’re looking for is the HR departments really need help. Often they find themselves without the budget, they need to staff entirely to do all the work that they want to get done. And in some cases they’ll determine that having a specialist that they can turn work over to is really valuable for their organization. So you want to talk a little bit about maybe just the concept of benefit process or business process outsourcing and what BPO means, what the value prop is? 

    Yeah, I mean, again, it’s one of those things that has evolved over the years. What organizations thought they were comfortable outsourcing 20 years ago is very different than what they feel comfortable outsourcing now. And I think of it in terms of if I’m an organization out there, what do I do? Do I make cars? Am I a bank? Am I in healthcare? That’s what I want to major in. That’s where I want to spend my money, my valuable resources, putting forth the best experience for my customers. And in order to do that, I should actually give my employees the best experience they can have as an employee of my organization. And that should, I think my perspective come very easily with, let me turn that over to experts. That is what they do. So they’re not a bank, they don’t make cars, they’re not in healthcare, but they’re a benefits administrator. This is what they do 24 7, 365. And so to me, the value of BPO in general is this is what we do. 

    I always say it may not be the sexiest thing out there. I get to look at rules and regs and see what policy changes are out there, but making sure that that works for our most important people, which is our customer, our client base, and ensuring that goes as smoothly as possible as they’re onboarding their employees who are critically important to delivering to their clients. That’s a big deal. And so why wouldn’t you trust an outsourcer to help support that for you and your organization? So maybe that’s a simpleton kind of view of it. And I’ve been doing this for 30 years, but that’s how I think of it. 

    No, I think, oh, go ahead Don. 

    I was just going to say, and so Maria sounds like there are, well, I’ll skip that. Go ahead, Sharon. Why don’t you pick it up? 

    No, I was just going to say, I mean, I think it makes all the sense in the world. We have built our business doing benefits administration and our responsibility is to help our customers do what they’ve built their business doing. And our best way to serve them in their goals of reaching their accomplishments and delivering to their clients is to deliver to them in an area that we’re an expert in. So I absolutely love that. And Maria, you know that at bswift we have two distinct business models and we’ve got the direct side of our business and we’ve got a reseller or channel partner side of our business where we’ve got 53 entities who have taken the bswift software and they have kind of turned their own, they’ve created their own direct operations, if you will. And many of those folks are our podcast listeners. And I know you’ve been an operator and a delivery leader for the majority of your career. And so I think what would be really interesting to our listeners, those who are business owners as well as those who have created their own bswift operations, they’d love to, I think, learn from you on what are critical pillars in being a service delivery leader and delivering successfully from an operations perspective. 

    Yeah, no, it’s a great question. And it’s true. I’ve been doing this a long time, and while I was generally more focused on sort of that direct line, the concepts of really good sustainable delivery span, the gamut, it doesn’t matter if it’s a channel type of client or a direct client, and whether it’s in the bswift back office or with some of the partner organizations, I kind of think of it in a couple, to your point, Sharon, a couple of different pillars. For me, it starts with kind of training. Like we live in a world today where everybody just wants instant gratification. I just want to push a button and everything installs and it works well. That’s kind of not Ben admin. I mean, first of all, again, as I said, coming out of college and after my first job, I knew I wanted benefits in a paycheck. 

    I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew that I needed those things. So as you think about the world today, just getting to those types of employees that have an interest in this is first and foremost, and in today’s world, they have all sorts. You can get a degree in HR and back when I was going to school, that wasn’t kind of a thing. It didn’t mean it didn’t exist, but it wasn’t really a thing. So you can start there, but then it’s a matter of, okay, let’s talk about the critical concepts of what it is we’re doing and the tools we use to do it and all the things that impact it both internally and externally. Again, whether you are a direct client to bswift or on the channel side of the business where you’re helping your customers do it, it starts with that level set, that training of let’s just understand the basics. 

    So we’re starting on the same page and then guess what? It’s training along the way. This is for better or worse, a really dynamic thing with, I’ve mentioned the regs and things pretty often already so far today. There’s stuff changing all the time. And so really again, that ongoing training of here are the tool sets we need to be monitoring, here’s who we should be talking to. And it doesn’t always necessarily mean, okay, and then you own that and you have to do all these 100 things on the backend, but then you need to know, so what do I do with that information? Who do I talk to about that? And what’s the overall impact on this thing that we’re doing to support our client base? So first and foremost, training level set and ongoing is something I think is critically important. The other thing is I’m an operator, so document, document, document, we get so caught up in the day to day, and again, it’s about instant gratification. 

    Well, I just pushed the button, was that really important? Yeah, it really was. And you should write that down and you should create that checklist, that SOP, because as you guys well know, timing matters, sequencing matters, checks and balances and audit matter. And guess what? You also know that the workforce is dynamic. People come and go. You want them to, but people come and go. So documentation in my world of operations was critical, and I think in today’s world, it can seem like this big nuisance of, well, it’s all right here. No, it’s not. It’s if you’re sick tomorrow and we’ve got to do a bunch of stuff to ensure people are getting into the system, people are getting ID cards, people are getting whatever it is, somebody might have to pick it up that doesn’t know what you do. So pillar number two, document, document, document. 

    Pillar three for me is, again, because I’m an operator, I constantly think about process improvement. So I think always having the mentality of how can I simplify this? So I think there will always be the human element to what it is we do in our daily lives as an outsourcing provider, but we do know that technology is getting better. We do know that I think there’s five generations in the workforce today. There has to be stuff that makes it easy for some people, and what’s easy for one of those generations is not easy for the other generation. If that button moves, oh my god, the button moved. But the constant thought of how can I make this easier? How can I simplify this not just for the end customer, but as an operator, it’s always about, well, how can I make this easier for my team so that it can get done quicker so that the pressure on my client from a timing perspective can be eased. It’s never going to go away. But constantly thinking through necessary steps, improvement of steps, improvement of the platform to me is the job of an operator. And again, whether you are a bswift employee or utilizing the bswift software, I think critical for you to be giving us that feedback so that we can address that within the platforms that we provide to you. 

    That’s great stuff, Maria. And as we think about our business at bswift, we consider ourselves to be a tech enabled services company. So the technology’s really important. The service is really what underpins the value that we deliver in the marketplace. And so I think you’ve given us some great pointers, training, documentation, simplification, those are really great pillars to contemplate as far as how you really can deliver on that service in a great way. So let’s look at the other half of that. Service is one thing, the technology is the other. Tell us a little bit about how you see the technology tools themselves creating value for the customers that we serve. 

    Yeah, again, this is an interesting one because everybody focuses on the technology, and I get that it does have to be simple, it needs to be engaging. I get all of that. But I also think we as a society, quite frankly, whether it’s a benefit to the platform or something else, there’s a lot of buzzword stuff going on right now, and they’re not just buzzwords. I don’t want to diminish it, but automation, ai, chatbot, machine learning is all coming to play. And as I think about it, technology is an enabler in this world, in my firm belief of outsourcing HR, whether it’s Ben admin, payroll, whatnot, technology enables it. And so there’s still the human element even with automation where you have to have the right people making the decision around what tools around automation are beneficial to me, my platform, my clients, where should they be deployed and when that all matters. 

    So it’s not just this, I have this button and it automatically appears. And as great as automation and all that is just enables itself in the right place at the right time for the right set of clients, on the right processes. That’s not how it works. So I think the great news in this industry is the competition has been fierce. Lots of platforms coming to bear. The bad news in our industry is all of that, lots of organizations getting out there with a really pretty front end that can’t support it on the backend, that really touts automation and everything that goes with it, but they don’t understand the nuances of the process and where engaging the customer, whether it’s the end user employee or that benefits a business partner representative in the right way at the right time matters. So there’s sort of this plus side to it as I see the technology and how it has evolved. 

    But I also see this, hold on guys. Can we take a pause a minute and just understand what it is we’re trying to enable for whom and make some really smart decisions so we’re not just quite frankly throwing money into a furnace. And please don’t take the soundbite that investing in automation is money into a furnace. That’s not what I’m saying. But being super thoughtful about it, because the wrong piece of technology in the wrong place at the wrong time actually can confuse the process. It could give the wrong next step or answer, which just means somebody’s going to get an email, whether it’s a contact center or a manager, what have you. And so for me, Don, on the technology front, there’s good and bad out there right now, and I like what the conversations I’m having at be swift about this thoughtful approach because as an operator, I think that’s needed. And you might think an operator would say, no, no, no. Bring in all this automation. Go faster, go faster. I want us to be quick about it, but I also want us to be thoughtful. There has to be some human element that goes into that investment. 

    You know what I would say it’s probably the salespeople who are trying to tout too much automation and all of that crazy stuff. Let us, 

    I mean, do you know any of those people? 

    Yeah. Who are those people touting off the new tech? 

    I mean, it’s a great point, Sharon, you got to keep us in check. That’s a great point because I have always said in my few years in this industry, there has to be this really healthy tension between sales and ops. And you could say the same thing between sales and product. That doesn’t mean disrespect and you don’t know what you’re talking about and blah, blah, blah, blah. I’m not going to make my sale if I can’t say this, but a healthy tension to really understand the benefit of what we are trying to do and for whom 

    It is a checks and balances. To your point, there’s a lot of competitors in the space. There’s a lot of platforms, there’s a lot of different delivery models, there’s a lot of salespeople, there’s a lot of product people. And so not only does the competition keep everyone kind of in check, but our product folks, at least at bswift do a really good job of unpacking the intention behind the new functionality and what we’re seeing in the market. And I mean, there’s a lot of exciting stuff. There’s AI chat, GPT, there’s so much going on, but making sure that we’re rolling it out in a intentional and focused way is really critical. And I think eliminating distractions, we could do it all, but should we do it all is the question? Yeah, exactly. I think this is kind of a nice lead in to you would love your opinion, Maria, on what makes a good benefits administration partner. I think you’ve kind of highlighted a couple of things, but would love your top three list of, if you could think of three things that would make a great Ben admin partner, what would those three things be? 

    Yeah, what I used to tell my teams is, and so for those out there that are in the buying side of it, what I think is important is a client’s first mentality. And that sounds super buzzy, I understand that. But what I used to tell my teams are, if you don’t think you’re doing this for a client, and oh by the way, if you don’t think the client is that your brother, your sister, your mother, your father, your aunt, uncle, whatever, you’re probably missing the storyline of what is it that we do here at bswift? We’re providing a super important platform for yes organizations, but yes, for those real people who need their ID card, when they go to the doctor, they need the right information flowing over to payroll so that you’re not taking out double my deductions so that you know what, I can’t go get the things I need at the store tomorrow. So knowing why we’re here and client’s first mentality is sort of number one in my book. I think as an outsourcing partner, the other really important thing is being a good listener. I used to hate it when we would go into a meeting sometimes mostly sales meetings, Sharon, but when we’d go in 

    And we’d start talking about us first, look how great we are, yay clients, they care eventually out of the block though I think going in and listening or at least demonstrating that you have listened to what the issues are, what they are trying to achieve, what business are they in, and what are the implications of that for what they’re looking for from an outsourcing partner. To me that’s really, really important. Even if we go into an operational review meeting, I think again, important to listen to the customer. So that sort of thing too. And if I thought of kind of a third one, it would be honesty, particularly in the operation, listen, this is an imperfect world. What we do is not a science as much as it is an art. Yes, I talked about sequencing and timing, but guess what? There are humans that have to input things into technology to enable the process. 

    That doesn’t always happen exactly when we would like it to. So there are going to be issues. Some of them are going to be bigger than others, some of them are going to be the outsources fault. Some of them, quite frankly, are going to be the client’s fault. But from an operator partner perspective, my assumption and go-to with my team was always, you be honest, if we screwed something up, we talk about what we did, we talk about how we’re going to fix it, when we’re going to fix it, and everything we’re going to do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. And if that also means telling the client, here’s how you contributed to it. Doing that in a respectful way, but showing the end-to-end process using data and facts as your friend. Because at the end of the day, this isn’t just a client outsource a relationship, it’s a partnership you’re delivering to their employees, which is their most valuable commodity. So making sure there’s honesty in that relationship. Only thanks 

    For listening to today’s 

    Episode. The next time something happens, they know you’re just going to be forthright wise, wherever you listen to podcasts. And quite frankly, when you need help on something from client, you 

    Rate for you and share with friends and 

    Colleagues’ a little bit more open to wanting to partner if they feel like you’ve been a good trusted partner to them, advisor to them, versus kind of always trying to be in this defensive mode or just not being forthright with what you’re seeing. So those would kind of be my go-tos and things that I have employed over the years with my teams. 

    That’s great stuff, Maria. And speaking of being a good advisor, I’d like to understand a little bit more about why you decided to come and join bswift as an advisor. I mean, with your background and experience, you could go about anywhere and do anything in this industry. Why did you choose to come land with bswift? 

    Yeah, number one, it’s a small world in which we live. So this industry is vast as it is. It’s small, there’s people everywhere. So I was fortunate enough that when I found myself sort of thinking about what’s next, and I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know did I want to go back to work? I had lots of things going on in my personal life and we all live the world of whether it’s working parents or being working parents or dealing with aging parents, things like that. So I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. And I got back in touch with some old friends of mine from decades and was just starting to hear, listen, I knew bswift as a competitor and I know what I used to say about bswift to win deals. Nothing disparaging, but just, Hey, this is how I think we go win against. 

    But the more I heard about bswift and the changes that were coming about with some new leadership and having those conversations kind of opened this door to, okay, is bswift my next stop. I will tell you what sealed the deal was. I kind of went through the decision making process of I need ultimate flexibility in my personal life right now. That’s a very hard decision for somebody like me to come to after 30 years in the workplace. And quite frankly, my career kind of defined me, which there’s some interesting good stuff about that and some bad stuff about that. So to make the decision to say, I need ultimate flexibility, and for Ted coming into bswift saying, I think we can help you with that. Let me tell you about what I’m trying to do at bswift. And just quite frankly, hearing his humbleness about, Hey, here’s what I do and don’t know about this industry. 

    Here’s where I think I could use help from people like you. Here’s how I think that can play into your sort of work-life balance and what you’re looking to do. Kind of just sealed the deal. I saw his passion. I saw his, again, I’ll say humbled, so just somebody to come in and say, I know a lot and I can help this organization a lot, but I also know I want to surround myself with industry experts because I want to take this to the next level, seal the deal for me, quite frankly. And there are good people everywhere. And as I said to start this answer, it’s a small world. So getting to work with some of the folks that I used to work with years and years ago again has been fun. But that’s sort of the why I got here. And then just sort of helping as we build out this advisory council, getting to work with folks again like Scott Mill, Lana Hillebrand, some of the best people in the business. I mean, how fun is that? 

    I love it. I absolutely love that, Maria. And speaking of building relationships through years and years in the benefits industry, I think much all three of us on the pod today, we’ve kind of fallen into this space. And it’s a little bit like quicksand once you’re in, you’re in. But once we have a lot of folks listening who may not be or who are early in their careers or thinking about making an industry change, I’d be curious if you have any advice that you’d offer to anyone considering our industry, whether it’s the benefits industry or consulting or advisement, anything in this space. 

    Yeah, I think I said earlier in our discussion, this may not come off jump off the page as the sexiest career that’s out there, but if you’re looking for an evolving industry, I mean this thing hasn’t stopped in the 30 years I’ve been on the train. So there’s a good amount of evolution and some of it is just as you look at the legislative side and everything we’ve been through with what we have to do to support employers out there because of that, you look at the technical side and then you think about, this is sort of, but one sort of arm of the overall HR umbrella, right? Benefits has to interact with all different sides of the equation under that HR umbrella. And they have to be woven together pretty meticulously and tightly. So there’s just more to it than just this ben admin thing, which to me makes it all very interesting. Again, I think I mentioned who’d have thought I’d be here 30 years later when I took my first job, my brothers were kind of like, you’re going to what? 

    But as I continued to evolve in my career and then they started asking more and more questions and maybe it didn’t make it super cool, but it was at least interesting. And then the understanding of this is important to organizations out in the ether. So I would just, for anybody sort of starting out in their career, for me this good, this has been a great journey where, listen, I started testing. My first job in this industry was testing the IVR system. How cool is that, right? Going into being into practice leadership and really talking about, okay, what are all the legislative changes coming through the healthcare arena, what does that mean? Then stepping into this broader delivery function and everything that goes with that in supporting clients to my last role as chief operations officer and just making sure everything we did and do, had clients at the forefront using all that wonderful technology to our advantage. I mean that’s, I dunno, as I think about careers, that’s kind of everything you might want in one. And so I’d say give it a chance. Yeah, everybody’s super cool, is defined differently and for me it was just about challenge and the people I got to work with. And so you just give it a chance. You never know. 

    I love that. I can tell you Maria, definitely this business we’re in is never a dull moment. So there’s a lot to learn and a lot to experience. What we’d love to, I’ll just give a quick summary, I think of what I’ve picked up from you today, Maria, if you want to know how to run a good business in the benefits business, focus on training, make sure that you document well, have good quality check systems, simplify especially with technology. And as you think about the technology that might be used, always be looking for those tools that are going to make your life simpler. The whole intent is to make things simpler and easier. And I also picked up from you, we should really, if we’re going to build a successful businesses, we should be focused on our clients first. Listen carefully to them, make sure that we’re aimed at what they need us to aim at and be a straight shooter. Tell this to start with the truth. And I think if we follow those principles, we’re going to have tremendous success in this business. So Maria, thank you so much for all you’ve contributed to us today. Sharon, any parting thoughts? 

    No, I think you hit the nail on the head there, Don. I mean, I think Maria, you said we can really drive excellence through two channels, people and process. And so long as we’re attentive and investing in those two areas, we’re going to thrive. And at the end of the day, I love that you brought this back to, we’re doing this for the employee and their family on their healthcare journey and at the end of the day, we’re doing everything that we can on a day-to-day to really satisfy the needs of that end consumer who a lot of those end consumers don’t even know that we’re all on the hamster wheel back here making it all run. And it’s a pretty powerful, powerful message. So it’s always a nice reminder. So thanks for bringing that up and thanks for joining us today. 

    Thanks for having me. 

    About Maria Yao

    Maria Yao is a professional services executive and industry veteran with insights honed over a storied career leading global delivery operations at industry giants. Maria excels at driving profitability, building strong client partnerships, and fostering a winning culture among talented service delivery teams. Her expertise spans benefits administration, HR services, operations excellence, and leveraging technology.

    The views expressed by guests of the bWise podcast series are theirs alone and not endorsed by nor necessarily reflect the views of bswift, its affiliates or their employees. The podcast recordings and all rights are owned and retained by bswift. Reproduction, duplication or reposting of podcasts or any portion thereof without the express written consent of bswift is prohibited.
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