Looking Back to Move Ahead on Practice Tech

In a conversation with PLANADVISER, Lisa Weil of ProcessUnity shares insights gained from experience launching earlier digital tools for qualified retirement plan sponsors.

Today Lisa Weil is vice president of industry solutions for ProcessUnity, a firm introducing cloud-based practice management support services in the qualified retirement plan space. Her experience includes 12 years at Fidelity, where she held product leadership roles spanning the institutional and retail markets—along with early career work as a software developer.

One can imagine why that background would be helpful in the retirement plan services market today. She likens Fidelity “to a big software company, as well as a financial services company.” From that perspective, the jump to financial services from earlier work in technology did not disappoint, Weil says, given the company’s interest in solutions development and integration.

She can’t speak for the firm’s current operations, she says, “but I got to participate in a lot of really interesting development work there, and I wound up spending a significant amount of time in the retirement and 401(k) parts of the business. I was working in these roles when the Internet was first being introduced to plan sponsors as a way to really communicate and manage their employee benefits.”

Weil eventually took on leadership of the firm’s defined contribution (DC) and (DB) product lines. 

“At that time, even though we were performing well in the market, we still felt as though the services we were delivering to clients were very reactive to what plan sponsors said they wanted or needed,” Weil remembers. “Over time, we started to feel the need to reverse that—to have a strong view on what the best way is to service a loan or deliver enrollment information. What would be the best way to package all the different tools and portals that plan sponsors use to promote retirement readiness? We needed to answer these questions.”

It’s still a conversation that is playing out today, she adds. Firms across the retirement services spectrum are stepping back and reassessing their approach to technology. As Weil puts it, “firms are learning to take a step back and stop adding ad hoc technology features and functions. The next step is to take a really hard look at service delivery and ask how we can use our technology strengths to improve retirement plans.”

Practically, Weil says, this means firms have to “come up with specific points of view around the best ways to deliver all the various services they are delivering.” A big part of this will be defining what outcomes are important and what the best technology pathways to reaching those outcomes might be.

“It’s not going to really promote positive retirement outcomes if service providers are not being efficient or highly responsive and transparent in their work with clients,” she notes. 

Plugging for her current firm, Weil says this type of efficiency and transparency is basically what ProcessUnity strives to deliver as a third-party service provider. “We help firms catalog and organize all of their services and client relationships, with a major goal being to provide all client-facing representatives and associates with a consistent point of view and set of capabilities to sell.”

Perhaps even more important, Weil says her firm can help providers organize their staff in the most reasonable and efficient way to serve the book of business. She believes this vertically integrated approach can bring substantial efficiencies to large and small firms alike. Benefits include cutting down on unnecessary duplication of effort and getting the right staff to focus on the right work at the right time. These sound like straightforward concepts, Weil says, but they're not always easy to accomplish in a large financial services firm with a substantial book of assets under management. Different offices can adopt slightly different practices, she says, and over time service delivery can get exceptionally complicated. 

Weil suggests the cloud will have an increasingly important role to play for retirement plan service providers, but the financial industry’s characteristic conservativism and massive scale make rapid change challenging.

“There is still an ongoing evolution in how the big firms are sequencing and sourcing the work they’re doing—and how comfortable they are putting certain things out in the cloud versus using more traditional styles of technology infrastructure,” she continues. “I’m still surprised how many big providers haven’t even fully embraced the first generation of cloud-based platforms, whether that’s Salesforce or a similar product, that really just involves getting a unified client information system in place that can be accessed remotely.”

One major benefit of using this type of service, Weil says, is the availability of prepared reports and documents for use by producing reps and advisers, as well as client service staffers.

With current events in mind, Weil feels the industry “is at an interesting inflection point where we are seeing a real change in what this business is all about—it’s reflected in the much talked about regulatory initiatives. There is a real focus on outcomes, and I think this can only means technology will have an increasingly important role.”

“I talk to a lot of folks who are unsure about where a lot of the current rulemaking is going to go,” she concludes (see “SEC Signals Intent for Uniform Advice Standards”). “Firms have for years been slowing down their decisionmaking as a result of the nearly constant regulatory changes. My hope is that we will see these efforts concluded so that firms can feel more confident moving forward and making real changes.”