by John Wythe White
For years, title insurance companies have been using offshore data entry firms for backplant automation and day forward posting. This article is a case study of how First Dakota Title of South Dakota used offshore outsourcing to produce abstract and informational reports, saving the company time and money.
Abstract Problem, Concrete Solution
Dennis Anderson, founder and president of First Dakota Title, was with his vice president of operations on a four hour drive from his headquarters in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to Fargo, North Dakota, when the idea came up: Why not use his offshore data entry firm not just to key in information but to take the next step and actually produce complete reports?
North and South Dakota both require title insurance companies to establish and maintain their own databases containing historical records of all real estate transactions in the counties where they do business. (In the Dakotas, such records can date back to land patents established in the late 19th century.)
However, unlike South Dakota, North Dakota requires the creation of an abstract for almost all transactions. This became a major consideration when Anderson decided to cross state lines and acquire a title company in Fargo.
“We were wondering how we were going to do the abstracts,” says Anderson. “It seemed to us that they were time intensive, labor intensive and redundant. We considered what our offshore data entry firm was doing for us already: looking at the documents, determining who the grantors and grantees were, locating legal descriptions, and adding recording dates, filing dates, and document numbers. Then we thought: An abstract is basically a recompilation of that information. In addition to identifying bits and pieces, you’re retyping the document in the format required for an abstract. So we said, ‘They should be able to do that.’ And that started the wheels turning.”
First Dakota Title’s experience with offshore data entry began in 1989, before the company opened its doors. Anderson had averted a financially burdensome late start up by hiring a company called HDEP International to help create his backplant. A Honolulu based firm with data entry facilities in Manila, Philippines, HDEP took responsibility for the entry of 600,000 records—about half of First Dakota Title’s entire two county project. Anderson was pleased with the speed, accuracy, and motivation of the Manila operators.
Since then, the company has continued to rely on offshore outsourcing for an expanding array of products and services. In the mid ‘90s HDEP helped modernize First Dakota’s database by converting its microfilm records to digital images. By the time the company decided to expand to North Dakota last year, HDEP was providing offshore day forward data entry services for the company’s five South Dakota title plants—with the attendant advantages of reduced personnel requirements, lower labor costs, improved work flow, and off site security backup.
“Deciding to outsource reports wasn’t easy,” says Anderson, “but we had worked with HDEP for over ten years and established a relationship of trust. We knew that their people understood not just the basics of real estate but how the bits and pieces of information fit together. That made the process much easier than bringing in someone who didn’t have a clue what a deed or a mortgage is. We also knew what HDEP was capable of doing and that they never promised what they couldn’t deliver. This comfort level laid the foundation for having them advance through the examination process.”
The History of Offshore Data Entry
American companies have sent large scale data entry work overseas since the early 1970s, taking advantage of lower labor costs outside the U.S. The first offshore projects went to the Caribbean, Ireland, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan and Korea.
As the world adjusted to new computer and telecommunications technologies, the early years were filled with glitches. But the advent of fax services, inexpensive e mail, high speed Internet and T1 lines made communication between offshore data entry companies and their clients flow smoothly and easily. Courier and next day mail services became faster and more reliable as well.
With the passage of time, countries developed their own specialty tasks—sometimes accidentally, sometimes because a country is geographically, linguistically, or sociologically closer to a particular type of customer. Economics also weighs in: Because of rising labor costs, Singapore, Taiwan, and Korea have proved unable to compete with companies in India, China, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.
Today, due to its proximity to large New York advertising agencies, the Caribbean is regarded as the center for direct mail entry. Several Caribbean nations are also becoming centers for everything from toll free and directory assistance to the processing of tickets for U.S. based airlines. Due to English language limitations, the Chinese tend to concentrate on full text data entry from printed materials. Companies in the Philippines, thanks to the strong English fluency of a large percentage of the populace, have gained expertise in difficult data entry tasks, including keying from public records, library conversions, and litigation support work.
In the title insurance industry, as costs have lowered and speed and reliability have risen, offshore outsourcing has become increasingly attractive. Title plant managers who face shortages of skilled and committed data entry operators locally now turn with confidence to established offshore firms.
The Quantum Leap
It’s one thing to key in information for a title plant. It’s another thing to search and examine documents to create reports. The nature of basic data entry is “key what you see,” and although real estate data entry requires some interpretation, the operators are still basically looking at documents and filling in fields. Searching and examining the documents requires additional training, as does assembling findings into a finished report.
That’s why, when Anderson first presented the idea to Virendra Nath, president of HDEP International, and Doug Bello, president of D. Bello Associates, Inc., they weren’t certain whether they wanted to take on the task.
Bello, a consultant who specializes in designing and developing title plants and works with Nath as part of an industry alliance, the Title Team, whose services include consulting, data entry, digital imaging, and Internet hosting, was initially more reluctant than Nath.
“When they asked us to consider doing the abstracts for them,” says Bello, “at first I thought, that’s not what we do. We should focus on building title plants. But the more I thought about it and the more I talked to Virendra, the better the idea sounded. There’s no reason in this day and age that this type of a job can’t be done anywhere in the world, as long as you have the necessary experience.”
Nath and Bello decided to accept the challenge and train a select group of their most experienced and motivated data entry operators in Manila to prepare reports for First Dakota Title.
“It was more than a minor step up,” says Shirley Thoelke, First Dakota Title’s operations officer, who in 1989 spent seven weeks in Manila training the HDEP staff in basic title insur ance data entry for her company. “The training required was over and above the usual, so it was a pretty big jump.”
“We had our work cut out for us,” says Bello. “It was an entirely different process, a different set of skills we had to generate. I would call it a quantum leap.”
“From the perspective of the title insurance industry,” says Nath, “it was a logical next step. With the current refinance cycle of five years creating a glut of business and with the difficulty of hiring and keeping motivated data entry personnel, the pressure on title companies to produce reports is intense. Outsourcing report writing can save them a lot of money and allow them to focus their management skills on expanding their companies’ presence into neighboring counties, rather than making sure they have enough data entry operators, title searchers, and examiners to keep current.”
Out By 5 P.M., Back By 8 A.M.
Bello prepared himself by personally generating one hundred reports from his office in Burbank, CA. In this way he could replicate what the staff in Manila would be doing. When he felt confident that he had learned the procedure, he went to the Philippines to conduct the training.
“In Burbank,” he says, “I was excited to be operating in real time on First Dakota’s system. Then I realized that at the end of the workday in Manila—literally on the other side of the world—the staff would send the reports and go home; when they came back in the morning, our customers’ feedback (from Sioux Falls) would already be available. It was as if no time had passed.”
The time difference between Manila and Sioux Falls works in everyone’s favor, because 5 p.m. in Sioux Falls is 6 or 7 a.m. in Manila, depending on daylight saving time.
“We send Manila e mails with orders attached in two batches,” says Thoelke, “the first at about four in the afternoon and the rest before we go home for the day.” The company sends an average of 20 to 24 orders a day, some days topping 30.
“When we show up for work at eight in the morning,” says Thoelke, “they’re back. And they’re done right.”
“It’s a 12 hour turnaround,” says Bello. “Like clockwork.”
Accessing the server over a T 1 line, the Manila staff accesses First Dakota Title’s title plant and image data base, searches the property and the GI, enters reports directly onto First Dakota’s computers, then sends an e mail to confirm the submission. After a senior examiner reviews the reports on the computer, the process is complete.
HDEP provides its title company clients with more than data entry, producing detailed exception reports that alert examiners to potential problem areas. It’s a relationship in which HDEP acts as a partner to the title company, acknowledging that both are involved in a complex process with high liabilities and experienced enough to intuitively recognize areas that require additional scrutiny.
“Another thing,” says Thoelke, “is that the typing is accurate. We’ve traditionally had typists in the office produce these reports, and we were always sending files back just for plain old, dumb clerical errors. That doesn’t happen anymore. They’re doing a wonderful job. And they’ve taken a load of work away from our searchers and examiners.”
“It’s worked out very well,” says Anderson. “We’re pleased with their quality and their accuracy. And it has given us an opportunity to expand our services without significantly having to expand our staff.”
The Learning Curve
Is offshore outsourcing of finished reports appropriate for every title insurance company?
“Back in 1989,” says Anderson, “when we were first considering doing offshore keying, we were cautioned very strongly to be careful who we were working with. But we decided to go ahead with it, and over the years our relationship with HDEP grew stronger. If we hadn’t had this history with them, our likelihood of outsourcing reports to an offshore company would have been very low.”
“People used to have reservations about outsourcing offshore,” says Thoelke. “Frankly, back in ’89 I had them too. But now we’ve been working successfully with HDEP for a long time. It’s the same as in any other industry, whether you’re outsourcing offshore or within the states: Your success depends on the relationship you have with your service bureau and your own willingness to provide the feedback they need. That’s a huge part of it.”
“When people call and ask for references,” says Anderson, “I always tell them to be very explicit in their instructions, so that everybody knows where they’re coming from and going to. You can expect it to take some time for everybody to understand the terminology and the ideas behind it. In this industry we’re all doing the same thing, but we describe it in 20 different ways.”
Beyond the Abstract
Abstracts aren’t the only reports HDEP creates for First Dakota. They also produce informational reports— basic profiles of properties, rather than in depth interpretations, also known as tract checks, letter reports or O&E searches.
“Banks want this information at a minimal cost,” says Anderson, “because they use it primarily for home equity loans and other lines of credit.”
HDEP also prepares preliminary commitments for First Dakota—generally those involving properties which the company has already insured in a previous transaction.
“Next,” says Bello, “we’ll be doing commitments on properties they haven’t previously insured. Who would have thought?”
“We haven’t gone completely down the road to having HDEP do every thing,” says Anderson, “but you can see where it’s heading. As they become more skilled and competent at what they’re doing, as they gain a greater understanding of the process, we can definitely move ahead in that area.”
“Today,” says Nath, “an order comes directly in, we search the plant, identify documents and review them, prepare a report, and submit it. The examiner reviews it, presses a button and prints it out on company letterhead. At a time when the title insurance industry is being compelled by customers to reduce costs and improve the timeliness of their prod ucts, this is an excellent way to do it.”
John Wythe White is a freelance writer with more than 30 years of experience in journalism, advertising copywriting, and corporate communications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.