by Philip R. Davis & Gavin Duffy
The Internet will help propel title companies into the 21st century and allow them to become more valuable to clients. How does your office stack up?
The Chinese have a saying: “May you live in interesting times.” Actually it is more of a curse, but these are certainly interesting times for our industry, and whether we are blessed or cursed, may — in the end— depend entirely on whether we embrace or reject the technology that now surrounds us. In the last decade of the 20th century, title agents had been getting some benefits from what the media called “the Internet revolution,” but from the ground view, it hardly represented anything revolutionary to the average title company. The primary beneficiaries of the new paradigm were the large national organizations who embraced the technology in a race to cut expenses and create a competitive advantage for themselves, ostensibly “for the good of the industry.” How we went from 1985’s DOS operating system to today’s Windows XP operating system mirrors the change in the conceptual framework that operations have undertaken in the past 20 years. The old interface that governed the insurance industry for the past 200 years only survives because it continues to provide a common vocabulary for discussion. What we really need if we are going to move forward is a new framework that incorporates the Internet, the technologies that are now available to us, and the evolving business practices in our tumultuous industry.
How Far Have We Come?
How much progress has our industry made since 1985? Agents and underwriters had very different computer systems back then, and there was virtually no communication between the two. Agents would key data into their systems (often little more than word-processing applications) and then print forms that would be sent to the underwriter. Underwriters would then rekey them into their systems, sending back more forms for the agents to key back into their local computers. In many cases, the same data was keyed in four or more times before a policy was issued and the data was finally stored, unfortunately for the most part, in file cabinets.
This inefficiency put the entire system at risk as more organized banks and regional realty operations began demanding better commun-ications with smooth interfaces to their own systems. In other industries, we saw the result of this pressure; small, nimble companies ran with the torch of new technology and captured the market from the old standard bearers and injected new life and exciting competition into banking, real estate, Wall Street, and insurance companies (but, sadly, not so much into title). By letting the underwriters take the lead on technology for the past 20 years, title agencies did adopt better systems to allow computers to communicate with other computers, reaping the cost savings that come with increased digital storage and automated underwriting. However many agents lost an opportunity to make the most important connection of all: connecting with their clients.
Too many title agencies spent tremendous amounts of time and energy on technology only to satisfy themselves with internal cost savings in slow or no growth environments. The goal of a successful integration project should be to increase customer service and satisfaction, to make clients happier to do business with you, and to increase the amount of business you are able to do.
To move forward with technology, it is important to think about our business goals. Technology is not an end unto itself. But many of us have lost our focus and have become enamored with automation put into place to foster vendor relationships or underwriting relationships while returning only cost and time savings, without strengthening the underlying organization. Alas many title agencies felt tossed about like ships in the ocean while juggernauts cruised past, occasionally dragging them along in their technological wake. In the last four years, however, as we emerged surprisingly unscathed from our Y2K panic, there has been a shift in the power base as smaller, innovative title agencies have gained a measure of command of the new technologies and have been able to use them to great advantage to go toe-to-toe on a national scale with the industry behemoths.
The maturing Internet has changed everything, creating a real-time interface that gives us all the computing capacity that, just 10 years ago, could only be purchased through mainframe computer systems. Underwriters and vendors today are putting up Web portals, and customers are demanding more self-service opportunities from them and from title agencies.
There are many ways to increase efficiency and productivity by integrating various existing technologies, focusing on how they will have a positive impact on our relationship with our clients. Good system design needs to address several key areas:
This article will attempt to provide an up-to-date review of the available technologies with specific recommendations for the busy executive, but we urge readers to look at the big picture and think about how this will affect everything you do and plan accordingly.
How the Client Interacts with You
From the first moment that clients view your Web page, you are engaged in the sales process. Your interface with them needs to be a showcase for your company, providing a smooth, comfortable experience that will make them happy to return. Think of the Web sites that you use often and what you like about them. Do you get news and information? Do they remember your name when you come back? Do they remember your critical information so that you do not have to rekey it every time you do business with them?
Find out the kind of information that your clients would like to see on your site. Make it a reference site for them to go to on a regular basis, not just a site to place orders. For instance, include mortgage rate information, title news, local news and weather. Content on your site needs to be kept fresh and updated. You may need to outsource this work. In a ten-person company, one of those people should not have to be a Web designer.
If you are going to update the site yourself, use tools that are simple and cheap. Desktop content management tools like Fog Creek’s CityDesk, which assembles static HTML pages on demand from templates and content, then sends them over a server, can make routine updates a breeze, and Macromedia’s Contribute is designed to let nontechnical users update carefully marked pieces of sites.
An exciting new way to keep in touch with clients is called chat. Anyone with a teenager is very familiar with chat on the computer, and many of us use some form of instant messenger to communicate with our friends and colleagues. Now you can incorporate a real-time exchange of typed messages - like the instant messaging offered by AOL/Netscape,Yahoo, and Microsoft into your own site. You use your Web browser instead of a piece of dedicated software. Your client clicks a button, opens a window, and types questions to a live person who responds immediately. This will make your customers happy and give you a customer-service edge over your competitors. Vendors who offer chat software regularly promise that one chat staffer can do the work of “up to four” telephone operators. And sites struggling to turn lookers into buyers are sold chat as a technology that can cut the abandonment of shopping carts and close more sales. “Chat is fast becoming a key ingredient in customer-centric marketing, employing high-end software and hardware to make the customer/Web site interface immediate and profitable,” according to Business 2.0 magazine.
Once you have chatted with your clients and taken their orders, the next step is to process the files. There are many fine title-processing packages available around the country, and you would be smart to look for a package with tight vendor integration that will enhance your business relationships, not replace them.
Successful digital processing can have many advantages for your staff and clients including:
Solid design and usability features should play a part in selling products to your customers; a good system will pay for itself in terms of customer satisfaction and increased sales. The prevalence of document standards on the Web has enabled most vendors to integrate data into their documents and eliminate a great deal of processing on the title side of the equation. Look for systems that give you this capability—modernizing your title software may be the most significant step you can take to increase your competitive position in the marketplace. Old and comfortable cannot be an excuse for an inefficient system that is draining your precious resources.
The “Paperless” Office
The biggest mistake people make when thinking about the paperless office is that they view it as an all-or- nothing proposition. At Accu-Title, we have coined the phrase “the office with less paper.” Eliminating bothersome paper from our lives is a process. Rather than pursuing an idealistic paperless office, we should focus on creating an environment in which paper and electronic-document tools work optimally together and what sort of systems can best support a mixed environment. To be competitive in today’s fast-paced environment, paper must be trimmed down or, at the very least, managed effectively.
An ever increasing number of title agents are taking the first steps to change their reliance on paper. They are converting their banker boxes and file cabinets currently stored in the garage, attic, basement, or office, into digital images. A four-drawer file cabinet can be converted into a single CD. Thus in a space of less than one inch of CDs, you are able to store what used to take up 12, four-drawer filing cabinets. A huge space savings.
An even more dramatic result is the reduction of retrieval time. Electronic files allow you to retrieve documents from your desk in seconds, compared to the old process of trying to locate where the paper folder is, taking it back to your desk, and responding to the requestor. The amount of time saved can range from 20 or 30 minutes to days if your files are in an off-site storage location. Another benefit to the title company is that if the agency is ever sold, the value of a title company’s records increases substantially when they are stored electronically and properly indexed, versus records that are in paper boxes and located in the garage, attics or an off-site storage facility.
Making good use of tools such as bar codes, location indexing, handwriting recognition, electronic documents, and a continuation of Internet-based document storage and retrieval will result in a very competitive service environment. Larger computer monitors and the increased use of dual monitor workstations will quickly reward electronic document users as well.
Online Document Delivery
When I started in this industry in 1985, I remember begging my title agent clients to purchase fax machines so we wouldn’t have to hand-deliver documents every day. “That’s not a legal document!” was the number one retort. Online document delivery is moving along the same curve that was followed by faxes with government regulators moving towards ratifying the Digital Signature Act to allow closing documents to flow smoothly across the Web. Now when you run across a client or vendor that doesn’t use a fax machine, we consider that person “quirky,” although as recently as 1990 the fax machine was a luxury item that cost about a thousand dollars. In much the same way that you can’t imagine your business without a fax machine today, you will feel quite the same about digital documents—probably much sooner—as we have all become more sophisticated users, and the entry costs are nowhere near what they were for fax systems.
Although there is a well-known saying, “it is better to give than to receive,” It is certainly a lot easier to receive electronic documents than it is to send them on a large-scale basis. Most of us are very familiar with the simple concept of attaching a file or document to an e-mail, but how many of us think in terms of a full delivery system that serves up the hundreds of pages a day that you currently fax on demand to clients? Allowing your clients to download documents directly from your system is not for the feint of heart since you deal with the issues of security, storage, bandwidth and, dare I say it, viruses.
Once again, this is where a good software vendor will be able to help you. A 21st-century software package should include the following features:
Once you have all of these in place, you can proudly announce to your clients that you are fully online, ready to send and receive your documents in purely digital format. You will see a tremendous improvement in both document quality and availability if the system is managed correctly. Adobe is the industry leader in creating electronic documents on the PC. However, a stand-alone product is available from Hewlett-Packard called the Digital Sender 9100C, which lets anyone scan directly from paper, convert to an e-mail file, and send to anyone. It works just like a fax machine, but it sends documents right to your client’s e-mail file instead. This is a great intermediate step for companies who have clients demanding digital documents but are not yet ready to convert their entire operation.
For companies looking to maintain their own title plants, three areas should dominate your planning process: storage, indexing, and access.
Storage has become simple thanks to rapidly declining prices for hard drives and DVD burners that hold up to a year’s worth of files on a single disc. However, with an average digital file size of over one megabyte, digital files add up very quickly and can cause tremendous amounts of clutter on hard drives if not managed correctly. In addition to storage problems, large files can choke even the best of servers and fill your client’s inboxes with unreadable items all neatly tagged with your e-mail address so they know precisely who to blame.
All the storage in the world will not help you if you can’t retrieve the file you’ve digitized. Indexing issues are the classic example of the adage “Those who fail to plan, plan to fail.” An indexing strategy could be the subject of another article and can be very technical. But again, a good software package should help you out here, as can industry consultants like We Scan Paper, TitleScan, or West Central Indexing. (For a complete list of companies that provide imaging or scanning, visit the Technology Products Directory on the ALTA® Web site.) Even if you are not looking to outsource your scanning work, getting professional help in setting up a system along with an indexing strategy is invaluable as you move forward.
Access goes back to our previous discussion on bandwidth; you can have all the files in the world neatly organized and securely stored online, but if it takes you 20 minutes to download the files, are you really helping anyone? Buy the bandwidth. If you think having more speed is important at home, how can it not be in the office?
A very good way to determine if you need more bandwidth in your office is to test your current bandwidth at this site: www.bandwidthplace.com/speedtest/. Please note that results may actually vary from machine to machine, but this will certainly indicate the presence of a problem. The most important thing we can say to people who are thinking about converting paper files to digital is “Stop.” Stop thinking about it and do it. If you had done it last year, you would have one less year’s worth of paper in your office today, and all the work you did for the past year would be instantly retrievable and a valuable asset of your organization. Had you done it five years ago, you would now be in the top 10% of all title companies in the U.S. Had you just done it last week, there would be one less file cabinet in your office and perhaps a few dozen files that you would never have to ask for again.
You don’t even need to go backwards to start making improvements, just stop adding to the problem you already have, and every day it will get a little bit better. How hard is it to scan each file as you send it out? Surely it is worth the minute or so you will put into it now so that for the next 20 years, you will have it at your fingertips.
These are indeed interesting times for our industry, and title agents need to assert their vital role in the marketing, selling, and servicing of title, by using the Internet to provide better customer service to clients. By involving clients and drawing them into your site, you are drawing them closer to you, creating a true online partnership. Giving your customers control may mean giving up a little of your own, but the rewards are well worth it.
Philip R. Davis was the founder and president of Accu-Search, Inc., and is now the president of Accu-Title, LLC, a software provider and IT consultant to the title industry. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gavin Duffy was the IT director for Accu-Search, Inc. and is now the vice-president of Accu-Title, LLC. He can be reached at: email@example.com