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Title News - January/ February, 2005

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January/ February, 2005 - Volume 84 Number 1

A New Era for Title Plants

by Neal Morris

Two new developments for title plants present opportunities for revenue growth, higher productivity, enhanced employee satisfaction, and improved customer service.

Title plants are a significant asset for many title companies, a statutory requirement in many states, and a fundamental underwriting resource in many regions. A history of title plants would show that maintaining, retrieving, and analyzing their content has been time-consuming and labor-intensive. Through the years, typewriters, copiers, main frames, personal computers (PCs), and document imaging have each contributed to improvements in title plant productivity. Advancements in telecommunications, software applications, and other technologies have brought us to the cusp of a new era in title plant systems. These technologies have expanded our focus beyond just productivity to availability, content, revenue, market share, and customer service. New software products and service providers are emerging from this environment. The structure, scope, and methodology of the title plant model is being redefined.

Of the many exciting developments for title plants, this article will explore just two: Internet Publishing and Integrated Title Systems.

Internet Publishing: A New Distribution Model
Historically there has been some resistance to the concept of publishing title plants via the Internet. The prevailing logic assumed a competitive advantage might be surrendered, or the value of the asset might be diminished. There was also concern that competitors might acquire a copy of the title plant for a fraction of the owner’s investment. Profitability and competitive pressures have motivated title plant owners to reconsider these assumptions. Internet publishing represents a substantial opportunity not only to increase revenue but also to expand markets and improve customer service. Software applications incorporating e-commerce, state-of-the-art security, and retrieval limitations have mitigated these initial concerns. Internet publishing is a new distribution model that can add value, either through internal utilization, subscriber services, or both. The following will illustrate a variety of connectivity options, software platforms, and implementation approaches that support Internet publishing. Data quality and depth, marketing your title plant information, and the benefits of Internet publishing will also be discussed.

Connectivity - It is important to note that without current bandwidth availability, Internet publishing would be difficult, if not impossible. DSL is generally the least expensive telecommunications option, based on the provider and bandwidth requirements. DSL is more applicable to “plug & play” users, though it can be an acceptable solution for title plant connectivity. For professional or business applications, T1 or T3 lines or fiber optic are the preferred alternatives. However, these solutions normally cost more and require higher maintenance than DSL. They may also require specially trained personnel to maintain the system. If these telecommunications options are not available, cable or satellite vendors, such as DirecTV, may provide Internet access. The bandwidth on a dial-up connection is simply ineffective for Internet publishing.

Software Platforms - Internet publishing is supported by title plant software that compiles the data and images in an acceptable form. This software may be implemented and accessed in two basic ways:

  1. LAN/WAN. This is the traditional model for software implementation. Typically, software is installed on a file server and on individual workstations. Data and images are stored on the local infrastructure. Connections to the network may be maintained through a local area network (LAN) or a wide area network (WAN). Based on size and/or complexity, these networks may necessitate the employment of Information Technology (IT) staff. The job description for in-house IT staff might include resolving support issues, installing new or replacement software and equipment, and performing system backups and routine maintenance.
  2. ASP. An outside Application Service Provider (ASP) provides application hosting, eliminating or reducing the need for local infrastructure and IT personnel. Users can launch the desired software application directly from their desktop by accessing the ASP Web site. Data and/or images are typically stored at the ASP site. The ASP model also simplifies the implementation of new software builds and upgrades.

Implementation Approaches - Internet publishing can be successfully implemented under various models. A title company may choose to develop its own Web site, or the title company can work with a software vendor and other third-party provider offering Internet publishing services. In addition, some will license their tech-nology to you. The selection of the best implementation option for you may be determined by project costs, deployment schedules, and other factors. Consideration must also be given to the site where the data and images will be hosted or located.

Other Issues to Consider
Quality and Depth of Data - This is a key element in the marketability of any title plant. Data must be consistent and accurate. While this statement is simplistic in nature, its importance cannot be overemphasized. Title plant “depth” can relate both to content and time-frame. Title plant information may incorporate the following data elements: recording information, names, legal descriptions, property ID numbers, arbitrary numbers, surveys, abstracts, and property addresses. Data depth is augmented by the availability of the corresponding document images. From a time frame perspective, more is better. All other factors being equal, a 40-year plant is more marketable than a five-year plant.

Marketing Your Title Plant - Marketing your title plant is of equal importance with the technology available at the Web site and the quality of the data being published. If no one knows your information is available, the revenue, market share, and customer service opportunities never materialize. Marketing can be on local, state, regional, or national levels. Local marketing may include an open house, advertisements and articles in local newspapers, presentations before the local association of Realtors,® direct sales calls, and free or reduced-cost promotional offers. Direct mail, trade shows, and advertisements in trade publications are excellent resources for state, regional, and national marketing. In addition, many third-party providers include marketing assistance as a component of their service.

Benefits of Internet Publishing
  • Data and images hosted or stored at an alternative site can provide additional disaster- recovery protection.
  • Internal utilization for remote access can be more cost-effective than establishing a wide area network.
  • Revenue growth and market expansion can increase profitability.
  • Customer service and productivity can improve through increased availability of title plant information and reduced staff involvement in customer requests.

Integrated Title Systems
Integrated title systems can significantly improve the creation and delivery of title products and services. For purposes of this article, we will focus on the integration between title plant and document preparation software. However, the scope of integrated title systems extends to order tracking, transaction management, policy reporting, and other applications.

Why Do I Need an Integrated Title System?
An integrated title system is a tool for meeting the challenge of a highly competitive market by increasing productivity, enhancing employee satisfaction, and improving customer service. An integrated title system combines software products that share information to reduce or eliminate redundant tasks between the various departments in a title company. An integrated title system should also facilitate better communication, both internal and external.

 Guidelines to Consider when Selecting Title Plant Software

Margaret Steed, Project Manager at Ultima Corporation, offers the following guidelines when considering purchasing, upgrading, or changing title plant technology.

1. Have a Business Plan.
Determine why you are purchasing, switching, or upgrading, and keep those points in mind. It is extremely important for you to know your company requirements before you start evaluating software. Involve your staff in the process. Their knowledge is invaluable, and their ownership in the process will facilitate the transition.

2. Request Interactive Demonstrations.
Vendors should offer live and interactive demonstrations or “demos” of their software. Do not purchase any application without a complete and thorough demonstration.

3. Do Your Homework.
Analyze each software package on its own merits and comparatively with other applications. Do not be afraid to ask questions - you may have to ask the same question several different ways. Make notes and keep copious records of each vendor and product.

4. Examine the Technology.
Each title company will have different points to consider, depending on specific goals and requirements. Some general questions to ask: How will the technology interface with my courthouse? Does the vendor have a future growth path for the technology? How is the technology supported in terms of training and customer support?

5. Be Industry Specific.
Numerous document imaging systems are available today that can be implemented by title plants. However, not all of these systems are specifically designed for the application. It simply makes sense to invest in a product that was developed for title plants. Companies with a background in and devoted entirely to the title industry have a deeper understanding of your needs, particularly the complexities of title searching and abstracting. In terms of Internet publishing, there are title companies that have invested thousands of dollars with local Internet companies to develop a Web presence. These projects have experienced varying levels of success. An industry specific vendor is more likely to understand the complexities of the project.

6. Talk to Customers.
Get references from each vendor. Obtain references from companies that are similar in size, scope, and geography to your own title company. If possible, visit these sites and observe the software in a “live” environment. Keep in mind that advertising and marketing will always portray a software package in its most favorable light. The real test of any software is the satisfaction of the existing customers with the product and its support.

7. Consider Company Stability/History.
How long has the company been in business? How long has it been providing the specific application you are considering? Is the technology something that will be supported into the foreseeable future? What is the customer retention rate?

8. Know Your Contract.
Do you retain 100% ownership rights to your data and images? For Internet publishing contracts, who has access rights to your data? Are licensing fees onetime or annual? If you subscribe to a joint plant, do you receive a copy of the data and images if you cancel the contract? Understand your contract before you sign it.

How Does it Work?
An integrated system can transfer information captured through the order entry process. Data from the document preparation software populates the appropriate search fields within the title plant software. Data and images related to names, legal descriptions, property addresses, and other search criteria are retrieved from the title plant. After the appropriate information has been compiled, tools within the title plant software can process the search results and perform advanced functionality. When the title plant completes its tasks, information can be transferred back to the document-preparation software, completing the integration cycle.

Search and Examination Tools
Order-Centric Search Portals serve as the entry point in the title search and examination process. They allow multiple searches to be compiled in a single desktop workspace. After retrieving the initial search results based on the transferred criteria, search parameters can be expanded to additional names, adjoining legal descriptions, and other criteria. These search results can be resorted by date, first party, second party, document type, legal description, or other items presented in the search report. Reports and document images can be printed and/or e-mailed based on selected options.

Rule-Based Intelligence is a title search and examination tool (among other similar analytical tools), which assists examiners in identifying potential issues related to their examination. Documents can be categorized by type to facilitate the evaluation of the chain of title, encumbrances and releases, and other such matters. Color-codes can be assigned to examination issues as a recognition aid. Scoring systems are also available that calculate a composite score based on the value assigned to each examination issue. This composite score can be used for qualitative analysis and internal control purposes. If a composite score of “0” represents a perfect score, then a score of 100 indicates more examination issues and complexity than a score of 50. These scores can also be used for internal control purposes to assign tasks based on examiner experience. As an example, an inexperienced examiner might be instructed to refer any result set with a score over 50 to a more senior examiner. Rule-based intelligence and analytical tools can also produce requirements and exceptions that can be transferred to the document preparation software.

Implementation Primer
When implementing an integrated title system, the following suggestions can greatly improve the likelihood of the success of your project and your ultimate satisfaction with the end result.

Designate an advocate/champion. This person’s responsibility will be to encourage, motivate, facilitate, and mandate your transition to a new integrated system.

Develop a transition plan. The transition plan does not have to be a 500-page document. However, a written transition plan will allow you to measure performance, celebrate milestones in your transition, and resolve challenges and obstacles that may delay completion of the project.

Data quality is critical. The search and examination tools described above are highly dependent on the quality of your data. Data anomalies may be identified through the conversion process. These anomalies may be resolved programmatically through data engineering or other “scrubbing” procedures. It is important to realize that you are the most critical element in evaluating your data. No one knows your data better than you.

Consistency between systems. The consistency of information shared by your title plant and document preparation software is important. In the past, items such as document types and subdivision lists did not necessarily need to be consistent. With an integrated system, they do.

Evaluate your work flow. Change is seldom easy, but implementing a new system provides the opportunity to evaluate your work flow and make improvements.

Benefits of An Integrated Title System
  • Productivity increases as redundant tasks and processes are eliminated.
  • Customer service improves as products and services are delivered more efficiently.
  • Job satisfaction and employee retention increase as staff members produce their work faster, better, and with less stress.
  • Work flow and quality control improve as processes are reengineered.

A new era has dawned for title plants. Technology is the vehicle that can transport you to higher productivity, enhanced employee satisfaction, and improved customer service. Internet publishing and integrated title systems present exciting opportunities for revenue growth and work flow optimization. These types of projects require a significant investment of time, capital, and other resources. However, with proper management and realistic expectations, Internet publishing and integrated title systems can add significant value to your title plant operation.

Neal Morris is the director of Internet services for Ultima Corporation, a subsidiary of Stewart Information Services Corporation. Ultima specializes in title plant software and related document imaging applications. Neal can be contacted at 888-4ULTIMA.

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