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Hi-Tech vs. Hi-Touch: Are Companies Torn?

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May/June 1999 - Volume 78, Number 3

By Lisa Cole, ALTA® Director of Communications


"Hi-tech" vs. "hi-touch" is certainly not a new idea. This phrase has existed in the world of "Management Speak" ever since Tom Peters and other popular management gurus/authors started "wowing" readers worldwide in the early - 70s with their views of the business world. How do these concepts apply to the title business? Perhaps at this point in the industry's life cycle, this concept (and it's implied trade-off) has gradually risen to a position of importance in terms of its meaning and implications for the industry's future success, and therefore bears closer scrutiny. And if "commoditization" in the delivery of real estate information is really the wave of the future, as some experts have pronounced, how do we find that delicate balance? Or will hi-touch really become obsolete?

Three factors have contributed to these puzzling thoughts about hi-tech and hi-touch. First, as a relative newcomer to the title industry, it occurred to me after making the rounds at the ALTA® Technology Forum & Expo that title companies must be spending some substantial dollars to prepare themselves to compete in a world revolving around the latest and greatest computerized processes. At the same time, however, I saw in no uncertain terms that, like the Realtors where I was previously employed, title people see themselves as being very people-oriented because that face-to-face contact remains a crucial element of the overall success of the transaction. Finally, after publishing ALTA®'s Agent Characteristics Survey results in the March/April issue of Title News, I learned that recruitment and retention of employees are major issues for many title insurance companies today, and that many are paying out bonuses and top-notch benefits packages to hire and keep the best people.

Being a logical person, I reasoned that, based on the three factors above, there must be some friction between these two diametrically opposed, driving forces, processes vs. people, causing title company owners and managers to face some very difficult decisions, particularly concerning resource allocation. For example, if I purchase all the hi-tech goodies that I think I'll need to get up the technology curve and move toward "faster, better, cheaper," what will I have leftover to recruit, train, and retain high-quality employees in an industry where the labor market is very competitive, and turn-over is recently fairly high? Finally, all this takes place against a backdrop of record-breaking, unrelenting transaction volumes and closings. Companies are maxed out, and in many cases stressed out. How can either hi-tech or hi-touch help?

Re-thinking the Premise

Well, so much for my logic. After interviewing six people in the title business, and talking to many others (all of whom were eminently qualified to discuss these issues), I learned a lot. And I was wrong in my initial premise. Companies do not generally feel that they are being squeezed into making either/or decisions regarding investments in technology vs. investments in human beings. So although I have revised my initial premise, I am hoping that what I have learned during this process about how title people are looking at the whole issue of technology and the way that it impacts their human assets and business plans may help those who have yet to completely formulate their business strategies for the New Millennium.

Doing Both and Doing Well

The first person to set me straight on some of these ideas was Carrie Hoyer-Abbinante of Wisconsin Title Service Company, Inc., Waukesha, WI. Carrie told me right off the bat, "I see no direct relationship between the dollars spent on technology and on human resources." As I was trying to recover from this initial blow to my carefully constructed premise, Carrie went on to explain that technology, at least in her company, is viewed and used as a tool to achieve "better, cheaper, faster," while at the same time freeing up employees to do a better job of relating to their customers. For her, the defining issue is not one of resource allocation, but more one of technology transfer. How do you help your employees, all of whom are working at maximum capacity, find the time to learn new systems and feel good about using them? How, as a manager, do you help them up the learning curve?

The answers to some of these questions, and in fact the very nature of the questions themselves, differs from one market and geographic area to the next. While this is somewhat frustrating to those attempting to analyze industry trends using only anecdotal information, it is true nonetheless. In Carrie's market area, like many others, finding and keeping good escrow/closing people is very difficult, and bidding wars are not unusual. However, even traditional perks and bonuses are often not enough any more, and in some areas, closers are actually given a certain number of dollars per closing, just to keep them "incentivized." Mark Bilbrey of Warranty Title and Abstract, Inc, El Reno, OK, has a somewhat different technique and has garnered a great deal of employee loyalty by providing some personal touches of his own. Several times during the year, he lets employees know their contributions are vital, and personally delivers a $100 bill to each employee as a way of saying, "thanks."

Speaking of money, is there any leftover to send employees to training programs, after purchasing new computer systems and paying bonuses or other incentives? Most definitely, according to many of the folks interviewed. Again, hi-tech vs. hi-touch does not seem to be a zero-sum equation, and many companies seem to be doing them both and doing them well. Furthermore, it would appear that integrating processes and people may be the most important objective of all. When integration is successful, then and only then does the capability exist for such new and sophisticated marketing techniques as "mass customization," the business/management buzzword for targeting appropriate customer sub-segments and delivering customized products to them through computerized systems and processes. The end-product of this process is certainly "hi-touch" for the ultimate consumer while being both people-intensive and hi-tech on the delivery side.

Adapting and Adopting

So how do title company employees view the adoption of new technology, and how are their perceptions of it influenced by management? Again, the story is very different depending upon whom you ask and what part of the country they come from. In Carrie's firm, management makes a concerted effort to get people to let go of old (manual) habits in favor of new systems. New "toys" that are introduced are accompanied by an attitude of let's see what this can do, let people play around with it for awhile without a lot of pressure, and then help them incorporate it into their work without feeling threatened." This seems to be working well, but for Carrie, there is still a lingering issue of "learning to manage a whole new and younger generation of employees where there is no such thing as loyalty, and the employee can and often does go to the highest bidder."

For others, however, there has been somewhat less success on the technology transfer front. An issue for Mark Bilbrey, for example, has been an older generation of employees who are closing in on retirement and would seemingly rather fight (technology) than switch. Mark recalls occasions where older workers would rather quit (and actually do so) rather than adapt to new processes and technology. For some of these situations, there would seem to be no real "fix," and those who would rather quit than adapt or adopt will be weeded out of the industry in favor of younger, more computer-literate workers; on the flip side, those younger workers may understand and be more adept at technology, but they also know their value in the marketplace and are not loathe to exercise their own right to move on to other (read greener) pastures.

For Richard Patterson of Connecticut Attorneys Title Insurance Company, Rocky Hill, CT, business is conducted differently since Connecticut is an attorney-agent state, yet many of the basic issues remain. How does his company solve them? For one thing, to help handle the overwhelming amount of work and subsequent employee stress, they started an "evening shift" which permits them to push through additional volume without a concomitant increase in overhead. It maximizes their output by creating more capacity, using the same physical facilities. The evening shift personnel are generally part-time, so they are very cost-effective in terms of labor. What about technology transfer? So far, it's not too much of a problem. In fact, says Richard, "we have a 78 year-old woman now running a digitizer. Once she saw what it could do in terms of increasing her efficiency and that of the company, there was no question, and it has worked out very well."

The Real Trade-Off

In conversations with title executives, it would appear then that the real trade-off, especially in this operating environment, is in fact not technology dollars vs. human resources dollars but total dollars vs. time. Employee stress levels are at all-time highs, between learning new systems and technologies and pushing through those record volumes of business. What else are companies doing to help alleviate this kind of stress? After all, even generous bonuses and perks cannot completely compensate for chronic burn-out and off-the-charts stress levels.

Several companies echoed these sentiments regarding the importance of the dollars vs. time trade-off. In order to keep cranking out the business, keep up the hi-touch interface with customers, and keep the breakneck pace of adopting new technology, Ted Rogers of The Security Title Guarantee Corp. of Baltimore in Baltimore, MD, finds that increased cross-training and flexible work hours have really paid off. This works because the company is relatively small for an underwriter, its employees have embraced and even seek-out new technologies, and management feels that time is a commodity that can be used as an employee benefit. If someone calls in to take a day off and cross-training has provided a solution as to who will cover for that individual, that is a win-win situation all the way around. Additionally, the company has expanded its use of all sorts of temporary and out-sourced personnel to keep up with the volume of business currently being generated.

The Future is Integration

It is clear to me after speaking with so many in this business that the future belongs to those companies who can carry out the challenging balancing act of serving two masters: those companies that are both hi-tech (process-oriented) and hi-touch (people-oriented.) Most importantly, these companies are able to integrate the two powerful forces, with each serving and yet benefiting from the other. As the real estate settlement transaction moves inexorably toward complete automation, there will be a proportional need for the hi-touch element whenever and wherever it can be asserted. As Karen Koogler, educator and title industry futurist, says in her book, Technotitle: FutureFocus on the Settlement Services Industry,

"Your success (or lack of it) will be dependent upon your willingness and ability to foster strong relationships with your constituents - from consumers of your products and services to coworkers, - collabotition" partners, and other customers. Serve the relationship well (do right by people), and the relationship will serve you well in return. It's that simple."

Perhaps ALTA® President Joe Parker says it best in the closing paragraph of his message in this issue of Title News: "No matter what anyone says or what challenges we face in the future, the evidencing, servicing, and insuring of titles will remain a "people" business."

FOOTNOTE: Many thanks to the following individuals, who graciously agreed to be interviewed for this article and without whose contributions it could not have been written:

? Mark Bilbrey, Warranty Title and Abstract, Inc.

? Carrie Hoyer-Abbinante, Wisconsin Title Sevice Company, Inc.

? Richard Patterson, Connecticut Attorneys Title Insurance Company

? Ted Rogers, The Security Title GuaranteeCorp. of Baltimore

? Paul and Connie Sawtell, Real Estate Information Service

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