Taming Paper in a Digital World

By Gerry Blackwell
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It's amazing how much paper still floats around in many small firms, despite all the investments in information technology that were supposed to produce a paperless office. You can eliminate a lot of paper internally if you try, but what do you do about the paper that comes in the door or through the fax machine?

Minuteman Group Inc., a 70-year-old insurance firm with 22 employees (and both retail and wholesale divisions) in Nashua New Hampshire, found a home-town solution four years ago when it installed eCopy ScanStation and eCopy Desktop from eCopy Inc., also of Nashua. The eCopy solution automates the scanning and indexing of paper documents, turning them into eCopy documents based on the PDF (Portable Document Format) developed by Adobe. Users can then file, edit, e-mail, fax or move eCopy documents around the office network.

The Paper Trail
Before it adopted the eCopy solution, the firm's professional staff dealt with voluminous paper files. Documents were occasionally mis-filed and sometimes lost altogether. Employees were constantly getting up from their desks to find files, copy documents, send or check for faxes. The whole business process revolved around paper. Clients had to come in to the office to sign insurance applications and other documents. Staff had to mail or fax quotes to them.

"It was unmanageable," says customer service manager Karen Hanks who remembers the bad old days too well. "We just weren't able to do business in a streamlined fashion."

Hanks says the company transformed itself into a virtually paperless operation mainly because of president and CEO Jon Barton's vision. Barton saw that the industry was moving away from paper, that some of the insurance companies his firm dealt with would eventually stop working with paper and send policies electronically.

"Jon realized this was the way of the future and that we had to get ahead of the curve," Hanks says. "So we invested a lot of time and effort in developing new capabilities. And he was correct, several companies have shut off paper — all the policies are on their Internet site or are e-mailed to us." At the same time, though, a few insurance companies continue to use nothing but paper.

Because eCopy was right in Nashua, its products were among the first Minuteman considered. There are other solutions, including some designed specifically for the insurance industry, but they were not able to do everything eCopy could. "We knew almost immediately that this was exactly what we wanted to use," Hanks says. For what she remembers as an investment of "a few thousand dollars at the time," the firm installed the eCopy solution.

" It was unmanageable. We just weren't able to do business in a streamlined fashion "

— Karen Hanks,
customer service manager, Minuteman Group Inc.

Digitizing the Trail
The eCopy ScanStation includes a networked scanner and an attached PC server that controls and automates scanning, indexing and initial filing. Minuteman was at the point where it needed to replace copiers, which meant that part of the investment cost in new scanner hardware would have been made anyway, Hanks notes. eCopy Desktop is the software that lets individuals manipulate and move eCopy documents.

Today, the eCopy ScanStation OP, bundled with 10 eCopy Desktop software licenses costs $3,995 without maintenance and support, $4,584 with a one-year maintenance and support contract and $5,224 with a three-year contract. Adding another 10 eCopy Desktop licenses costs $1,589 to $2,158 depending on maintenance options.

ScanStation can use virtually any networked scanner, but eCopy works with specific scanner manufacturers such as Canon. The companies that distribute scanner and copier products to small businesses sell the eCopy solution and handle integration and installation. It was through Minuteman's copier dealer that the firm originally heard about eCopy.

The eCopy technology also integrated easily with Minuteman's existing software systems because it uses the PDF file format for image files, says Cameron Lightner, the firm's IT administrator. In addition to Microsoft Office and Outlook, Minuteman uses AfW software, an insurance agency automation package from AMS Services that controls most aspects of the business, and Facsys, a fax server system from emFAST.

Reaping the Benefits
Minuteman clerical staff today scan virtually every piece of paper that comes into the office. This includes insurance policies, policy revisions, applications for insurance, requests for certificates of insurance and invoices, but also less formal documents such as memos from insurance companies and letters from policy holders. The eCopy documents that result from the scanning process are dropped in the electronic mailboxes of intended recipients on a central server. The insurance professionals then process documents and attach them to customer files.

"A transaction that used to take 15 minutes can be done now in a minute at your desk. We're able to function much more professionally and efficiently."

— Karen Hanks,
Minuteman Group Inc.

"It's critical to everything that we do," Hanks says.

The benefits have been enormous. For one thing, it makes it easier for managers like Hanks to monitor the professionals working under them. If a document dropped into an agent's mailbox is still sitting there a month later, unprocessed, the manager can see that, realize there is a problem and do something about it.

Professionals now no longer have to constantly jump up to fax or copy or retrieve paper files or faxes. Besides the time wasted moving around the office, getting up to do something with paper often led to other distractions, Hanks points out. Now they can stay focused and do everything from their offices. "A transaction that used to take 15 minutes can be done now in a minute at your desk," she says. "We're able to function much more professionally and efficiently."

Although professionals may occasionally scan a document brought into the office by a client, virtually all the paper work is handled by clerical staff, leaving the professionals free to do what they're trained to do. "We were so bogged down with paper before," Hanks says. "There's still some paper but it's much more manageable."

Clients no longer have to come into the office to sign documents. Minuteman can e-mail them PDF documents, which they can print, sign and fax back — then to be scanned back to the eCopy database — or sign electronically and e-mail back. And fewer clients in the office makes it easier for the insurance professionals to organize and manage their time.

The electronic signing capability is a huge boon to staff as well. Now if Hanks or Barton are away from the office and there is a crucial document that requires their signature, they can log on to the system remotely, sign the document and send it off. In the past, they would have to come in to the office or deal with mounds of paperwork when they returned.

Because all documents are electronic now, professionals can complete virtually any task remotely. This has allowed them to manage their time more efficiently. For example, if they have to visit a client closer to their home than the office, they can work from home until it's time to go the meeting. In one case, a woman slated to be off work for six weeks after an operation was able to start working from home after only two weeks.

eCopy also gives you enormous flexibility in modifying scanned documents. You can mark them up with easily legible text and graphical annotations and input text to fill in forms. eCopy also lets you quickly create PDF documents by converting electronic data — from AfW or even the Internet.

An agent could convert a number of quotes received electronically from different insurance companies to a single PDF, and e-mail it to a client for review, for example. And when business customers request a certificate of insurance, a daily occurrence, Minuteman can now e-mail them a nice clean copy, rather than a blurry fax.

"Clients are often very impressed with what they receive from us," Hanks says.

In fact, many eCopy benefits relate more to customer service than worker productivity. When they're on the phone with a client, professionals no longer need to put them on hold and jump up to go and rummage in a paper file to find the document under discussion. The document is right there on their computer screen attached to the client's file.

"It's a real competitive advantage just to be able to get the business done quickly and professionally," Hanks says. "Being first and fastest is sometimes a key. The only thing in a service-based business that differentiates you often is service, and we're able to service accounts much more efficiently."

Although Minuteman never developed a formal business case for eCopy, there is no doubt it has delivered bottom-line benefits, Hanks says. The company actually employs fewer professionals today than it did a few years ago because employees can get much more work done thanks to eCopy and other applications the firm has implemented.

There was a learning curve involved as there always is when changing fundamental business processes. It took awhile for Minuteman to realize that they needed to attach more detailed descriptions of documents to make them easier to find. In the beginning, for example, all scanned documents were simply labeled "image document." Today every conceivable type of document has a specific name.

eCopy documents are still occasionally mis-filed, though usually only momentarily, Hanks says. "There is still a margin of error, but it's far, far less than with paper documents."

Minuteman's experience with eCopy proves that it is possible for small businesses, even in such traditionally paper-intensive industries as insurance, to substantially reduce, if not entirely eliminate, paper.

Based in London, Canada, Gerry Blackwell has been writing about information technology and telecommunications for a variety of print and online publications since the 1980s. Just for fun, he also authors features and columns on digital photography for Here's How, a spiffy new Canadian consumer technology magazine.

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This article was originally published on August 25, 2005
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