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After scanning virtually every document in their agency and converting them into Adobe Acrobat PDF files, producers in the Thousand Islands Agency, Clayton, N.Y., believe they have tamed the paper tiger.

When an agent wants to find a file, he can do so without having to leave his desk, says Edward Higgins, president of the agency. That sums up what Higgins believes is the key advantage of the automated document system his agency adopted only two years ago.

“Now, not only can I read any document, but I can also e-mail and fax it without leaving my chair,” says Higgins. “And since all my records are digital, I can connect to my office remotely if Im visiting a customers business and get any document I need.”

The technology requires an investment not only in scanning and imaging hardware and software but also in an intranet, to allow document storage, archiving and retrieval and to hasten workflow.

Vendors include Instar Corporation, Kennewick, Wash., which offers document management as part of its agency management system; Docucorp International, Dallas; Acrosoft, Columbia, S.C.; and LaserFiche Inc., Long Beach, Calif.

Although vendors are reluctant to quote prices, Higgins says he has found that high-end document-management systems range in price from $25,000 to $100,000, plus maintenance.

Lower down on the cost scale is the Online Policy Warehouse from Anacomp Inc., San Diego, which offers a Web-based policy-retrieval system.

Although its primary users are p-c agencies, it is suitable to any agency offering widely variable policies, especially involving frequent changes of coverage, says Richard Keele, executive vice president of global marketing for Anacomp.

Because Anacomp is completely Web-based, users dont need to purchase hardware or license software or hire people to run the system, says Keele.

His company provides an electronic connection to the agency, so at the time a policy is issued to the client, it is recorded automatically in Anacomps facility.

“If you were a broker or agent, you could log on to our site, and you can see all the policies you were responsible for,” he explains.

Charges are based on the number of pages ingested by Anacomps system but amount to just “a fraction of a penny a page,” says Keele. “We dont charge to look at the documents or print them from your desktop.”

Toward the low end of the cost scale is a scanner/software package called Paper Port, available from ScanSoft Inc., Peabody, Mass.

Higgins of the Thousand Island Agency says Paper Port enabled his agency to go completely paperless two years ago.

“For us, it was relatively easy because we had been transactionally filing all documents in our computer system for 12 years on a daily basis,” he says.

With the ability to convert any document to a PDF file, “anyone I send it to can read it,” Higgins says.

Recently, he was visiting a client when he realized that he had forgotten some reports he needed to discuss. So he had someone on his staff e-mail them over to him, and his client meeting continued without a hitch.

“Theres a tremendous value in having digital records,” Higgins says. “Nothings ever lost.”

With every Thousand Island agent equipped with a scanner and most of its documents already digitized, it took the agency less than a week to go completely paperless, says Higgins.

Most agencies, however, can expect the conversion process to take six to 12 months, he says.

Higgins has equipped each agent in his office with a $2,000 scanner. The Paper Port software costs about $90 per agent.

Documents are placed in files on the agencys intranet, so that all users can call them up as needed, Higgins says.

Although he has so far found Paper Port to be an adequate solution to his agencys document-management requirements, Higgins agrees that more expensive systems carry a number of advantages.

“They offer multiple sets of data controls, so if you change agency management or are acquired by another agency, you can easily integrate with the other agencys management system,” he says. “Compared to other systems, Paper Port is clearly a Volkswagen vs. a Cadillac. But it works for us.”

Another agency using Paper Port is LBL Insurance Services Inc., Los Alamitos, Calif.

LBLs staff shares client documents via its internal network, notes Larry Lambert, chairman and CEO of the agency. It inputs those documents using 15 scanners. “Everyone who is handling paperwork gets one,” notes Lambert.

“From a customer service standpoint, we can automatically go to any file to answer the clients specific questions,” he says. “It also allows us to track underwriting efficiently on all cases, allowing us to store notes so we dont have to be turning over paper all the time. That has made us much more effective and efficient. In the customers mind, weve become much more of an expert.”

Its possible, though, that LBL is outgrowing Paper Port. Lambert says he is considering upgrading to a high-end system that automates operations that off-the-shelf software like Paper Port requires to be input manually.

At least one agency says it is doing fine without an automated document management system.

It is still possible to function profitably with a paper-based system, says Dan McCleary, a principal of McCleary and Associates, Houston, Texas. As far as document management software is concerned, McCleary says hell take a pass.

“Wed probably be forced to go paperless if wed expect to be at this another 10 to 20 years,” he acknowledges.

But with both Dan and his older brother Clark McCleary expecting to retire in a few years, the time and trouble of automating seems not worth the effort, he says.

Besides, McCleary says he and his brother hold a decidedly unenthusiastic view of computer technology.

“It was supposed to save us effort,” he observes. “But were using a lot more paper and time” than before the Computer Age dawned at McCleary and Associates.

“When it takes so much time to learn to use new technology, you have to question whether you want to do it,” he observes.

Another executive whose agency has managed to live without document-management software is Brian Ashe, who heads an agency bearing his name in Lisle, Ill. Unlike the McCleary brothers, however, Ashe thinks it is inevitable that he will eventually buy such a system.

The main barrier to adopting the technology is that his agency is small and has no internal network.

“But we have talked about it,” he says. “I think the advent of wireless will bring down the price and increase the simplicity of file sharing.”

Ashe sees document management software as a way to improve efficiency and simplify record keeping, although hes not sure his office would go completely paperless.

“Theres too much demand for copies,” he says. “Even when we e-mail each other, people often wind up printing out the e-mail because they want the information memorialized.”

To go completely paperless requires discipline, acknowledges Higgins, who, in addition to his duties as head of the Thousand Islands Agency, is chairman of the Agents Council for Technology, a unit of the Independent Insurance Agents and Brokers of America, Alexandria, Va.

Higgins even insists that his producers use virtual “sticky notes” rather than real ones to add reminders to client files.

“You have to make sure every single person in the office accepts the notion of digital record keeping,” he adds. “If you allow exceptions, it falls apart, because then you have multiple filing systems. If you do not develop a consistent agencywide organizational model about how things will be stored, you can create a colossal mess overnight. If someone takes a different approach to digital filing, you may not be able to find their documents.”

He advises agencies planning to use document management software to first think through where they would put specific documents in an automated system, from agency performance reports and client insurance claims to incurred losses and insurance company contracts.

Although the system has helped Higgins trim support staff, he thinks its most important feature is that it gives producers more time for clients.

“We can do policy reviews every year with each customer because of the time we save,” he says.

Customer service has improved overall, too. When clients call and ask for a document, the service rep can reach for it digitally and e-mail or fax it immediately, Higgins notes.

But his agency has not totally banned paper.

“Paper is still a good display medium,” he points out. “If you have a 30-page document to show a customer, we are still going to use paper. But we no longer use it as a storage medium.”


Reproduced from National Underwriter Life & Health/Financial Services Edition, June 2, 2003. Copyright 2003 by The National Underwriter Company in the serial publication. All rights reserved. Copyright in this article as an independent work may be held by the author.