How originators can use today’s technology to enhance their business.
Technology continues to be an essential catchphrase in the mortgage business, as we all endeavor to find ways to be efficient and more accessible to our customers. We are faced with an array of new “happenings” that we must distinguish from the real innovations. I would like to review some existing technology applications we can use today to our advantage as mortgage professionals. Most of these technologies rely to some degree on our use of the Internet, the one true revolution in the business in the last 10 years.
Virtual Meetings/Training Sessions
We are all accustomed to having to travel to meet with Realtors, managers, or other business partners, or to intermingle with associates at conventions and trade shows. To really increase our efficiency, we need to use the tools now available to allow us to hold some of these meetings and training sessions without leaving our offices. While this technology will never replace all personal meetings, it is clearly able to improve our efficiency and reduce costly, time-consuming travel.
The initial interest in pure videoconferencing has been followed by a focus on applications that allow us to share PowerPoint presentations and see live software demonstrations. The most popular technologies available include Webex Meeting Center, Microsoft Office Live Meeting, and Microsoft Remote Assistance (built in to Windows XP). Coupled with an inexpensive conventional conference call, you have all the requirements for a nationwide, virtual meeting. Thus you can conduct meetings from your office with associates in any other location.
When conducted correctly (taking into account the slight delay you get on the Internet) you can achieve a very satisfying virtual experience that can be set up with only a few minutes notice for all the participants. With the common availability of high-speed Internet connections, we can even achieve reasonable quality video conferencing if we want to add this additional element to our meetings.
The “Enhanced” Telephone
A simple tool such as the conventional telephone can be easily taken for granted. While we have just recently achieved historically low telephone per minute charges, we still tend to think of the telephone in a one-dimensional way—a tool to converse with one other person. The cost has become so relatively low that the user need not be concerned about the bill, and can just use the phone “at will,” a key requirement if we are to maintain ourselves as totally available to our clients.
Now, using a single master dial-in number, you can remotely forward that number to any location in which you might be, effectively eliminating any semblance of “being out of town” when clients try to reach you. Another variation on this theme is the automated attendant that receives calls, and allows you to selectively forward or take messages, on a pre-set list you can customize every day.
All of the major mobile phone carriers now allow the user to dial commonly desired phone numbers by speaking a name over the phone—a good example of voice recognition technology being used practically. This can replace the need to carry phone numbers around on paper, or to rely on a palm PC or laptop for purposes of recalling phone numbers. This can greatly help us in maintaining contact with our key customers and associates, and we never have to worry about forgetting a phone number.
Voice over IP (Internet Protocol) Telephony
The conventional telephone industry has been shaken up like never before, with the advent of phone networks that use direct Internet connections instead of conventional “landline” phone connections. These systems operate anywhere you have a high speed Internet connection, only becoming part of the conventional telephone system when the call is “dropped off” into a particular city for dialing to a particular number. The call itself is carried over the Internet as just another data transmission. Key advantages include very low cost for phone service, domestic or international, and a host of features which have not been available before. The user can be called to just as if they were another phone number on the conventional network, and the switching in or out of the Internet is not noticeable to the user. A Voice Over IP phone solution can be used anywhere. In fact, two VOIP customers may have phone service between each other and never enter the conventional landline-based phone system.
Because these systems do not rely on a connection to the local telephone system, there are some very interesting scenarios that one can find valuable in business. Some modern VOIP systems allow users to carry home a telephone that is an extension of the number in the office, to allow access to the office system while at home. Customers can call you at a dedicated instrument separate from your regular home phone, that you can carry anywhere you have a high-speed connection.
Another advancement in telephone technology is the availability of other “virtual” phone numbers, which will ring into your cell phone number. I now have local phone numbers in Sacramento and Dallas, both of which can be forwarded into my PCS phone automatically when I am traveling into any area served by Sprint PCS.
These virtual phone numbers allow one to appear to be a local company in that market. I acquired my virtual phone numbers from Vonage, which has been followed by other major conventional phone companies that are rushing to add Internet based phone capabilities to their systems.
MISMO stands for Mortgage Industry Standards Maintenance Organization (MISMO), and marks the best hope available to standardize the way data is exchanged between different vendors and applications that are a part of the mortgage loan transaction. These standards may eventually lead us to the true electronic mortgage, where a minimal amount of paper documentation will flow in terms of scanned paper documents. This technology is heavily based on the use of XML language in the way data is specified and transferred to other applications.
In spite of monumental improvements in computer speed and data storage, the loan transaction today is still burdened with more paper than ever. While we wait for the true implementation of the paperless mortgage, there are currently other options out there to reduce the amount of paper we use. Most originators are familiar with the use of scanners to turn paper documents into digital media on hard drives or optical disks, but there is one variation on this theme that many offices still overlook. What do we do with documents that we need turned into editable verbiage, and for which the paper copy is the only version available?
OCR (Optical Character Recognition) technology has been around for years, with varying degrees of success. It should be considered when we have information that must not only be scanned, but turned into editable text. Recent innovations can provide output that is ready to be used by Microsoft Office or even as Adobe PDF files. This type of software can even convert other graphics images, such as fax files, into editable text.
The cost savings and massive reduction in storage space are equally important advantages to any efforts we take to reduce the amount of paper files. This technology should be seriously reviewed today by any larger office “drowning” in a sea of paper files. Some larger players are now getting into this market, such as Del Mar Database, which has promised to couple its popular DataTrac product with an ancillary document scanning and filing system.
For the smaller office, remote storage and data vaulting services will allow the broker and banker to submit documents to a central escrow location, trusted by both, in an effort to eliminate the famous “misplaced condition” syndrome that is such an integral part of our business.
The Wireless Originator
There are only two things we need to be truly mobile as originators: phone service and access to our important loan files and associated data. The first requirement has been totally achieved with modern portable telephone technology. The second requirement has been reached to a degree, if we can take the time to look at several technologies that are all converging to give us “total access” wherever we are.
Using the 802.11 technical standards (a set of protocols adopted by industry and government) now in wide use, I can today move my laptop from my home office, to my regular office, and even into numerous hotels and other business offices, all while still having high speed Internet access. This capability can allow for you to also access your office computer and read faxes, or look up information in loan files.
When we are out of range of these localized wireless access points, which have a range of several hundred feet, we have another option also available. WAN (Wide Area Network) access cards are available from several national PCS carriers. These solutions are essentially the digital equivalent of cell phone or PCS service for your laptop. You can rely on this capability when traveling to locations nationwide that do not have wired or conventional wireless Internet. With the wireless laptop card, you can operate in any medium or large city in the United States, and leave this connection on full time if you need to.
Between these various tools, you can remain in touch with your office. Equally important, you can work in many different places such as airports and hotel rooms, as well as in your office, with minimal thought as to how to stay connected.
The Portable Back-up
The small floppy disk has all but disappeared for carrying smaller amounts of data. In fact, you can carry a USB (Universal Serial Bus) style portable storage device that fits on your key chain. It holds 256 Mbytes, or as much as a hard drive would have held 10 years ago. This device can easily transfer files from one computer to another. Most importantly, you can carry all your important loan files, PowerPoint presentations, and multimedia materials. Even if your laptop fails, you can be up and working in five minutes with a borrowed machine.
An even more significant use of these devices is the ability to effectively carry loan files and contact management files at all times, and to easily switch between your office computer and laptop. By maintaining a data folder on the USB storage device, you can simply unplug the key from the office machine and plug it into your laptop, where I can effectively always access live loan files regardless of where you are. The same applies to valuable contact management files, which saves the trouble of synchronizing two databases. A key advantage of this technique is that your data is never actually on the laptop. In the case of loan files, you need not be concerned that you have lost several dozen sets of proprietary financial data if your laptop is lost.
The net result of these improvements is that there is simply no excuse left for any of us losing data because it was too difficult or expensive to keep things “backed up,.” or to have to be concerned about identity theft concerns with proprietary financial data.
Adding Search Capabilities to Your Office
The Google phenomenon underscores the real problems we have with finding data and sorting it in some way that makes sense. If online search technology is so impressive, why not apply it into the office network now?
Google offers a tool called the “enterprise search appliance,” which allows a company to use the very same Google search technology you use on the Internet to find any desired information within your office network. In addition, Google is expected to be offering a product now code-named “Puffin” (scheduled to be a free download from Google), which would bring a similar search capability to your own personal computer files. If this is true, and the product is anywhere near as good as the regular Google, this promises to be a major usability improvement to personal computers. We would not need to be concerned anymore about the location of an important file, as the search tool would catalog these files based on our actual level of use of these files. Just imagine looking for an appraisal PDF file on your own machine by typing in “Albert Smith Appraisal Folsom.”
The “Digital Signature”
While key parts of the mortgage transaction, notably on the title company and recording side, are not yet equipped to handle electronic signatures, we can still personalize our marketing communications.
Since our key customers and business associates are comfortable with seeing our signature as a sign of authenticity, we should make this more available in our routine business communications and in marketing. I have been using my scanned signature within all communications that I send through ACT! for a number of years. This signature can be easily copied and pasted and then inserted like any other image.
If you want to send letters to your clients and feign a written signature, you only need to scan your signature and make it available as a standard part of your letterhead. If desired, you can fax this signature to yourself in high resolution mode, and then copy the signature out of the document using a simple graphics program such as Microsoft Paint, and save this image under the name “Signature.bmp.” By the way, if you fax the signature to yourself, it will still appear scanned if examined closely (I use a lower resolution scan deliberately in case others want to borrow my signature).
While not intended to fully replace the genuine article, the scanned “Digital Signature” can fill the void by allowing you to more fully personalize your communications and broadcast mail merge letters, while saving you the time and hassle of manually going in and signing every letter yourself.
There is hope even today towards that elusive fully digital electronic signature. Docusign.com has produced a product that allows the user to send documents for digital signing from any PC. After setting up the account that provides your electronic signature, the user can “sign” any document by placing their personal signature stamp anywhere in the document where “e-tags” are placed indicating signature required. This web-based service requires an account for the sender of the documents, and allows the receiver to set up their signature via email invitation. The entire process provides a number of safeguards, including locking and date stamping of all signatures as they appear in the document. A written audit trail is available with each signed document, providing a degree of security not available with conventional live signatures.
The Digital Business Card
In my business dealings, I am frequently asked to provide a business card, to be followed up by a resume, and perhaps several articles that I have written. Two fairly inexpensive solutions exist to provide all of these things within a single package for easy delivery to our clients.
Mini CDs can be produced for well under one dollar each, completely ready to go including protective sleeve, with custom lettering and even a unique shape. These catchy handouts can carry a full multimedia presentation on your product, an explanation of loan programs, your picture and directions to your office, and a link back to your own Web site.
This same methodology can be used by providing any customer with a web link to a private server location, where they can download the equivalent information that would be provided on the mini CD, and that can be automatically expanded on the user’s desktop. I use this customized file transfer heavily when following up with key customers, following a class or consulting session. I suggest Freeservers.com, which can provide you with web space for as little as $5 per month. Couple this with a simple FTP (file transfer protocol) program to load your files up to their location in a custom subfolder for each client.
These techniques go a long way to taking the traditional business card beyond a simple name and phone number, and providing the files and documents you would really like to give your clients, in a way they can always get to and not have to worry about losing, like they would with paper documents.
We don’t need to wait for further revolutions in technology to make ourselves more efficient. These suggestions should help any of us find ways we can be more effective and visible with our clients and increase our efficiency, as we deal with our competitors that are still locked into a “paper intensive” past.
By Stephen Breden