E-Signatures at Work
With more than 2.5 million hours of power plant repairs completed by 6,000 contract workers last year alone, Atlantic Plant Maintenance (APM) depends on proper documentation to keep payroll and billing flowing.
“We perform electrical power plant maintenance across the country, and our workers move from site to site,” explains Kevin Fitzgerald, manager of IT for the Pasadena, Texas, company. “Getting errant timesheets approved and signed after our crew has left a site could take days or weeks. Without properly signed and reconciled documents, we couldn’t bill our customers.”
To relieve these headaches, APM embraced electronic-signature technology. “Instead of piles of forms, our field supervisors now carry notebook computers with an Interlink Single Pack ePad plugged into a USB port,” Fitzgerald says. “When a worker signs on the pad, his signature is automatically embedded into the electronic timesheet, which is uploaded directly to our headquarters.”
- Better straight-through processing (STP) capabilities
- Reduction of manual data entry inconsistencies
- Improved internal controls and risk management
- Regulatory compliance
- Better customer service
- Increased employee satisfaction and productivity
- Reduction of operational costs
- Greener operations due to reduced paper use
After APM implemented the pads in 2003, its express courier, document storage and administrative overhead expenses all dropped significantly, says Fitzgerald. “We also improved our billing efficiency,” he reports. “Plus, we’ve drawn favorable comments from customers for presenting a more professional appearance in the field.”
Because of these successes, APM is now expanding the scope of its e-signature deployment. “We’re in the process of extending use of our Interlink pads for completing incident report forms and tracking worker training certifications,” Fitzgerald says. “Both of these are critical to meeting customer and regulatory requirements in our industry. We originally selected the Interlink devices because they were recommended by our systems integrator, and they continue to be the best fit for our systems today.”
The Missing Link
APM’s experience illustrates the rewards of so-called straight-through processing (STP), which relies on e-signature solutions such as signature digitizer tablets from Ambir Technology, Interlink Electronics and Topaz Systems.
In a nutshell, STP is the conversion of an entire trade process into an electronic format. This shift fundamentally changes the legal nature of documents and record keeping: The electronic version becomes the original, and paper printouts are considered copies.
While many businesses have partially deployed STP, experts say e-signatures are the missing link. “In many industries, the promise of completely electronic processes has been discussed for years, but it really can’t exist without e-signatures,” says Steven Leigh, principal research analyst with Gartner.
With the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce (ESIGN) Act in 2000, e-signatures were given the same legal standing as so-called “wet signatures.” But the lack of case law has delayed widespread adoption. “Since legal precedents are more abundant now, electronic signatures are gaining momentum,” Leigh comments. “Over the coming years we foresee increased adoption of these technologies.”
Hitting a Milestone
Vantage West Credit Union, based in Tuscon, Ariz., can attest to the impact of signature pad familiarity. “When we implemented our Topaz SignatureGem LCD 1x5 pads at our teller windows in 2003, we spent considerable effort educating customers,” acknowledges Stefan Harris, assistant vice president of network technology at the credit union. “But a few customers still insisted on signing a paper receipt. Today, no one makes that stipulation.”
The ESIGN Act of 2000 states that a signature may not be denied legal affect solely because it is in electronic form.
Source: Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell
In fact, signature pad ubiquity has raised customer expectations. “This year we’re upgrading to the Topaz SignatureGem LCD 4x5 tablets for the larger, 4-by-5-inch display,” Harris says. “Our original 1-inch display pads only presented the signature line. Now our customers are asking to see all the transaction details on the screen before they sign, just like they are accustomed to at the grocery store.”
Regardless of the pad’s size, Harris credits the technology with contributing to his company’s achievement of an industry milestone. “We recently surpassed $1 billion in total assets, a mark that is unusual for credit unions,” notes Harris. “The signature pads definitely played a role.”
In fact, the records of the National Credit Union Administration show that less than 2.5 percent of more than 7,800 federally insured U.S. credit unions hold more than $1 billion in total assets.
Approximately what percentage of your company's processes could be (or have been) streamlined by using electronic signatures instead of pen and paper?
20% 11–25 percent
28% 0 percent
26% 1–10 percent
5% 26–50 percent
8% 51–100 percent
13% Don't know
Source: CDW Poll of 282 BizTech readers
Less Paper, More Green
Before it adopted e-signatures, Vantage West produced teller transaction receipts in triplicate. Inefficiencies began at the window and traveled throughout the organization as receipt copies were recorded, reconciled, scanned, filed and warehoused.
“With 11 branches, our transactions total approximately 175,000 every month,” explains Harris. “Even if we had moved to duplicate receipts instead of triplicate, that would be 175,000 pieces of paper our back office staff would have to scan into our record-keeping system and then index every month. To meet retention regulations, we would need to file all of those receipts into roughly 1,800 bankers boxes and warehouse those boxes for seven years. Just locating an individual receipt among so many boxes, each holding 8,000 transaction receipts, was an impractical use of resources.”
Not surprisingly, the scope of the challenges has led to benefits that exceeded initial expectations. “Instead of spending money on error-prone paper-handling chores, implementing e-signatures permitted us to focus resources on projects that promoted customer retention and business growth,” Harris says.
Going forward, Harris says Vantage West will leverage the larger signature pad screens for marketing and retention efforts, as well as for displaying transaction details. “We’re in the process of determining what types of messages will be most effective,” he says. “In the future, we’ll continue to take advantage of new ways to utilize the pads as new display technologies are developed.”
According to industry experts, the following best practices provide safeguards and encourage success when implementing e-signature technologies:
- Determine all possible uses to ensure purchasing sufficient technology.
- Begin with the most manual, resource-intensive and costly tasks.
- Factor in the intangibles such as enhancing security, confidentiality, integrity or compliance issues.
- Analyze onsite environmental factors for each task.
- Seek legal counsel for specific cases to ensure an e-signature process meets jurisdictional requirements, particularly when doing business across state lines or internationally.
- Design e-signature processes to enhance existing business practices rather than abandoning practices that contribute to organizational success.
- Field test e-signature process design. What appears well designed in IT or office environments might be unworkable in the field.
- Refer to electronic documents as “the original” and to paper as “the copy.”
- Invest in training to speed adoption. Incomplete or slow adoption rates can create risk and negatively impact return on investment.
- Create adoption champions by rolling out e-signatures to those users who naturally embrace change.
- Monitor adoption rates closely, and make training adjustments quickly to maximize project success.
Sources: Gartner; Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell