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Sandbox Discoveries

by Ed Higgins Chairman, Agents Council for Technology

Many of the technology applications agencies have in place are based upon the purchase of a specific product that was intended to be used for a given activity within the office. Even with all of these products, however, there still remain many every day needs that seem to go unanswered because there does not appear to be a specific product that applies. In reality, sometimes the technology we already have could be used to meet the need, if we fully understood its capabilities.

We have made several interesting discoveries during the past several months because we have talked with other agents and our technology support provider about our unsolved problems. When we get the chance, we also “play in the sandbox” with the technology that we have in place to see if we can learn any creative new tricks.

Ebix, our agency management system, has many beneficial features, but it cannot create an address label easily. Delphi PC/Elite, the previous generation product  could generate address labels in three keystrokes. Having migrated from PC/Elite, we were disappointed with this apparent shortcoming. After almost two years, we discovered quite by accident by “playing in the sandbox” that the system in fact does have the ability to create an address label easily, although not directly in the agency management system. When the user is creating a letter in the system which merges with Microsoft Word, it is possible to select Tools-Letters & Envelopes, and the program recognizes that the client name and address is held in memory for the letter and instantly creates a laser printed envelope address label with just three clicks of the mouse. This is as good as the former system. The fact that this is an indirect process through the integrated word-processor is not a problem at all, except for the difficulty we had in discovering the feature!

Our agency has used the computer-based fax application, Winfax, for incoming faxes. The incoming fax is immediately directed to print and gets processed with the normal agency work-flow. However, to create a full E&O documentation trail for faxes, we always printed a second copy on colored paper together with a complete log by month and then paperfiled this incoming log at the end of each month. This process was a very effective tool but took much more time than we wanted to allocate to it. A year ago we had implemented a scanning solution that allowed our agency to go paperless-- almost-- except for this second copy of faxes for documentation purposes.

One late evening while finishing a new server installation with our technology consultant, I was lamenting the inability to achieve a paperless solution for faxes because of the time it took at the end of each month. He paused, and then pointed out that the perfect solution was right under our noses! Our scanning solution which uses Paperport software operates just like a Print Driver. It could be used to print the second copy of faxes from Winfax at month-end. This new process has several advantages. First, the process takes less than 1/10th the length of time. Second, the process allows direct-digital conversion and eliminates the paper cost. Third, the back-up digital copies of the faxes are now stored at the server level and thus are available to every person in the office without their having to leave their chair. This process saves us 4-6 hours every month and provides enhanced CSR access to any past faxes. With our other applications, we can also e-mail or re-fax these documents without leaving the work-station. This solution might have eluded us for some time had we not had that casual conversation with our technology consultant who had a different perspective on the tools we had at hand.

We use Paperport, our scanning program, to store all scanned documents. While playing with the program one day in the “sand box”, we discovered a tool bar that created a whole new range of applications. The tool bar has both a “sticky note” creation and paste capacity, as well as a text generator/line drawing feature. When a scanned item needs follow-up, we can digitally store the item in a special pending items folder within Paperport and place the “sticky
note” on it to indicate the specific issue to be followed up.

We can also print an incoming form that arrives either by fax or e-mail and then use the text generator to complete the form and then return it or forward it without ever printing it to paper. We also discovered this application while exploring the software’s capabilities.

These are each examples of solutions to work-flow problems we discovered by “playing in the sandbox”. So, when you have some extra time some late afternoon or evening, open up some of your software and see what’s in the sandbox. You may just accidentally find a valuable time saving solution like we did. Look at it as a puzzle to unlock!

We also always learn from our discussions with other agents and our technology vendor or consultant. Technology conferences put on by our associations and user groups are also great places for this “tech” networking with other agents. It pays to focus on the inefficiencies in the agency’s processes and workflows and to consider how the agency’s available technology might be used to solve the problem.

Technology is fun because there are always new discoveries, and it helps us do our jobs faster and better. This leaves more time for us to focus on sales and on providing value added services for our clients. Playing in the technology sandbox can pay real dividends to the agency!

In addition to his ACT chairmanship, Higgins is principal of Thousand Islands Agency in Clayton, New York, a smaller independent agency with a strong commitment to the effective use of technology and efficient business processes. Higgins can be reached at This paper reflects the opinions of the author and should not be construed as an official policy of ACT.

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