Automated Forms End the Paper Chase

January 1, 1998

For all their cell phones and Web pages and laptop computers, many companies still process forms the old-fashioned way: Pull a master form from a drawer, into the copier it goes, then into the typewriter . . . again and again until all the documents are complete. Oh, brother.

“It only makes sense to let computers save you the hassle,” says Jerry McKeon, vice president of technical support and marketing for Max Broock, REALTORS®, Birmingham, Mich. In late 1996, McKeon piloted his five-office, 145-salesperson company into the silicon waters of form automation. He describes the trip as “smooth with a few exceptions.”

His reasons to go auto were almost comically compelling: Salespeople wasted untold hours finding and copying the manual forms. Then, as the forms were handled and photocopied, their quality would disintegrate to near illegibility. Not to mention the copying and printing costs that totaled “upward of $50,000 annually,” he says.

Another serious concern was the legal integrity of the forms. “Practitioners used to cut and paste them to suit their needs,” laments McKeon. “Who knows what clauses got cut?”

Zippity-Do-Dah: Instant Forms

After checking out several customized-software vendors, McKeon chose ZipForm, because it offered everything he wanted, such as ease of use and password protection, and its location in Fraser, Mich.

Instead of using the software company's ready-made forms, McKeon opted to have ZipForm convert Broock's 45 existing forms. That eliminated having to train salespeople onnew designs and wording, as well as having to verify the forms’ regulatory compliance.

That luxury wasn't cheap: Each form cost roughly $175--nearly $8,000 in all. Add in the cost of the software itself for five offices and ZipForm's annual licensing fee of $8 per salesperson, and the total bill came to about $11,000. Still, McKeon feels the company recouped its investment after only a few months.

ZipForm offered the basic software to Broock salespeople who wanted copies for their laptops or home computers for $100, a savings of 50 percent. Only a tenth of Broock's sales force, however, went for it. The rest access the forms free on office terminals.

If he could change anything, McKeon says, he would have weaned his people off manual forms sooner; a year after the automation, many salespeople still use manual forms. “People are reluctant to change,” McKeon says philosophically. “My goal is to eliminate manual forms altogether within a few months.”

To Manipulate or Not: Better Not

Once a practitioner enters basic transaction information into a computerized “cover sheet,” names, addresses, dates, and prices automatically flow into the appropriate places in whatever form the salesperson calls up; only data unique to the newly accessed form needs to be keyed in. “Best of all,” says McKeon, “the preprinted portions of the forms can’t be deleted or changed. They can be struck-through, that’s all.”

That’s no small matter, says Mary Stark-Hood, the National Association of REALTORS®’ managing senior counsel. “The text in some automated forms can be manipulated by anybody using them. That invites legal trouble.”

McKeon had the software developer disable the function that would allow manipulation. If the standard text of a Broock form requires correction, ZipForm will make the change and send it back for a small fee. Optionally, ZipForm (and other automated forms software vendors) can make the text manipulable by anyone with the right password, usually a broker or a manager.

Smaller companies may want to consider off-the-shelf forms-creation software, which costs no more than a few hundred bucks. (Most comes with federally approved forms and either state-approved forms or an order form that allows you to order those.) But plan on spending more than a few hours to key in the text, proofread it, and design the forms.

If, like McKeon, you favor the idea of using an outside company to convert your forms, you can trim costs by having fewer forms automated--say, only listing and purchase agreements and some often-used addenda and contingencies.

“Forms automation is the way to go,” says McKeon. “Financially, legally, logistically--we’re better off.” And it sure beats drowning in a sea of paper.

Find Auto Forms That Suit You

  • The Real Estate Center at Texas A&M University maintains a list of hyperlinks to nearly 200 developers of real estate software--“plug-n-play” type as well as those that require customization.Go to http://recenter.tamu.edu/.
  • Not on the list, however, is ZipForm, which can be reached at 800/383-9805.
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