Resolving the Kitchen Bench Dilemma - why Heffron uses electronic signatures

10 Oct 2018

Meg Heffron

Managing Director

Like any business that wants to thrive and remain relevant to its clients, Heffron is always looking for ways to improve how we do our work.

Naturally we look for ways to get more efficient (clients love things to be done more quickly or at a lower cost) but we also have to calibrate that against the fact that most changes we make affect two very different client groups – the trustees of the SMSFs we look after and the advisers who referred them to us and who manage the delivery of our service to their client. 

That can be tricky – what’s great for the adviser may not be great for the trustee, and vice versa.

So we started using an electronic signing platform (Docusign) with some trepidation.

One of the main reasons we started down this path was to remove the long delays that inevitably occur when a large pack of documents is posted and needs to be returned

We have the uncertainties and vagaries of Australia Post (and the documents never arrive with the client anything close to the pristine state in which they left our office) but perhaps the most significant delay is what a friend of mine once described as the “kitchen bench effect”.

The Kitchen Bench Effect

We’ve all done this. A document arrives at home or at our office. It’s not simple to deal with it immediately – we need to read it, sign in a million places, often have our partner sign too (and they don’t conveniently work with us so we can’t do it at work) and then post back somewhere (and realistically, when was the last time any of us entered a post office?). So naturally it stays on the kitchen bench. Often unopened. For weeks. 

This was a major challenge in our business. It is not uncommon to reach April / May, a key deadline for businesses like ours, and still have 300-400 tax returns sitting on our clients’ kitchen benches all around Australia. Many will have been sent months earlier but still haven’t been returned. That is challenging and time consuming for us and our advisers (who don’t have a lot of control over their clients’ kitchen benches either) but even for the trustees – all of a sudden something they have been ignoring for weeks has become urgent.

Moving to electronic signatures

We took a random sample of the SMSF returns we sent out recently – those sent by Docusign are typically returned in 3 days. Those sent via paper are typically returned in 21 days. (And remember this is looking at the “typical” case (or median) rather than the extremes – some of the paper packs still set up home on the kitchen bench for many months!)

So moving to electronic signing definitely achieved what we wanted – but is it a positive experience for clients?

For some clients it is an immediate win – those where the trustees don’t all live together or where the financials arrive at a time when someone is away are over the moon. Equally those who know they have a kitchen bench problem are delighted that all they need to do is review and discuss the package with their fellow trustees and then the actual sign / return process is no more than a few clicks. Every signatory receives a copy of the signed documents at the end (no need to separately copy and post or email) and we are able to upload them to our portal virtually immediately once they are returned.

It also means clients are very aware of where they need to sign and whose signature is required. While our paper packages have often jokingly been referred to in-house as “death by Sign Here stickers”, it’s amazing how easy it is to miss one, sign in the wrong place, forget to add a date when there’s a lot to do. Many clients comment how much easier it is to just be prompted electronically.

The security benefits are clear too. 

We can be confident that our clients’ financial data goes directly to them rather than potentially sitting in a letterbox for days or weeks, getting lost in the mail or being delivered to their neighbour by accident. 

We can tell them where and when the documents are signed and even the IP address of the computer on which it happens.

Quite apart from the personal wins, many clients love the fact that Heffron and their advisers are taking this small step towards a paperless, greener future. And when you think about it, the impact of simply not printing a large document pack is huge - no paper, less toner, no transport, no special envelopes (which we needed to do our best to combat the battering documents inevitably receive when transported through the mail).

Were there any concerns?

In some cases it wasn’t initially obvious that electronic signing would be great. 

An early concern we bumped into was that advisers and clients like to work through these documents together face to face. The same applied for some of our trustees whose children belonged to the fund – they liked the idea of a family meeting where they really talked about their superannuation fund together. The act of signing the paper was an integral part of the whole process.

We found other cases where advisers and clients didn’t necessarily meet face to face to execute the documents but they did want the adviser to review the work before it was passed on to the trustees. Others simply wanted to ensure that the adviser received a copy of the signed package.

Fortunately, we realised we could accommodate numerous signing approaches that meet this need, for example:

  • Even before anyone starts signing the document, it is possible to create a PDF of the full copy and print it to share with others. Advisers and trustees can then review together on either paper or their own devices before completing the electronic signing,
  • We can set up the process so that the document is only forwarded to the client for e-signing once the adviser has reviewed and approved it or the adviser can simply receive a copy at the end. Just like sending out paper copies, we have tailored this to suit the adviser and their client – different people make different choices, and
  • We can even identify at a glance whether anyone in the process needs to be reminded that they need to do something. (Any of us with very full email in-boxes know that there is a kitchen bench equivalent for emails too!)

Whatever the preferred method, the act of actually signing AND returning still only takes a few clicks. Sometimes this is done on the spot where clients have access to their emails on a mobile device or others after they return home.

And in the end?

The most interesting aspect of this change is how many advisers initially rejected the idea of electronic signatures out of concern for their clients, only to discover that the trustees are far less concerned by it than they are. Even in the 12 months we have been using the system, it has become far more common than previously for all of us to sign contracts electronically – whether it’s buying a new phone, taking virtually any form of delivery or renting a car, we just don’t expect to see so much paper any more. Electronic signing in its many different forms is everywhere.

Not surprisingly the benefits of:

  • speed and certainty of delivery both to and from the trustees
  • ease of signing – particularly when accommodating trustees and advisers at multiple addresses
  • security, and
  • far less paper

are being understood and appreciated by all of us.