Across most industry verticals, Covid-19 restrictions forced organizations of all sizes to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives as they adapted to operating remotely. Now, well over a year since the onset of the pandemic, businesses have experienced the benefits of a digital-first approach, and are now thriving in the new status-quo.
Electronic signatures are just one example of this phenomenon in action. At the start of the pandemic, they played a key role in allowing organizations to quickly pivot and ensure business continuity. Relying on wet ink signatures for employment contracts, supplier and vendor agreements, NDAs and more was no longer feasible in a remote working environment. Fast forward to the present, and many businesses have calculated the benefits in terms of cost, sustainability and time, and now view the adoption of e-signature technology as a no-brainer.
E-signatures in various forms have existed for quite some time. In the UK for example, the Electronic Signatures Regulations were passed by Parliament in 2002, as a result of a 1999 EU Directive. Since then, e-signatures have become increasingly commonly used in many private and public sector organizations. In 2014, existing e-signature regulations were superseded by EU eIDAS Regulation, which remained part of UK domestic law after Brexit.
Enabling the legality of e-signatures has given many companies, particularly those in the financial services, healthcare, government and manufacturing sectors, much greater convenience and security than traditional wet signatures. However, organizations in many other sectors have yet to expand their e-signature use cases beyond the basic ones that helped them survive during the pandemic. In many cases, these businesses are already paying for an e-signature solution to cover some agreements, so making the leap to new use cases would inevitably offer a greater return on investment, as well as bringing a whole host of additional benefits. Let’s explore some of these further.
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Create better customer experiences
Thanks to trailblazers like Revolut, Amazon and Spotify, today’s consumers have grown accustomed to fast, intuitive and highly personalized digital experiences. In particular, younger consumers have little appetite for navigating the legacy systems of many organizations, and will happily opt for a competitor if they offer a more convenient, streamlined digital service. It’s no surprise then, that “customer expectation for digital interaction” is cited as the leading reason for the adoption of e-signature technology by financial institutions.
Take the example of onboarding new customers, or account opening. In these scenarios, using electronic signature technology gives organizations a key competitive advantage. By removing the need for in-person interactions, or tedious printing and scanning processes, e-signatures reduce abandonment rates. What’s more, some organizations are taking the use of e-signatures one step further by combining them with video conferencing to help walk customers through complex agreements linked to high-value transactions.
Reduce operational costs and improve efficiency
It’s no secret that many employees are now working significantly longer hours than they were pre-pandemic. Businesses that reduced headcount to save costs when Covid-19 first struck are now struggling to hire qualified employees in a buoyant job market. As such, many are now leveraging technology to maximize employee productivity.
Adopting an e-signature solution can save valuable employee time that would otherwise be spent on menial, repetitive tasks. With wet signatures, this can include chasing signatures by phone and email to check a document's progress or resending an agreement that has been signed incorrectly. Plus, signing documents in the traditional manner often leads to unnecessary delays, thanks to the administrative hassle involved. By contrast, an e-signature solution can free up time for employees to build customer relationships and focus on revenue-generating tasks.
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Navigate complex regulatory and compliance demands
When regulated companies go through a compliance audit, they are often asked to demonstrate the exact business processes they have followed – both in customer-facing and internal transactions. A comprehensive e-signature solution can significantly reduce the administrative headache associated with this process. Rather than having to produce thousands of paper documents and email chains, advanced e-signature technology can provide a comprehensive audit trail of the signing process. This typically includes data on who signed, in what order, and on which date and location, along with timestamps linked to an IP address. Documents can even be protected with digital encryption technology, so that the authenticity of signatures is guaranteed.
It’s also worth noting that regulatory and compliance demands covering agreements can change quickly. This leaves affected organizations having to adapt their business practices and re-educate employees on new processes, a resource-intensive process that creates many opportunities for human error. By opting for a comprehensive e-signature solution, companies effectively outsource much of this burden to the experts – the solution provider – who will ensure the product is compliant in a particular geography.
Expect the legal uses of e-signatures to continue expanding
In many countries, electronic signatures and records now carry the same weight as any paper-based agreement. Thanks to the Electronic Signatures Regulations and the subsequent EU eIDAS Regulation, the UK was already well-positioned for the disruption caused by Covid-19. However, thanks to the pandemic, e-signature regulations have continued to adapt and modernize at a faster rate than ever before. For example, from 27 July 2020, the United Kingdom’s HM Land Registry began to accept “witnessed electronic signatures”, enabling signatories to sign and witness documents electronically.
Thanks to ongoing pressure from consumers, it’s likely that e-signature regulation will continue to adapt to cover more use cases over the coming years. For instance, organizations such as Companies House and HMRC still do not accept e-signatures. Plus, certain documents like wills must still be signed and witnessed in person.
Looking forward, as businesses across all industries continue to expand the scope of their digitization plans, e-signature technology will no doubt grow in importance, and be adopted more frequently. Looking beyond the pandemic, we’re going to see a much greater focus on organizational transparency, security and efficiency. The business world has certainly gone digital, and there’s no denying that electronic signatures will continue to offer key competitive advantages in the years ahead.
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Sameer Hajarnis, OneSpan