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Introduction to E-Signature Services

The top questions to ask when choosing an e-signature service

It’s no surprise that the adoption of cloud computing is rapidly growing amongst small, mid-sized and large enterprises alike. Faster deployment, greater agility, and less up-front investment are just a few of the reasons why companies in all industries are considering consuming applications on the cloud rather than purchasing an on-premises solution that they must deploy and manage themselves.

As increasingly more applications are consumed as services, such as email, customer relationship management (CRM), and new business processing, the interest in adding electronic signatures to the mix has grown because it enables critical business processes to remain electronic. Bill Nagel of Forrester explains:

“E-signatures are an important element in meeting the increased appetite for moving critical processes to the cloud and consuming them as Web services.”

-  Market Overview: E-Signatures in 2010, Bill Nagel, Forrester, January 15, 2010

While many companies will continue to favor an on-premises, electronic signature solution in order to maintain control of the application and contain costs, this paper is targeted at those who are considering subscribing to an e-signature service. It defines the two types of e-signature services that are available on the market, dedicated and shared, and provides an outline of the most critical questions to ask yourself and your solution provider before making a decision.

Why Cloud Computing?
According to Gartner, "worldwide cloud services revenue is forecast to reach $68.3 billion in 2010" and "the industry is poised for strong growth through 2014, when worldwide cloud services revenue is projected to reach $148.8 billion."1 What is driving this trend? According to a recent cloud computing survey conducted by Mimecast, fifty four percent of those surveyed cited cost savings as the main motivation for moving to the cloud.

Rather than paying for a solution up-front as a capital expenditure and investing in the processing capacity needed to support peak loads, as is the case with an on-premises solutions,  some organizations are opting for a subscription or transaction fee model where they only pay for the actual services they use. This is known as elasticity. Further, because all organizations leverage the same service and infrastructure regardless of their size, industry or location, economies of scale can be realized.

Another reason organizations are moving to the cloud is speed to market. Because cloud-based services are readily available online, no time is spent installing, configuring and testing the application. With some services, there is no need to customize or integrate the application with other IT systems.

And finally, resource constraints are another issue that influence organizations’ decision to consume applications on the cloud. Because there is no need to deploy, manage or update software, cloud-based services free up already constrained IT resources.

Key E-Signature Requirements
While there are many compelling benefits for moving to cloud-computing, the decision to use an e-signature service should not be determined by cost, time-to-market, and its ability to free up internal IT resources alone.

Before considering any e-signature solution, whether on the cloud or on-premises, three essential capabilities must first be provided by the solution in order to ensure a risk-free move from paper to an all-electronic signing process. They are 1) ease-of-use, 2) security, and 3) evidence.

  1. Ease-of-Use. Ease-of-use is an important requirement in order to promote high adoption amongst customers and employees. Look for a web-based solution that doesn’t require users to download or install any plug-ins. Enabling users to immediately e-sign documents using nothing more than a web browser will dramatically minimize the number of people that abandon the e-signing process.
  2. Security. Security of the document and signatures is an essential requirement for ensuring your e-signed documents will be admitted into court should a legal dispute arise. If the judge has any doubt whether your e-signed documents have been tampered with or altered in any way, they simply will not be permitted into court as evidence. Make sure the e-signature solution secures the document using digital signature technology.
  3. Evidence. Producing convincing evidence entails more than just presenting an authentic signed record of an agreement. It also requires demonstrating that the process used to capture people’s signatures  complied with all applicable laws and regulations, and helped build their understanding of what they were agreeing to and signing in the first place. Indeed, recent court cases illustrate the importance of a well-designed process, backed by comprehensive evidence of what took place during an electronic transaction.

Bringing E-Signatures to the Cloud
Once you are satisfied that an e-signature service meets your requirements for ease-of-use, security and evidence, you then have two options available to you from which to choose:
a dedicated cloud service and a multi-tenant or shared Software-as-a-Service (SaaS). Most e-signature services fall into one of these two categories. The major difference between the two affect your ability to integrate and customize the e-signing process, versus not.

Multi-tenant SaaS solutions are shared by all subscribers of the service. The service is available ‘on-demand’ and does not require integration. Because it is a shared service that is readily available without any work on the part of your organization, it is the fastest and most cost-effective way to start e-signing.

A dedicated e-signing service, on the other hand, provides your organization with a unique instance of the software on the cloud so that you can integrate e-signing with your other front and back-end systems. It also enables the e-signing process to be customized for your unique business requirements, and for the look and feel of the application to be tailored to match your branded website. While the service requires up-front effort, it enables your business applications to be fully automated to achieve straight-through processing.

So how do you choose which service is right for your needs?

Top Questions To Ask
Ask yourself the following questions to determine whether a dedicated e-signature service or a shared SaaS-based service is better suited for your needs.

1. Do our e-signing processes need to be integrated with core e-business systems, or can they be driven by knowledge-workers?

An easy way to answer this question is to determine how documents are or will be prepared for e-signing. If you have a document generation system that is integrated with other core business systems, such as loan origination or underwriting, , you are likely  looking to achieve automated straight-through processing and, therefore, need a dedicated e-signature service that requires integration.

If, on the other hand, documents are created on-the-fly by employees or agents making the process more manual, then straight-through processing is not required. Sales contracts, non-disclosure agreements, and employee on-boarding are examples of ad-hoc processes that are well suited for a multi-tenant, SaaS-based e-signature service.

2. Is the business process structured or unstructured?

If the business process you are looking to automate using e-signatures is high-volume, structured, and repeatable, then straight-through processing is a must and requires a dedicated e-signing service. This will allow the process to be triggered by business rules and system notifications without any human intervention. This way documents can be automatically passed from your document generation system to the e-signing service and back  to downstream systems where the transaction was executed.

Alternatively, if your business process is ad-hoc and the volume can easily be supported by your employees or agents, then a shared, SaaS-based e-signature service may be better suited for your needs.

3. What level of customization do we require with regards the to the user interface design?

If you are bringing your customers, partners or suppliers into an e-signing process after they have started a transaction or filled out an application on your branded website, then you will want the entire user interface of your e-signing process to match your website as closely as possible. Otherwise the visual disconnect between the two may confuse your customers, or worse, they may abandon the e-signing process because they don’t trust it. In this case, a dedicated e-signature service is better suited for your needs.

If you, however, you are bringing your customers, partners or suppliers into the e-signing process as the starting point for a transaction or application, and they have no immediate prior reference point to your brand, then simply having your logo, company image will likely be enough to inspire confidence and trust in the process. A SaaS-based e-signature service in this case is suitable for your needs.

What level of customization do we require with regards to the e-signing process?

The level of customization that you require for the e-signing process itself will likely be determined by your automation and compliance requirements. If you need to automate which documents people see in a particular order based on their roles in the transaction in order to meet legal and regulatory requirements (for example a loan officer vs. borrower vs. co-signer), then the flexibility provided by a dedicated e-signature service is a must.

With a shared e-signature service, the process and workflow rules cannot be automated so the initiator of a transaction is in control of how, when and with whom documents are presented for signing.

4. What resources do we have, and how quickly do we need to get to market?

Resource constraints, infrastructure readiness, and time-to-market often go hand-in-hand when evaluating an e-signature service. If your organization has the budget and internal IT resources to integrate e-signing into your existing infrastructure, then a dedicated e-signature service is worth considering as it provides you with an extremely flexible and customizable solution that can easily be scaled across your different products, business processes, and channels.

If, on the other hand, you have limited resources and infrastructure to work with, (i.e. no customer/partner/employee web portal) then a shared SaaS-based e-signature service enables you to quickly get to market with the lowest up-front investment and without the involvement of your IT staff.

5. How important is it that the e-signing process takes place on our corporate URL?

With a SaaS-based e-signature service, the e-signing process takes place on the service provider’s website, so the domain name will be the vendor’s name and not your company’s. If you, however, you would like signers to see your domain name as the URL, you will need a dedicated e-signature service.

To determine which option is better suited for your needs, consider who will be using the service, and what perception or concerns your customers, partners or suppliers may have if e-signing takes place on a 3rd party website versus your corporate website.

6. Is the vendor reliable?

Regardless of whether you are leaning towards a dedicated or shared e-signature service, the reliability, financial viability, and performance record of the vendor are important criteria when evaluating a solution. This is a frequently cited concern related to cloud services in general, and a common reason given for going with an on-premises solution.

Not only is it important to examine the stability of the e-signature vendor, it is also prudent to evaluate the stability of the actual cloud infrastructure that their services are dependent on. In doing so, you will ensure that the physical security and data protection measures of the cloud platform meets your corporate and regulatory requirements.

7. How much vendor support do we need?

If your organization is leaning towards a dedicated e-signature service, then support from the vendor will likely be required during the integration, customization and troubleshooting phases. Make sure to ask the vendor what levels of support they provide as part of the base service so that you are not left alone to figure out how to work with the API. Also ask the vendor whether additional professional services are available for more complex e-signing processes in order to minimize implementation risks.

Because multi-tenant SaaS e-signatures are available on demand, subscribers do not require integration support. However, you will still want to ensure that the service provider has online tutorials to help you get started and to trouble-shoot any problems that may arise.

Use cases/Application examples

Below are examples of two organizations that are leveraging the two different e-signing services that are available on the market today.

SaaS Use Case – E-Contracting at Spanning Source
Based in Boston, MA, Spanning Source is an independent advisory services firm that specializes in out-sourcing and off-shoring solutions for the financial services, insurance and pharmaceutical industries.

As the demand for outsourcing steadily increases, so has the number of new advisory firms entering the marketplace. In the face of this growing competition, Spanning Source was looking for a way to differentiate itself by bringing the contracting process online.

A SaaS-based e-signature service was ideal for the e-contracting processes at Spanning Source because NDAs, legal agreements and project proposals are all uniquely created as the result of collaborative negotiations with customers. These documents are manually prepared and sent out to customers for review and signing.

With E-SignLive, a SaaS electronic signature service from Silanis, Spanning Source’s customers and investors are now invited to enter the e-SignRoom to review and sign documents. The company is able to put its best foot forward and demonstrate how easy and efficient it is to do business with them. They are able to conduct business in a secure online environment, and maintain control and visibility over the contract execution process.

Learn more about this solution

Dedicated E-Signature Service Use Case – Large Commercial Trucking & Transportation Insurance Company
A large commercial trucking and transportation insurance carrier helps drivers and the companies that hire them get the insurance coverage they need, and hit the road as quickly as possible. The carrier sells its products through a network of approximately 100 agents nationwide.

When a new truck driver signs on for the carrier’s insurance coverage, he / she must fill out an application form and sign the state-mandated coverage selection forms. The UM, or Un/Underinsured Motorist coverage form is often the final trailing document that requires signing. While the insurer waits for a new trucker to complete and return the document, they are exposed to risk.

The e-sign dedicated service is the right choice for this company because they need to integrate e-signatures with an existing agent website. Agent adoption is a major concern and the carrier knows they would simply not adopt a solution that required them to learn and work with yet another application.

Another unique requirement of the carrier was the need to include a coverage option check box at the time of e-signing. In order to meet compliance regulations, the e-sign process had to be modified in a way that typical SaaS e-signature services do not accommodate.

Learn more about this solution

1. "Gartner Says Worldwide Cloud Services Market to Surpass $68 Billion in 2010" June 22, 2010

More Stories By Robert Al-Jaar

As Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Silanis, Dr. Al-Jaar is responsible for the company’s product portfolio including its online e-signature service offerings. He also leads Corporate Product Management, R&D, and the Customer Advocates Team. Since joining the company in 2000, he has played a key role in making rapid customer implementations a reality and in bringing the company’s flagship desktop solution to the Web, and our web solutions, to the cloud. Over his career, Dr. Al-Jaar has acquired vast experience in automating and moving paper-based business processes into an electronic environment for an impressive list of clients, including Canada Post Corporation, DuPont Canada, various departments and agencies of the Canadian Federal Government, a global airline alliance, and a number of large national banks and telecommunications companies. Dr. Al-Jaar received his BSEE from McGill University in Montreal and both his MSc and PhD in Computer and Systems Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY.

Silanis' solutions have processed hundreds of millions of e-signatures since the company was founded in 1992 (50 million in 2010 alone), making it the most widely used e-signature solution.

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