Technology enhances clients' efficiency

November 2012 » Features » ENGINEERED SOLUTIONS
Online ALTA/ACSM package review makes firm a favorite with legal.
Tom Angert

Virtual Surveyor allows users to write notes directly on the survey on an easy-to-read Web page. Clicking on a note pulls up that portion of the drawing, eliminating the need to find it in the survey manually.

Coloring outside the lines is not exactly what most engineering firm leaders do. But one president understands that his job is to help customers do their job as efficiently as they can. This case study details the result of a vision that came from taking the client's point of view and turning that into a winning strategy.

Civil engineering firm Millman Surveying annually produces more than 5,000 legal packages for survey and land title purposes for large retail chains, property developers, hotel chains, and government clients across the United States. Client legal teams review these survey documents and are often under tight time pressures to clear the way for financing and zoning approvals. Legal review can be onerous, involving shipping stacks of documents back and forth between the survey team and client lawyers. As a progressive, customer-focused company, Millman Surveying continuously seeks ways to enhance service.

Envisioning better customer service
An early adopter of technology, Millman President Vince Macauda commissioned a local Web development company to build a complete online land title and survey review and approval application. The Web team was able to put together a working front end that allowed attorneys and paralegals to access everything they needed from the survey drawings. This really helped reviewers to do their job more quickly and clients loved what they ended up calling "Virtual Surveyor."

However, in order to turn an AutoCAD survey into a document that customers and their lawyers could interact with securely over the Internet, Millman CAD technicians were spending a day or longer to prepare views and link files. "We had a successful live application that worked really well for clients," Macauda said. "However, we had a real challenge on the backend. We wanted this to be a free service for our clients – to help them do their jobs more accurately and efficiently. Unfortunately, the initial system cost us too much in personnel time with the manual processing it demanded.

The all new Virtual Surveyor system automates document linking, and automatically finds and highlights property boundaries, flood zones, wetlands, building envelopes, parking, utilities access, gas lines, electrical, and more.

"One of our technical staff would have to go through the document and manually choose each line set, highlight it, and then save that layer. For each document, we then had to manually assign links to approval forms, photographs, and site videos. It was taking up to a full day to produce one online package. This was unacceptable, so we went back to the developer and asked them to automate the backend."

Version 2: Back to the drawing table
The developer was a good local Web company, but just did not have the technical skills to handle the CAD side of the problem. In the end, the Millman team looked for another supplier for help. IMAGINiT Technologies' Software Development Group offered the right blend of deep expertise on the CAD side and proven success with the latest Web technologies.

IMAGINiT's software designers spent time upfront with Millman to gain a full understanding of the requirements before producing a comprehensive specifications document. In the end, the team decided to build a whole new Web application from scratch. Macauda supported the new version, understanding that what they would get in the end would be a significant competitive advantage and that the first version was like a prototype – teaching them a lot about what they really wanted.

"One of the main technical problems we had to solve is how to get the drawing to load only once, but give users access to any part at any given time," said Gareth Marland, a senior developer at IMAGINiT Technologies. "The original application re-rendered the drawing from the server each time a reviewer changed views. This was causing some systems to hang and was frustrating for users. We used a combination of AJAX and Java to eliminate reloads and provide a seamless browsing experience."

The all new Virtual Surveyor system automates document linking, and automatically finds and highlights property boundaries, flood zones, wetlands, building envelopes, parking, utilities access, gas lines, electrical, and more. The new Web application takes underlying AutoCAD drawings and turns them into a fully reviewable ALTA/ACSM-compliant package in a matter of minutes – even for the largest parcels of land.

Easy access and accurate information
For any original survey drawing there can be many related notes – from five to 25 per drawing. Virtual Surveyor pulls drawing notes together on a single, easy-to-read Web page. A reviewer can click on a note and Virtual Surveyor will take them automatically to the pertinent portion of the drawing. Similarly, multiple people might be reviewing a package online. To help keep track of their collective comments, IMAGINiT built-in the ability to make comments on the drawing and then automatically push them into a Word document and incorporate them into legal documents.

Virtual Surveyor also reduces human error. The system walks users through their review, providing a checklist of each step – like a workflow for the legal department. "If you have to find all the places where utilities cross building boundaries, for example, this can be a tedious process," Macauda said. "With Virtual Surveyor, all utilities will highlight automatically with the click of a mouse. This helps reviewers detect clashes more easily and they in turn can report issues more accurately."

Another feature that reviewers find helpful is the embedded photos and streaming video. Customers navigate to a camera icon on the survey drawing, and by clicking on it, can view a photo or video of the site location. This reduces guesswork and increases a reviewer's ability to understand the underlying site situation by viewing the building or object in question.

An estimated 50 percent of Millman's clients are using Virtual Surveyor today, and more are jumping on board. The cloud-based system means customers can work from anywhere with just an Internet connection. "Some clients are intimidated by the new technology," Macauda said. "Then, when they actually get down to using it, they say 'Wow! That's amazing!' They can now work anywhere without having to cart along a desk full of documents and the speed with which they can locate elements makes their job a lot easier."

Attracting new business
Millman may have even attracted new business from one of the top three franchise operations in the world due to a demonstration of Virtual Surveyor that Macauda took to the National Bar convention. In the United States, this franchise operation – with thousands of locations – divides the country into 22 regions. Currently, each region uses local survey firms. One of their in-house attorneys saw Virtual Surveyor and then asked Millman to present it to their paralegals, who immediately saw the benefits of working online – leading to saving thousands of hours and making their operation that much more efficient. Macauda hopes to make them a national account. "The jury is out on that deal for now, but without Virtual Surveyor we probably wouldn't have as much of an edge as we do now," Macauda said.

There are probably hundreds of ways that you can improve your clients' experience working with your firm. The critical element is to put yourself in your customers' position and take that relationship very seriously.

There are probably hundreds of ways that you can improve your clients' experience working with your firm. The critical element is to put yourself in your customers' position and take that relationship very seriously. "When you are buying 300 franchise sites, for example, the legal review process takes considerable time," Macauda said. "We strategically automated as much of the process that we could to help make our customers more effective, and thanks to IMAGINiT, the system now works extremely well for both our clients and for us."

Properly applied, technology can help support most improvements to workflow that you can envision. The important thing is to take the customer's point of view and determine how to help them do their job more effectively. They will love you for it.

Tom Angert is manager, Software Development Team, IMAGINiT Technologies (www.imaginit.com). He can be contacted at tangert@rand.com.

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