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Working remotely

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Malavika Santhebennur 14 minute read

The coronavirus pandemic forced businesses to adapt rapidly to change –overnight in some cases. Businesses and employees were rapidly asked to work remotely (or telework) if they could to adhere to social distancing measures. In this feature, Malavika Santhebennur explores what technological tools brokers can implement in their businesses to enable a smooth transition to working remotely over the longer term.

As the coronavirus pandemic unfolded across the globe earlier this year, more Australians were expected to work remotely to ensure they complied with stricter social distancing rules.

At the time of writing, there were approximately 5,000 confirmed cases of coronavirus and 20 deaths in Australia, with the majority of those cases appearing in NSW. Governments strongly recommended that Australians who could work remotely in their place of residence should do so to curtail the spread of the coronavirus and to flatten the curve and contain the exponential growth of cases.

Brokerages and brokers heeded this call and transitioned to working remotely. A number of brokers The Adviser has spoken to since the pandemic struck indicated they had already implemented measures to ensure their staff could work remotely (also known as telework or telecommuting) during the coronavirus crisis. These measures include embedding technological tools that enable brokerages to work remotely with minimal disruption to their businesses.

Brokers also suggested that those who had implemented these measures well before the pandemic struck were well placed to smoothly transition to working remotely for an indefinite period of time.

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On the flip side, Brett Spencer, chairman of regtech provider Opica Group, notes that those brokers who had not yet adopted technological tools are now being forced to do so in order to survive in the current environment.

“Change occurs when you have got no alternatives,” Mr Spencer tells The Adviser.

“Now would be the time for brokers to adopt the technology that’s available out there, including installing and using the CRM systems of their aggregation groups,” he said.

Smartmove CEO Darren Little concurs, adding that some brokers may still be running servers in their offices, or they might not have set up a virtual private network. He also wondered how brokers who worked on desktops could move everything home.

“The big challenge is that some brokers just weren’t set up and ready to go,” Mr Little tells The Adviser.

At the time of writing, Mr Little had closed Smartmove’s offshore business in the Philippines and the offices in Sydney and had transitioned to working remotely.

He said the brokerage uses cloud-based technology for storage and backup of data, files and all communication with clients so that every broker has access to it.

The brokerage has also prioritised data security, given that personal data is being utilised remotely. This includes installing two-factor authentication on all computers and ensuring all systems are encrypted through the installation of encryption feature BitLocker on all computers and laptops.

But it’s not just data security measures that brokers need to implement. In tumultuous times such as this, brokerages need to ensure they have embedded technology in all parts of the business to enable remote work with minimal disruption to their business and clients.

Embedding these technological tools would not only benefit businesses during times of crisis, it could benefit brokers in the long term after the coronavirus crisis has passed – through cost reductions and more efficient processes.

Connecting virtually with clients

Mr Spencer says it is not just brokers who have to be open to adopting technological tools into their businesses. Clients also need to be receptive to transitioning rapidly to the online world to adapt to the current environment.

“You’ve got to assume and hope that any customer that you’re potentially dealing with also has that capability at home, including having a webcam and the capability to get on to Zoom,” he said.

However, he notes that in this new environment, clients who work in an office environment would have access to technological tools.

Mr Spencer and others in the industry recommend that brokers use video conferencing tools such as FaceTime, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Skype for Business or GoToMeetings to conduct virtual face-to-face meetings with clients.

To verify applicants’ expenses, Mr Spencer notes that tools such as Opica Group’s responsible lending tool RELIE forgo the need to have physical bank statements.

Clients can email forms and documents to brokers, who can then verify the expenses. Alternatively, brokers can send clients the credentials and they can do it digitally themselves.

“You can have that interaction with the customer to get their verification documents, to get their loan statements and account documents and then to verify what their spending and income habits are,” Mr Spencer says.

“That can all be done remotely, and it’s done that way today. Our brokers and lenders who are using RELIE are already using that method.”

Dalibor Ivkovic, the CEO of Salestrekker, says the company’s client relationship management software has built-in video conferencing tools, which allow brokers to conduct meetings with clients as well as collect, scan and upload documents. Clients can also upload documents from their devices.

“We can record the meetings and have it saved for some level of know-your-client identification,” Mr Ivkovic says.

Meanwhile, lending marketplace HashChing has built a broker app, which allows brokers to communicate with clients while “on the run”. The app allows brokers to conduct video calls, send SMS and book “virtual” meetings. It also allows brokers to request customers to upload documents like bank statements and identification documents.

HashChing CEO Arun Maharaj claims that his firm is the only platform with a broker app, adding that these sorts of tools are required in the current environment where brokers need to maintain contact with their client remotely.

In terms of conducting a fact find for new clients, Mr Maharaj says his firm’s fact find tool is via an automatic SMS, which the broker can set up.

Once the broker sets it up, the client receives a series of questions, which they can confirm by responding with “yes” or “no”.

“The broker data and the system get updated in real time the moment the client responds to the questions via SMS,” Mr Maharaj says.

For uploading documents, clients have a separate dashboard, which the broker creates for them automatically. The client can log in to the dashboard to upload documents such as bank statements, forms and payslips, which the broker can then access.

VOI in the time of coronavirus

It is not just broker workplaces that have had to think on their feet and adapt rapidly to the changing environment since the coronavirus pandemic struck the globe. Lenders have had to keep pace by examining and changing their policies on verification of identity (VOI) to evolve quickly to accommodate the need to maintain social distancing.

All states (but not the territories) require those writing mortgages to undertake reasonable steps to verify the identities of mortgagors through a framework called the VOI standard. This is undertaken by specialised identity agents such as lawyers or other agents with professional indemnity insurance.

The VOI standard requires a face-to-face interview to be conducted by an identity agent with the mortgagor.

However, in light of the strict social distancing rules announced by the federal government in March to contain the spread of the coronavirus, the Australian Registrars’ National Electronic Conveyancing Council released a statement stating that while the VOI standard “requires a face-to-face, in-person interview, compliance with the [VOI] standard is not mandatory… a subscriber can verify the identity of their client or customer in a way that constitutes reasonable steps… For example, in the current COVID-19 environment, subscribers might like to consider using video technology as part of the verification of identity process”.

Law practice and regtech solutions provider MaxID says its legal and technology services allow any individual acceptable to MaxID to assist with the process. The firm requires no physical contact between a broker, their client or the lender to provide a VOI standard “safe harbour” compliant identity verification.

Co-founder Fraser Todd tells The Adviser that borrowers can undertake an in-person, face-to-face interview at home or at a location of the borrower’s choice with someone they trust (who is verified by MaxID). The technology platform is then used to collect required information and documentation during the face-to-face, in-person meeting. Once the information is collected, it is reviewed by MaxID and, when acceptable, a VOI report from the law practice certifying compliance with the VOI standard is delivered directly to the lender – and the broker, if required.

A new document verification service (DVS) has also been rolled out by technology solutions provider NextGen.Net.

While the tool was expected to be released by the end of the  first quarter 2020 (see the March edition of The Adviser magazine for more), the launch accelerated in order to assist lenders and brokers in meeting their obligations in customer identification amid social distancing measures.

The DVS, which is integrated within ApplyOnline, integrates with 22 federal and state-based government databases to validate a borrower’s identity against official documents like passports, Medicare, citizenship certificates and driver’s licences.

It aims to validate the borrower’s identity documents quickly and accurately while forgoing the need to have an original document or copy of that document.

As NextGen.Net chief customer officer Tony Carn notes, the new technology also removes the need for face-to-face interaction in the current climate of strict social distancing measures.

“Everyone in every part of the globe is grappling with the impact of COVID-19, and our industry is no exception,” Mr Carn says.

“Many lenders and brokers are rapidly reassessing and updating their in-person, face-to-face policies and ID check procedures, which have been significantly impacted during this pandemic.

“That’s why we’ve accelerated the release of this new tool, which is critical in today’s environment,” he says.

By using a secure online system managed by the Department of Home Affairs, NextGen.Net adds that it is also an “accurate, up-to-date and independent source for identity verification”.

The banks’ stance

Following the introduction of social distancing rules, various banks simultaneously announced modifications to their VOI policies.

For example, non-major bank ME Bank said brokers may use digital platforms – such as Skype and FaceTime – to interview clients and complete the VOI. It said that when conducting the VOI, the client must show the broker the required original documentation via the digital platform, which must be clearly visible on screen. However, brokers must record details of the original identification documents and make a note that Skype or Facetime was used to identify the client.

Macquarie Bank said brokers are allowed to use ZipID for the VOI process, but emphasised that if the client is unwell or in quarantine, they must wait for their quarantine period to conclude before completing the VOI process.

Meanwhile, major bank Westpac had announced that it was revisiting its policies and procedures around VOI processes and acknowledged that the area remains a key concern for brokers.

Mr Spencer urges lenders to move quickly to reduce their requirements around the visual identification to enable online, face-to-face verification processes.

“If a lender does that, then I think the world will just travel as normal,” he says.

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Malavika Santhebennur

Malavika Santhebennur

Malavika Santhebennur is the features editor on the mortgages titles at Momentum Media.

Before joining the team in 2019, Malavika held roles with Money Management and Benchmark Media. She has been writing about financial services for the past six years.

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