Lady happily looking at blocks of different software options.

Valuable Software Alternatives You Need To Know

With software needs growing, here is where you can find low-cost alternatives to top brands

You’ve likely heard the word “Luddite” before. This expression refers to 19th-century English textile workers who destroyed machinery that threatened their livelihood. Today, it serves as a shorthand to refer to anyone resistant to technological change. While undoubtedly an overused term, the real story of the Luddites exemplifies that you can’t stop the march of technology. Instead, you must adapt.

The truth is customer expectations have changed. Businesses need to deliver faster and be more flexible than ever before. To do this effectively, though, requires digital transformation, which can be expensive and time-consuming. In this blog, I will share some low-cost alternatives to popular software programs to help you in this process.  

Branding and Graphic Design

Competing for customers online requires digital marketing, and digital marketing requires proper branding and design. Unfortunately, programs like the Adobe Creative Suite can run you hundreds of dollars over the course of its lifetime.

An investment like this might make sense for some companies, especially if they are in design-heavy industries. But title agencies may only require periodic design work, making a free or low-cost option a better bet. Some potential options worth checking out include:

  • CanvaIf you’re looking for a turnkey, browser-based option for relatively simple graphic design tasks, Canva is a great place to start. There are both free and paid versions of the software, and it comes with tons of helpful templates you can use to start quickly producing social media graphics, flyers, logos and much more.
  • PixlrThose looking for an out-of-the-box editing tool will find a lot to love about Pixlr. You can use the solution to crop and resize images, adjust brightness, manipulate contrast, remove red-eye and add filters and effects.
  • GIMPGIMP is an open-source software solution with robust photo editing and other design capabilities. Unlike the other programs listed above, GIMP does require a download. But its wide range of features makes it well worth it.

Document and Word Processing

Word processors are among the most common types of business software, used in every industry. While popular programs like Microsoft Word are fairly affordable, there are alternatives out there that are less expensive and offer a comparable level of functionality:

  • LibreOffice Writer – An open-source application, LibreOffice Writer has been a leading alternative to more mainstream word processors for many years. LibreOffice has many features that will feel familiar to your average Word user, and it supports file formats like .doc and .docx. Best of all, LibreOffice’s open-source community is highly active, constantly refining the program.  
  • Google Docs – One of the most popular alternatives to Microsoft Word is Google Docs. Accessible to anyone with a Google account, Google Docs is a respectable word processor by any metric, including all the bells and whistles businesses need to create content assets. Even better, Google Docs offers its users an effortless way to collaborate within documents in real-time.

PDFs and File Converters

For document-heavy industries like insurance, having a reliable way to convert files and prepare PDFs is critical to developing efficient processes. Like Adobe Creative Suite, Adobe Acrobat and Reader are leaders in this space, but those looking for low-cost or free options have no shortage of programs to check out. I will talk about two of them here:

  • Foxit PDF Editor – Perhaps one of the most comparable solutions to Adobe Acrobat is Foxit PDF Editor. Loaded with features, Foxit PDF provides users with everything they need to manipulate, edit, redact and annotate PDFs.
  • PDF-XChange Editor – Feature-heavy, user-friendly and basically free, you can do a lot worse than PDF-Xchange Editor if you are looking to break away from Adobe. Seventy percent of the program’s tools are entirely free.

Do What You Can to Go Digital First

Although the events took place over 200 years ago, the story of the Luddites is surprisingly still relevant today. Technology will continue to march forward, and if businesses want to thrive, they must find a way to adopt the technology they need. Of course, this is a lot easier with unlimited resources. But as we see here, there are low-cost alternatives to popular programs out there. By deploying them, you can jump start your path toward a more productive and profitable enterprise.

digital transformation icon

Digital transformation is a business necessity

Digitization has changed business; how can you take advantage?

If you spend any time on technology websites or blogs, then you have probably heard the term “digital transformation.” In the broadest sense, digital transformation or “DX” refers to the adoption of digital services to replace non-digital or analog applications and tools. When digital transformation is done well, it has been shown to increase innovation, customer experience, productivity and bottom-line profitability. For agents, there are numerous areas where you can deploy digital technology for business advantage. In this blog, we will examine what you can gain from going digital, as well as some best practices for a successful transition. 

Benefits Of DX

Let’s look a bit closer at a couple of the potential benefits DX holds. First, digital tools can streamline incoming communication, letting customers effortlessly navigate to a specific department or agent. Switching to a digital phone system like voice-over-internet-protocol (VoIP) also give agencies additional functionality like automatic call-back features, call volume management, call monitoring and more. These tools contribute to happier customers, higher productivity and better brand awareness. 

Next, DX can help you develop a well-rounded, 360-degree view of your customer base. Flexible, scalable tools like customer relationship management (CRM) software serve as a strong foundation for a modern, interconnected tech stack. Other services can be layered on top of a CRM to create an even more comprehensive digital suite. Integrate your email marketing service to better target prospects. Interweave collaboration software to align your departments or agents. Whatever you choose, it is now more than possible to unify your external and internal operations for maximum efficiency through the power of technology.  

DX Implementation Best Practices 

To ensure your digital transformation is a success, never assume that the technology itself is a magic bullet. Just like any business initiative, DX must be approached strategically. The first step is to get a clear idea of the problems you’re trying to solve. Second, you must have the right culture in place. There is a wise old saying that “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” and that certainly holds for digital transformation. DX is a complex process. Without a culture that embraces change, experimentation and open-mindedness, it won’t be easy to adapt to new systems, solutions and tools.

Measuring the ROI of DX

Measuring your DX’s ROI is also a critical piece of the process. Unless you have clear metrics in place, it is difficult if not impossible to determine if your investment has paid off. Begin by determining the cost metrics of your digital transformation. This includes not only the direct expenses for new digital technology, but also indirect costs related to business network infrastructure, consulting activity, and staff onboarding and training time. 

Equally important is stacking these costs up against your value metrics. These could include bringing in more prospects, building out better customer personas, improving staff productivity or expanding company profitability. As with any business goal (IT-related or not) you’ll want these metrics to be SMART – that is specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timely – so you can weigh them easily against your costs.  

DX is Your Path Toward a Future-Proof Business 

Digital transformation is the way forward for any business looking to better engage with customers, collaborate well internally, while also safeguarding against future disruption. While not a cure-all, a well-executed DX can give you a clear advantage over competitors. 

Learn more about digital transformation.

Gutenberg’s printing press

Let’s Start Automating

For many people, automation can feel a tad unnerving, evoking dystopian fears of robots replacing humans in the workplace. While there is a kernel of truth here, the reality is that workplace automation has also already been helping businesses reduce inefficiencies and net higher profits for generations – going back all the way to the Industrial Revolution. Today, automation continues to move full steam ahead, providing future-thinking business leaders like yourself with the chance to optimize your operations and gain a competitive advantage. 

Demystifying Automation

What do we mean when we talk about workplace automation?

Automation means different things depending on the industry. But when you boil it down to its essence, all automation is really referring to is technology that reduces or eliminates the need for human involvement in a series of tasks. 

Automation plays an important role in our sector, with new and emerging technologies like machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data and more helping complete tasks with greater speed and dexterity. And when you add in an increasingly stringent regulatory environment, it is easy to see why title insurance professionals are turning to automation to push back against competitors, navigate cumbersome regulations and unlock value. 

Small Businesses

Of course, for independent agencies, gaining the benefits of advanced technologies can be challenging. But even when dealing with finite time and money, there are solutions agencies of any size can implement to ratchet up their profitability and create better processes. 

  • Customer relationship management (CRM): CRMs are essential for any agency looking to build out their tech stack. Not only do CRMs make it easier to generate sales leads but they also help agents manage their roster of existing policyholders. Learn more about CRMs on our blog.
  • Meeting scheduling: Modern business is full of meetings. Make it easier by deploying a free, automated tool like Calendly to streamline scheduling and avoid the annoying back-and-forth that can occur when trying to pin down a meeting date. Review some of 2022’s top scheduling applications and tools
  • Expense tracking: When running a small agency, every dollar and cent matters. Business owners need an easy, low-cost way to track organizational spending. Here are some of the most popular platforms for managing your spending. 
  • Invoice management: We have previously discussed automating your invoice management processes on this blog, and we will reiterate here how important this is. Whether tracking invoice delivery and payment status or reducing missed payments and simplifying accounting processes, this is an excellent automation tool to have in your toolbox.

Work Smarter, Not Harder 

Automation can be an intimidating and even unsettling topic, but at the end of the day, we are all trying to work smarter, not harder. Automation has played an important part in that process for millennia now, harkening back to innovations like Johann Gutenberg’s printing press and Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.  In our industry, automation can make a complex enterprise easier. From better customer management and easier file sharing and collaboration, the benefits speak for themselves.

CISA Cybersecurity Awareness Program 2022 banner

Get Ready for Cybersecurity Awareness Month

October evokes many things: skeletons, ghosts, pumpkins and, of course, Halloween. Yet for anyone wanting their workplace to operate efficiently and safely, October should be known for something else: 

#CybersecurityAwarenessMonth! 

This 31-day period is a perfect reminder for businesses to review and, if needed, revise their cybersecurity strategy for the year ahead. Let’s learn more about this awareness month and how you can seize the moment to fortify your company’s cyber approach. 

Where it All Began

Cybersecurity Awareness Month started in 2004 when the U.S. Congress gave October that official designation. Today, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and the National Cybersecurity Alliance (NCA) lead a collaborative, public-private effort to raise cybersecurity awareness nationally and internationally.

Each year, Cybersecurity Awareness Month initiatives are organized under a different theme, with 2022’s being “See Yourself in Cyber” – an urgently important message. It advocates for people to stop seeing cybersecurity as an inaccessible topic for the select few and instead view it as something in which everyone can play a role. 

Four Main Pillars

According to CISA, beginning to “See Yourself in Cyber” involves acting on four key priorities, some of which we’ve already discussed on this blog: 

By taking these basic steps to protect your information and privacy, everyone can gain more ownership over their online life and prevent costly incidents. 

Become a Cybersecurity Paragon 

The silver lining when talking about cybercrime is that more attention is being paid to cybersecurity these days. A trickledown benefit of this enhanced awareness is that more resources are now available that can help even those unfamiliar with cybersecurity improve their firm’s digital defenses. 

One such example are the efforts of the CISA. Each year during Cybersecurity Awareness Month, CISA invites interested parties to join them as “cybersecurity partners.” Those that do receive a toolkit with everything they need to audit their own security posture and raise awareness within their company and industry. Elements of the toolkit include cybersecurity 101 presentations, tip sheets, content assets and much more. 

Visit CISA’s website for more information and to sign up as a cybersecurity partner. 

You Can Prevent Cybercrime 

Do you remember seeing those U.S. Forest Service ads where the iconic Smokey the Bear would proclaim, “Only you can prevent forest fires”? You don’t have to be a marketing whiz to see the beauty of that campaign. Simple, direct and powerful, it outlines the essential role we all play in preventing a widespread problem that can carry a terrible cost if it goes unchecked. 

The same message holds true for cybercrime. A ubiquitous problem that can lay waste to individuals, businesses and even entire communities, cybercrime is nothing to joke about. If you’re a small business owner, for example, one bad attack can threaten your longevity as an enterprise. 

But instead of becoming intimidated and reactive, events like Cybersecurity Awareness Month can inspire us to become empowered and proactive. We can all choose to “See Ourselves in Cyber” and take action to create a safer digital community. 

Yellow background with alarm clock and color papers saying "time to update"

Keeping Software Programs Updated

Employ best practices to keep your systems running smoothly.

As someone who has been in the IT game for a while now, trust me when I tell you that “updates” is a word that comes up a lot. From business networks to cybersecurity, technology never stays the same for long.

Software programs frequently require updating to the latest version. Businesses need to have a plan for keeping software current and staff apprised of workflow changes.

A quick note on software updates

I’m willing to bet that you have some experience keeping your devices current. But what really goes on during a software update?

A software update can be viewed as a sort of “patch” for the current iteration of a program. Updates typically include a set of changes designed to fix or improve upon pre-existing software, including:

  • Removing bugs from code
  • Fortifying security
  • Providing new tools or features
  • Improving effectiveness

As you can see, updating consistently is important to maximizing your software’s value. But perhaps nowhere are updates more essential than for cybersecurity. When an update comes out designed to address security vulnerabilities, time is of the essence for implementing it. If you don’t, the software may become vulnerable to malicious actors, which can jeopardize the overall effectiveness of your business.

Putting it into practice

With so much riding on keeping systems and programs current, what exactly is the best approach for ensuring that each new update is promptly installed?

There are several strategies that can keep you and your team moving forward without creating a lot more work for yourself in the process.

  • Automatic updates: Whenever possible, enable automatic updates. These will keep your systems running efficiently and safeguard your business from security breaches.
  • Create an inventory: While it may require some heavy lifting up-front, establishing an inventory of all programs and systems can be incredibly helpful for staying on-top of security updates and software patches.
  • Stay apprised of update schedules: To avoid surprises, it never hurts to have familiarity with when certain vendors push out updates. Microsoft, for example, consistently puts out updates on the second Tuesday of each month. Adobe follows a similar pattern.
  • Create a personal schedule: When you are running a small agency, it may be difficult to find time to take care of necessary updates while overseeing everything else that goes into a successful enterprise. One strategy to overcome this is to set aside designated time each week for carrying out this work. Be sure to make it consistent week-to-week, month-to-month, and year-to-year, and don’t waver once it is established.
  • Communicate clearly: No one is an island in business, and changes to your systems and programs will impact the workflows of others. Clear and consistent information delivered before, during and after an update is critical when performing an update. Employees need to know what types of updates are going on, how long they might take and how it will ultimately impact their day-to-day activities.
  • A solution for your solutions: There is an old saying that the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and that holds true for something like software updates. If that sounds familiar to you, it may be worth considering adopting a technological solution for your software solutions.There are many tools that can make tracking and managing your critical software updates easier. Check out this article for more on getting started.
  • Hiring help: It is never a bad idea to seek out help from a professional for your IT-related needs, even if you have a small shop and minimal technology requirements. Of course, this can pose challenges for the small business owner, in that you must assess whether to bring on a full-time worker or outsource your needs to a third party like a managed service provider (MSP). Luckily, you don’t need to make this decision alone! Check out Alliant National’s blog about this topic, which you can read here.

Enjoy a secure system

The work of IT never ends, and this poses real challenges when it comes to software updates. Yet like anything else, solutions exist. Carefully planning your updates, staying hip to the latest changes and getting assistance when needed can help you strengthen the IT systems on which your business success relies.

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