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September 1, 2006
By Tara Seals
WHILE ELECTRONIC BILL PRESENTMENT and payment (EBPP) continues to evolve, it is reaching maturity and providing a new opportunity for telecom resellers to save on operations costs and deepen their relationships with customers.
Overall growth of EBPP is increasing and continues to gain consumer acceptance, according to Forrester Research, which notes the growth rate for distribution (consolidator sites like banks) has surpassed biller-direct sites (company portals). More businesses are signing on for e-billing, the research firm notes. And on the consumer side, younger users (ages 18 to 35) are the biggest adopters.
With acceptance growing, more resellers are implementing EBPP as a strategy for opex savings and customer satisfaction. E-billed customers, especially those who pay through a banking site, tend to be savvy online users who are more likely to trust the cyber environment and reject paper a considerable cost reduction for the service provider in printing and mailing. Allowing self-care also cuts down on calls to the call center. Processing fees for financial transactions are fewer, as well. Electronic payment through a bank site is the least expensive to the biller and of the highest quality, says Matt McKernan, senior vice president of the biller business unit at CheckFree Corp., which provides e-billing solutions via company portals and consolidators, like online banking sites. As you scale you start to see the benefits the cost versus a credit card payment, for example, is much lower. Resellers can offer EBPP down through their distribution channels and going paperless can mean the difference between making money and not.
Nonetheless, going completely paperless isnt always easy, particularly among business customers. Getting corporate buy-in for e-billing is the challenge, says McKernan. There will be a level of education and marketing to the base, just as you would any other service. They have to get comfortable with the safety of such a service and the fact that its not new, and a more secure method than paper. So you have to be prepared to aggressively market it.
A hybrid approach is often a winning strategy, says Randy Minervino, vice president of sales and marketing at billing outsourcer Profitec Inc. E-billing should augment traditional invoice delivery or work in combination, he says, citing the example of a summary invoice delivered through the mail backed up by detail delivered electronically, and supported with a mechanism that allows end users to go online and research the detail. Customer self-care, automated service activations/de-activations and customer-driven trouble reporting are then all spillover benefits of e-billing applications, he adds.
This is exactly the approach taken by reseller TNCI. All our customers are business customers, and that requires a little bit of a different strategy, says TNCIs Len Camara, assistant vice president of IT. Most dont want to go completely paperless. They have accounts payable departments and so on, and they like getting something they can process. So we produce a one-page remit statement an executive summary with charges and usage per location. They can produce these [electronic] reports themselves, download to Excel, slice and dice. They can get CDRs in a text file and pull that into their internal systems.
TNCI loads in billing activity the day after it happens, so companies can get it even before they get their bill, to perform traffic analysis for telesales campaigns and so on. It also provides methods to pay online, and a PDF option so customers can print information.
A big benefit of offering so much online functionality is a deepening of the customer relationship. The relationshipbuilding characteristics of the e-bill is one of the biggest drivers for it, says McKernan. Choice is what the biller is offering and that furthers the relationship. Its another medium to communicate. Youre no longer constrained by a paper bill and envelope.
TNCIs Camara says it is creating a portal to deepen the relationship and put power in the hands of the customer. Its all about flexibility and choice, he adds. Customers want the services the way they want to be serviced, and providing that is a differentiator.
Reseller TMC Communications plans to launch its e-billing platform this month. Its a big priority for us, because if we do it online, we can make program changes faster, [customers] can do analysis better, and we can give them a real-time look at date, time, volume and trending, says Alan Nafziger, IT director at TMC. We mail a lot of CD-ROMs to our corporate customers right now, which ship with a call-detail and analysis tool. We can now offer that online. Also, we may not be the only provider to them, and they may do least-cost routing, so we want them to be able to see if were the cheapest at that moment without combing through all that.
While TMCs new EBPP system is straightforward in its first iteration simple change forms to interface with customer service and viewing of trouble-ticket status its a starting point for developing such a deep customer portal. Initially we wanted to get the base set of functionality out there rather than build the Taj Mahal and have it take years to go live, says Nafziger. Well be augmenting it as time goes forward, adding new functionality for customers and deepening our value proposition.
Daniel Lonstein, COO at AireSpring Inc., which gives customers online access to accounts and bills going back at least 12 months, also says e-billing is a differentiator for the reseller. We look to provide a richer interface and offer data that would be valuable to them, he says. We offer general reports on trends now, but well add some new reporting functionality soon to cover 100 percent of the usage data, to give people the ability to generate useful reports on an ad-hoc basis. Providing a superior customer experience is very important for us. Few people provide the types of reports that were planning, such as the ability to trend info over different time periods, six months for example.
As a reseller, AireSpring has four underlying providers and a nationwide footprint. A benefit to our customers is that instead of 10 bills, they get one, says Lonstein. And part of our valueadd is not only consolidation, but the ability to look at all that information and slice it and dice it holistically, which e-billing allows us to provide.
Many e-billing portals also offer layering, which supports channel marketing. For example, Profitecs end-user e-commerce system, OmniSignup, can recognize the IP address the end user came from, which identifies a sales channels Web site. It can then present different landing pages according to the sales channel that generated the Web traffic, so the incoming order can automatically be associated with the proper sales channel. Channels involved with resellers who require electronic payment can then observe the entire process flow and be assured of expedited commission generation through greatly enhanced revenue collection, says Minervino. When a proper electronic flow is established covering everything from order entry to e-billing, sales channels can engage in Web marketing, which drives activity to their Web site, and offer a branded portal facilitating new orders. The tangible evidence the consumer sees is a high-quality electronic delivery and a hasslefree bill payment, supported by the ability to manage their account online.
Another benefit is the ability to tailor marketing messages via electronic channels. The biller is able to send different messages to the end user throughout the bill-viewing process, depending on the channel, profile and the site. Anytime that you can drive an end user to an e-billing or e-commerce platform, you have an opportunity to engage in one-to-one marketing with that customer and deliver marketing messages and new product information to help engender an up-sell, says Minervino.
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