Billing is back on the agenda – not just because Amdocs bought Openet – and whether we still call it billing is not as important as getting it right and giving it to the customer the way he wants it.
A couple of decades ago, billing changed quite suddenly and became a key differentiator in a battle for market share, triggered by the introduction of competition in the telecoms market. It grew because telecoms companies could introduce a new price or product relatively fast and relatively inexpensively by buying one of the then new breed of systems (bear in mind we are still talking hundreds of thousands of dollars).
Billing vendors grew in number too. At one point in the mid-1990s there were 150 vendors (put your hand up if you remember/worked with Solution 42, Xacct, Geneva, Kingston SCL, Portal or, well, many others). Then the telecoms bubble burst and frighteningly quickly the number dropped to the mid-teens.
At that point telecoms companies realised that they had dozens of systems and none of them talked to each other and the political battles started as to which ones should go and which one should be the master system that ruled them all.
Consolidation was all around.
Even the conversations in the industry were all about convergence and consolidation. Why would customers want three bills for his three services? Why shouldn’t telecoms companies converge their pre and post-paid systems? And, at the same time, telecoms companies were busy trying to pull down silos, flatten organisations and stop the mobile department designing a new mobile bill, when the customer also had broadband and fixed line services.
Meanwhile, we (the Global Billing Association, latterly part of the TM Forum) were trying to persuade whoever would listen that, soon, we would be billing for content and on behalf of others. As one Billing Manager put it, “so, we need things to bill for stuff”.
Ultimately the conversation became about whether billing was dead or whether the customer wanted a bill at all. Perhaps all he needs is an email with a link to his own page on the website, or a pdf? Or nothing. After all, some argued, who looks at a telecoms bill? Surely all customers need is to check their bank statement. If it is about right, then no action needed. If it is not what you expect, you take action and ask for the detail.
Over time, billing and related processes became a source of potentially incredibly valuable information and – in some quarters – became acknowledged as such.
Analytics became a focus and the industry realised that we could now – with real time charging – offer relevant new products, upgrades or special offers, with ease. Policy and charging controls matured from a way of stopping customers using too much data to encouraging them to use their data in more effective, more creative ways.
Alongside all of this, we knew that billing information was the lifeblood of customer service but, as Teresa Cottam points out, we still haven’t got it right. Customers are still confused about their bills and this really should be a thing of the past.
Billing (or revenue management or charging or whatever we call it) is about control. The information that is processed by the billing process is the information that will allow and encourage the customer to take control of his services, his spending, his family plans, his offers and upgrades and his way of talking to his provider.
Billing is back but not as we know it. And, as the CEO of a reasonably sized US telecoms company said not so very long ago “it all comes back to billing”.