Billing used to be so important for telecoms service providers that it lived in its own domain with direct links to Finance and IT. But how times have changed. Billing has been banished back to the back room again where it’s just part of the broader BSS group. What’s happened?

Time was when billing conferences attracted thousands of delegates to prime locations like London, Paris, Rome and Cannes. And it attracted the brightest and the best. It turned out that billing people could really let their hair down and they proved to be great party-animals: they even had their own band made up of musically-inclined billing people (no, that’s not an oxymoron).

In those days, billing systems cost millions of dollars to implement and some billing vendors made their fortunes during the M&A activities just prior to the bursting of the telecoms bubble back in 2001.

But now, most of those specialists have metamorphosed into multi-stream BSS vendors and billing is now part of the broader BSS (Business Support Systems) world. And, with the move to next generation networks, converged networks and all-IP infrastructures, even BSS appears to be merging into a new OSS/BSS grouping that, only a few years back, would have been considered undesirable, if not impossible. It’s now all part of the revenue management process of which customer experience is now king, with billing an integral part.

At the recent BSS Summit held by IIR in Amsterdam, a much smaller group of BSS devotees than used to be the norm is currently assembled to hear about experiences, trends and new technology that will almost certainly affect the way they will be working in future.
Billing is still critically important and is often, sadly, the only contact an operator makes with the customer. It generates more calls to customer care centres than any other operator activity but it also generates revenues, without which businesses would fail.

But the way we do billing is changing, not radically, but gradually.
Here’s the scene:

  • In every emerging market, pre-paid billing dominates but in the developed markets most users are post-paid customers and they expect to see their paper bill every month or quarter as they have had for over fifty years and more.
  • Even sadder is the fact that the bill is usually the only regular contact a CSP makes with the customer.
  • It is also used for the distribution of marketing materials (so more trees bite the dust).
  • Those in the youth market, weaned on pre-paid mobile access, have provably never even seen a bill and probably won’t ever want to.
  • The rise of mobiles for data access and purchases of content and applications occasionally creates a bill of enormous proportions, known affectionately as ‘bill shock’. The cost of printing and delivering paper bills is becoming prohibitive and wasteful of natural resources.

All of these issues are driving operators to think of new ways to handle billing.

One school of thought presented in Amsterdam is to handle all customer charges in real-time, as in pre-paid. This would allow operators to inform all customers of charges prior to purchase via an ‘advice of charge’, or later as a balance update to help them control their spend. Sending of bills electronically is already quite common but, by no means, ubiquitous. In future, a bill summary may be sent to your mobile handset along with a one-button payment option.
Joanie Tonkinson, Manager of Customer Billing Services at Sprint/Nextel outlined her company’s efforts at moving customers to e-billing by offering a one-off financial incentive. Bills are sent as either a PDF file by email or via a link back to their website.

The marketing activities are there as well and customers viewing their bills are presented with some clever interactive options. Sprint/Nextel aims to convert over 15 million customers to e-billing in 2009 representing savings of US$6.5 million. Going green has its pecuniary advantages.

However, the emerging theme of the event is not just about the technology around billing, it’s all about enhancing the customer experience and making everything customer-centric rather than account-centric. The service provider of the future will offer a smorgasbord of products, services and content. Customers will select what they want via the Internet, interactive TV, Internet or mobile device and it will automatically calculate the price for the ‘bundle’.
Customers will be able to control the times their children can use their mobiles and the numbers they can call, as well as setting thresholds for spending on particular services. The whole process will look seamless to the customer but the integration of all the component processes in the background continues to be the operator’s greatest challenge.

The billing information is also the source of an incredible amount of information on the customers usage and buying habits (profiling) and is now being used for push marketing activities.

Whichever way you look at it, billing is part of the revolution and will always be an important part. After all, that’s where the money really is!