Saving trees and streamlining processes may be the hallmarks of telecom e-billing, but the real money is in enriching the customer experience. The e-bill has matured from just another payment option into something that strikes deep at the heart of customer retention and satisfaction � a crucial differentiator for telcos and other wireline providers fighting in the trenches over fickle consumers.
Elizabeth Robertson, senior analyst for the Global Payments division at TowerGroup, says there has been strong uptake for e-billing in the last two years, particularly for consumer-focused billing. Close to 3.2 billion bills are presented electronically, and more than 18 percent of all consumer bills, she notes.There are well-known benefits: The ability to eliminate paper statements in favor of electronic delivery allows automation, eliminates dual processes and reduces overall expenses. Encouraging self-care reduces expensive calls to the call center. And the ability to pay online with a credit card is something consumers expect these days. �Everybody now seems to offer some sort of e-billing option; two or three years ago you could not make that statement,� says Frank Peregrine, chairman and CEO of CustomCall Data Systems.
While e-billing is a common functionality these days, a carrier can find significant differentiation, bolster brand awareness and build loyalty by focusing on it as a way to enrich the customer experience. Robertson notes that self-service interactivity is a value add for billing. Functions like account management, payment dispute, address change, alerts, calendar with payment scheduling, budgeting functionality, expense sorting categorization and reverse look-up for telco expenditures can attract customers to pay online. And once converted, retention is generally very strong, she says.
Seeing the trend to integrating e-billing and self-service, OSG launched OSG eBill in August as an upgrade to its electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) functionality. The new product provides users access to the bill as a PDF rather than in HTML, so what they see and print is identical to a paper bill. The software also consolidates what customer service representatives see, so they know if the customer is EBPP, and can point them to the appropriate Web history page while discussing the account. OSG eBill integrates with existing e-payment sites to provide the presentment aspect, as well as other selfservice modules that allow customers to purchase new products, update addresses and so on.Integration with other Web site functions is thus a strong area of focus for the telcos. �The interest in self-service and e-billing is so big that we often lead with our Web tools capability, and our development has crossed from billing and OSS to the front end,� says Randy Minervino, vice president of marketing at Profitec Inc., which claims 30 percent of its customers use e-billing. �Incumbents are in a tough position because they have to be more universal than the competitors. They have more products, more sign-up choices, more product restrictions and a wider view they have to take. They have to guide the customer through that maze, while providing usability.�
�The idea is to empower the customer to do it on their own, for Web-based customer service,� says Steve Dubner, business development director for OSG Billing Services. �We provide consistency across touch points and channels to instill confidence.�
If e-billing is connected to a broader user experience, the Web site becomes a channel of activity as opposed to passive flat pages of information. �The billing experience is a critical linchpin that allows you to deepen the user relationship,� says ClickFox Inc.�s Michael Chavez, vice president of client services. �It�s the most fundamental thing they have with the customer, other than the product or service itself.�
�Every step in the cycle is an opportunity to lose people,� says Chavez. �But the danger of a one-click cycle is overcomplicating that one page and making it a bad experience. Online users don�t like to scroll that much, so you still get users bailing out. It�s a fine line, and the software can help by measuring the dominant path, throughput and where users exit.�ClickFox helps customers like BellSouth Corp. optimize the online billing functionality by building a blueprint for the selfservice decision tree in place at the Web site. Once the blueprint has been laid out, the company takes logs of user activity and maps that customer behavior against the master plan. The result is an aggregated view of behavioral information: the system can query how many people completed which step, where users dropped off, what they did instead of completing online bill payment, which is the �dominant path� of people visiting the Web site, and so on. An executive dashboard allows carriers to perform interactive discovery on any number of metrics.
One situation, for example, found users were hanging up or dropping off to an agent at the screen that asks the amount the customer wishes to pay. ClickFox was able to pinpoint low bill payment to that one question. The provider subsequently changed the screen to fill in the amount automatically, and the completion rates went up.
Once a telco has attracted and kept customers using the online billing function, the next step is encouraging them to take further action on the site. When it comes to marketing, e-bill sites have the advantage over printed bills by providing more timely marketing messages, click-through capabilities and the ability to measure responses. CSG Systems Inc., which has 29 million subscribers on its billing system, has accelerated its roadmap to include more realtime functionalities to enrich the customer experience for its telco clients.
�Ninety percent of our customers have ebilling and now they want to open that up into greater capabilities,� says Steven Rodin, executive director of product management at CSG. �We offer real-time credit checks behind the scenes as a person places the order online, real-time integration to workforce management tools for CSRs and technicians, and automatic follow-up mechanisms to send e-mails to consumers verifying any account changes.�
The ability for consumers to interact with the carrier in real-time is a new phenomenon, says AJ Workman, lead advisory for product management at CSG. �Telcos can track the kinds of things customers want to do online,� he says. �They can log on and pay their bill, but also read about products and services available, be served up promos and bundles that are relevant, in real time � it�s a one-to-one marketing approach that is critical for differentiation in the telco world.�
Communications reseller TotalCall International is in the process of implementing e-billing for its entire product line for just that reason. While the opex reduction is a benefit, Erwin Ramos, vice president of operations at TotalCall International, says the ability to provide dynamic account information such as call records, invoice requests and other selfservice items will help TotalCall�s brand awareness among customers. �We want our customers to surf our Web,� says Ramos. �They can pay their bill and also view our new service offerings. This can be a one-stop shop for our customers.�
Many billing vendors offer marketing functionality built in. CustomCall offers its service providers messaging capabilities for the e-bill; it can target messages toward a specific set of customers based upon services they are already buying, services they�re not buying but could be, geographic location and other parameters.
Another upsell technique is building the offer into the payment confirmation process. �Once people make it through the process, carriers should see that confirmation and thank-you page as the new home page,� says Chavez. �Online bill payers are good repeat customers; you get their eyeballs once a month. They are tech-savvy and self-service savvy, but they bypass the homepage because they land and immediately go to bill pay, making the homepage irrelevant as an advertising mechanism.� Instead, telcos should provide promotional offers, rate plan comparisons and dynamic offers at the end of the process, once customers are satisfied and the carrier has their attention.
Another change in the e-billing arena is the rise of consolidators: Banks, Web portals like Yahoo! and other distribution sites where they can see and pay all the household bills in one place. While overall more bills will be paid at company Web sites, researcher Celent LLC predicts that consumers will increasingly go the consolidator route through 2007. The number of bill payments conducted through bank Web sites will increase at a CAGR of 34 percent, compared to a CAGR of 28 percent for payments made through a biller�s direct Web site.
�When the subscriber looks at their bill through the carrier site, it can be branded with a banner to take them to cross-sell and upsell information, and we provide a seamless back-and-forth to signup sheets,� says Dubner. �When customers pay through the bank, they rarely see upsell messaging. That is the major reason the biller-direct model is more substantial. But it�s nice to pay everything in one spot, so people are going with the consolidators more and more. Dynamic linking or branding capabilities that let users click through to the Web site will increase adoption.�
Acknowledging the role e-billing plays in branding and marketing for telcos, that sort of transparency will be the new wave of functionality for distribution, says Matt McKernan, biller channel executive at CheckFree Corp., which counts BellSouth, SBC Communications Inc. and Verizon as customers. CheckFree provides biller-direct online payment services, but can also deliver bills to 1,600 distribution partner sites, such as Bank of America�s online Bill Pay service. �All the functions you get at the biller-direct site and all the control will be replicated at the distribution point,� says McKernan. �Wherever the consumer chooses to pay the bill, they will have the same experience as going direct. CheckFree allows carriers to get across whatever messaging and branding they need to, in distribution.�
Telcos also can create messaging and awareness around the e-bill via the email reminders to consolidator users that they have a bill waiting. �The event trigger e-mail system allows telcos to determine what level of encouragement they want to use,� says McKernan. �But it�s a high-value way to capture the complete online customer.�