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Let the Internet foot the billing process

Adrian Stafford-Jones
The Government has introduced legislation to ease the financial burden of late invoice payment that is crippling UK businesses. Yet few organisations seem likely to risk jeopardising key business relationships by imposing penalties for late payment.

There is another option: electronic bill presentment and payment offers businesses a way to control cashflow through managed online payment and provides a platform for improving payment time through early payment incentives.

While the UK may believe it has firmly entered the technological age, when it comes to payments - particularly business payments - cheques remain the mechanism of choice, despite inherent cost and production limitations. According to research from automated clearing house Bacs, while 89% of suppliers want to be paid by direct credit, nine out of 10 companies still raise cheques to make those payments.

As a result, half of all payments arrive late. And, as most businesses will attest, late payments cause significant hardship. Yet, recent legislation allowing businesses to charge interest on late payments does not look likely to make any significant improvements to the perennial "the cheque is in the post" problem.

One of the major issues associated with cheque-based payments is the lack of control over finances. Not only is there no way of predicting its arrival, but a business also has to wait three or four days for the cheque to clear before it receives the money due.

In the consumer marketplace there has been a huge effort to encourage the use of direct debits for regular payments, but in the business community there is no standard payment mechanism that meets business needs for cost-effective transaction costs while retaining control over making the payment.

Many online ventures cannot afford the high costs associated with credit card payments and, as a result, are looking for cost effective alternatives.

Figures from market analyst Killen & Associates predict that 70%-80% of the world's bills will be sent electronically by 2005, while analyst firm IDC expects a $1bn (£709m) market for transaction fee-based online payment processing by 2004.

These applications which range from traditional electronic data interchange solutions implemented by large organisations, such as retailers, to interactive Web browser-based packages that require only a Web browser and Internet connection at the customer end.

The latter solution is ideal for those organisations with many customers - either B2B or consumers - who currently endure significant costs in credit controlling many small value invoices.

These e-billing and payment applications enable organisations to streamline the invoicing and payment cycle by allowing a company to present invoices, statements and credit notes to its customers via any Web browser.

Presenting and paying bills electronically also provides an opportunity to improve customer relations as it creates a platform for regular customer contact such as marketing or support messages.

It also enables customers to keep a track of their relationship with an organisation. Invoices are online and the e-billing and payment software provides a view of current status, including scheduled payments, as well as enabling tracking back through previous invoices to analyse trends in spend.

So is the UK ready for electronic payments? Yes, having operated with Bacs for 30 years, the majority of UK companies trust online payments. Looking forward, as digital signatures become more widely accepted, the ability to dispense with paper delivery further increases the value of the e-billing and payment solution.

Adrian Stafford Jones is managing director of Albany Software

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