Fitting the bill

The regular billing cycle is often a company's most consistent customer contact point, and when coupled with web processes can...

The regular billing cycle is often a company's most consistent customer contact point, and when coupled with web processes can become one of the most potent aids in a company's relationship with its customers.

According to Forrester Research, the revenue potential for companies supplying electronic bill presentation and payment (EBPP) solutions to business-to-business (B2B) e-business industries is set to leap from 1999's $32m (£20m) to $1bn (£625m) in 2004. Pundits assert that utilities especially need to offer e-billing to industrial customers by 2002 if they are to survive.

The EBPP company idesk differentiates itself by offering in-house technical help desk and customer support operations 'capable of handling consumer and business bill or technical queries' which are related to the likes of service provision. Customers include Cable & Wireless, Virgin, WorldOnLine and Worldcom. London based idesk is an ASP and e-services company, and recently introduced outsourced internet driven EBPP product ebility, which it claims can reduce billing overheads associated with paper based print/mail by 50-75 per cent.

The core of ebility comprises software from US based Solant, based on object-oriented principles, and built on Java and WebObjects software design standards, ie open, flexible, and capable of being implemented into in-house systems. Other companies selling EBPP software include eDocs, and IBM in conjunction with BlueGill - Big Blue re-markets BlueGill's i-Series, adding consulting and integration services.

idesk md David Saul, says: 'We expect over 50 per cent of our business to be business-to-business two years hence. Looking three to five years out we expect business-to-consumer to be big. We're collecting as much data as we can now. We have two customers under trial - an electricity utility and US telco. We're doing trials with the utility on both business-to-business and business-to-consumer, the former having the ramifications. The telco is business-to-consumer.'

Saul points out the problems in the e-billing arena:

slim adoption rate; it's expected to be more than two years before e-billing is adopted

getting access to the savings e-billing provides; it requires process re-engineering internally. If a company has an in-house print-shop and call centre, with prints and calls reducing, there are still fixed overheads. It's difficult to make savings until there's full take-up of e-billing.

the complexity the market is adopting. APACS (automated payment and clearing services) sets the rules for clearing, while the associated banks' clearing arm BACS does it. APACS is currently attempting to develop a common standard for payment processing, to have access to summary billing data.

'Looking at the latter point, under the ASP model, you take the raw data to the market,' says Saul. 'The market takes it in summary form. Banks want to get summary data and offer it to their customers.'

Other players now want to dip in the market (the UK's clearing market is worth over £27bn a year). There's World Pay (in which NatWest had a stake) and US based CheckFree 'which wants to come to Europe'.

The full scope of the internet has yet to be realised. With web based billing the soupe du jour, the simplest solution would appear to be to add a web front end to the legacy application. However, Tenfold argues this offers no functionality additions.

Mike Pilcher, Tenfold vp e-business, says: 'The approach is to develop a web-enabled billing system which replaces outdated legacy applications, and has the flexibility to be re-modelled and developed later.

'Our approach means we begin projects with 75 per cent of an application's functionality pre-built. This enables testing and customisation of the application - we've already developed web-enabled billing applications in the utilities and telecom sectors,' says Pilcher.

This is a confusing market where most tangible cost savings can be seen in the business-to-business sector. Popular opinion might think it was in the business-to-consumer e-commerce market.

Richard Cooper, general manager of Windsor based Microgen, says: 'Our activity in business-to-business is driven by our relations with top customers.' Microgen operates out of Swindon which deals with customer relationship management and business intelligence consultancy.' Wellingborough and Welwyn Garden City, the main site for online document management and e-billing.

Cooper reckons Microgen's online electronic document management services represent some 10 per cent of business today, 'but over five years this is expected to take up most of the company's business'.

'This business has grown quickly, and we now have 27 companies signed up,' says Cooper. He adds: 'Pioneer Concrete, part of Hanson Group, is one example. All the others are big organisations - building wholesalers, coffee supplies, volume IT, aggregates suppliers, stationery providers - companies where there's regular volume and many invoices.

'We're using the ASP - application service provider - model,' says Cooper. 'Not putting the bill in the post any more brings savings of 30 per cent. You don't need paper. We can sit down with finance people and show them where they can save money - tangible cost savings today. Intangibles are quicker delivery, seeing bills on the web page, and seeing customers have looked at and downloaded them.'

Portal Software, with a focus on IP billing, has notched up a client base in Europe including France Telecom, T-Online, and Telenor. Portal recently signed BuildNet, an e-business initiative for the building industry. Emea product manager Stuart Potchinsky says: 'The key point to make for a billing system is it must bill for the value of the content that's being sent. Equally there must be provision to bill in a number of different ways in real-time.

'Think of MP3 files, video and radio downloaded over the internet to digital TVs, hand-sets, web pads and PCs - and how you bill.'

Global supplier of e-business applications Broadvision, with 600 customers, including BT, Vodafone, RS Components, Motorola, Ernst & Young ,and Hewlett-Packard, reckons some 80 per cent of its business falls into the B2B e-business category. The company maintains that its One-to-One billing package lets users customise billing messages based on customer profiles, account status or history, billing data and site usage.

Jon West, marketing director at systems integrator IS Solutions, says: 'With Broadvision's One-to-One billing package, profiles and content are both available to the core engine, which enables the delivery of relevant customer information. Other applications can be built on top of the engine. In the business-to-business space, managers can run analytics, compare industry standards and cost by department, for example.'

He continues: 'We see a strong future in business-to-consumer. 'While business-to-consumer is low margin, the potential to increase revenue is enormous - through up- and cross-selling. Sure, e-billing does reduce costs, but that's not the fundamental reason to put it in.'

Hugh MacDonald, telecom practice leader, Tanning Technology, says: 'With e-billing in business-to-business, the key is what value add there is for the company from the information underpinning the bill.' Tanning is a systems integrator currently working with telcos and banks.

Scottish software house KSCL, developer of the first GSM billing system, reckons its customers look for an ability to make the product bespoke, and ability to add/subtract modules easily for 'a close relationship that solves problems'.

Whereas paper bill print/post costs total up to £2.50, e-billing has no costs after initial set-up fees. If customers, says e-business software specialist DST Innovis, use the internet instead of the call centre, service providers save £3-5 per transaction. To enable payment via the web, the company's interface to the internet communicates with customer database and billing information. DST's market is telecom, video/broadband and utilities. The first UK utility to offer e-billing uses DST software.

IS Solutions' West says: 'There's an opportunity because the person receiving the bill is already a captive audience for the business sending it.'

In developing user profiles from bills, companies can cross/up-sell and generally trade over and above just settling billed loot. Horrors.

The winner in IP billing? The systems supplier which can show a fully-operational working system that handles IP interconnection the way people want in their own network. l

Date in Cannes

Geneva Technology is providing Portuguese telco Maxitel billing systems for business and residential billing for voice telephony, plus IP and ISP services.

l Hot-foot to Cannes, France, 27-30 November, for the 'Billing 2000 Global' exhibition. More from The Phillips Group (www.billing.co.uk)

Mediation software

Barron McCann has developed a banking mediation software package for billing systems. So far the software has focused on international direct debits, but the company is considering how to handle payments through a web site. One customer wants to offer credit card and direct debit payment on its web site. The reason? Direct debits are more secure, and anyone planning to use the site regularly can just call off direct debits as they spend. Plus there are the benefits of direct debit security. The software has been bought for use in billing systems run by CSG, Dolphin Telecom, NTL Ireland, and Telint, Germany. It works through an integrator (PWC, Unisys, CAP-Gemini for use in Geneva Technology billing systems).

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