Strategists talk billing

The mechanics of the ICT sector require fundamental change as we approach Digital Britain, not least in the billing space.

The last call for the UK’s billing providers to drive ahead with software development surely passed long ago. Today, the channel’s most progressive billing vendors have already deployed much effort and investment into helping resellers to win in Digital Britain. One of them, Inform Billing, realigned its strategy and development roadmap in 2013 and has since invested significantly in resilience and flexibility – both key requirements of the digital shift in the channel. “Full fibre, 5G and digitalisation will be easier for billing companies to accommodate if they have already made the investment to move to fully cloud-based platforms that apply the same level of flexibility and functionality to new services as applied to calls in years gone by,” stated Inform Billing Managing Director Shaun Bodsworth (pictured).

“In the all-IP world, everyone wants and expects their systems to integrate and provide users with the ability to self-serve. For many the expectations for billing software to integrate with other systems and to facilitate other capabilities, such as CRM and provisioning, will always challenge the balance of cost-effectiveness versus the cost of deployment. Resellers should focus on cost versus benefits in terms of scalability, accessibility and avoidance of task repetition. Not just integration for the sake of it.”

To date Inform Billing has invested over £2 million into its platform and continues to plough 45 per cent of revenues back into developing the software, prioritising enhancements that lead to a smoother customer experience. In responding to market demands Inform Billing has also advanced its API set, enabling customers to build links between other systems and its platform in a more structured way. It follows that developing partnerships and integrations with complementary applications to offer joined up solutions is top of mind along with automation.

In the all-IP world, everyone wants and expects their systems to integrate and provide users with the ability to self-serve

“With customers spanning traditional telecoms, IT, mobile and IoT as well as utilities, waste management, banking and even hospitality all using our software for billing, we are developing partnerships in diverse markets relevant to the subscription economy, opening up future opportunities for both us and the channel,” added Bodsworth.

Software development is now embedded in the world views of billing providers. Why? Because Digital Britain will enable businesses to be more mobile and flexible, pointed out Nick Jarret, Head of Revenue Management and Billing at 9 Group. “We’re seeing huge growth in areas such as hot desking, managed offices and remote working,” he said. “The traditional concept of charging for a line, broadband and calls for a lengthy period of time simply won’t be relevant to this growing area of users who consume services on demand, in some cases changing many times throughout a day. The opportunity sits with the capability to integrate with any number of ordering systems, allowing a low-touch ‘provision-to-bill’ automation and insightful reporting.”

As the trend towards mobile, hosted and collaboration technology continues, this presents an opportunity for creative start-ups to move into these spaces. “Change is the only constant for billing providers,” added Jarret. “We’ll continue to see emerging businesses in need of a billing solution, weighing up the costs of building their own bespoke solutions or expediting routes-to-market by partnering with a trusted billing provider.”

As with all modern day technology market developments, strategies evolve, new alliances are formed and new integrations are needed. “Increasingly we see requirements for billing systems to accommodate MSP services from Office 365 licencing, to back-up licencing, to IaaS as well as voice and data in all-inclusive or unlimited packages,” added Bodsworth. “Inform Billing has built flexibility into the platform to adapt to the changes that digitalisation requires, to facilitate both the monetisation of subscription services and the inclusive use of consumption-led pricing models much more effectively going forward. Those who have not made the same investment may find themselves exposed.

As the trend towards mobile, hosted and collaboration technology continues, this presents an opportunity for creative start-ups to move into these spaces

“There has been much talk about the rise of subscription based services, and in our market there is already the need to bill subscriptions for connectivity, software licencing or just a good old-fashioned line rental – the key is having the flexibility at the core of the billing platform to not only bill and manage those services, but to manage revenue assurance and profitability.”

Why? Because it’s no longer a question of whether or not a billing system can adapt to new technologies, according to Jarret. Most can, he says, but what is evident is that businesses are now spending far too much time and effort on revenue assurance. “This comes at a time when margins are being squeezed and financial performance has never been more important,” stated Jarret. “Today’s billing system needs to amortise the costs and revenues from the services acquired monthly, but sell quarterly and reflect the cashflow advantage in accounts. They should be adding insight and context to the data, such as advising finance teams when to expect an invoice and for how much, or applying intelligence to forecast seasonality trends and the impact on recurring revenues versus one-off or usage based revenues. Billing systems should be enhancing business management to get the most out of business finance.”
This is the order of the day, and in seeking to give users what they want Symbiant Technologies Director Colin Forward noted that in addition to changing market needs, resellers and their customers will demand greater and quicker access to information. “Presenting real-time data to resellers and customers, accessible via a range of devices, will become the norm,” stated Forward. “Customers are accustomed to paying in advance for recurring services, and consumer behaviour with OTT services is now more geared to paying for services for specific periods when they have access, or based upon usage. Those billing systems providers best able to import data from subscription management and usage feeds to support resellers in selling profitable new products will thrive – others may struggle.

Presenting real-time data to resellers and customers, accessible via a range of devices, will become the norm

“Interfaces will also need to capture information on when customers upgrade, suspend, resume and renew subscriptions. Where subscriptions include usage limits, monitoring tools will need to be in place to provide usage alerts to customers to help them avoid overage fees. Billing systems providers are accustomed to operating in constantly changing markets, Digital Britain represents a continuation of those change programmes.”

Since 2001 Symbiant has reinvested much of its profit into systems and skills development. “As we have made the journey from desktop-based client hosted solutions to cloud-based, anywhere, multiple device type services the skills profile of our developers has changed, via both training and recruitment,” added Forward. “We expect to further refine the skills of our team to make the most of capabilities in AWS and similar solutions.”

The coming years will prove to be a ‘make or break time’ for the channel’s billing vendors, according to Union Street’s Head of Sales and Marketing Vincent Disneur. “Those with limited development capabilities or too reliant on technology with a shelf life, such as WLR3, could find themselves standing on a burning platform,” he stated. “On the other hand, there’s huge potential for forward thinking billing vendors to develop value add solutions that will help CPs capitalise on the infrastructure improvements offered by Digital Britain. Creating an end-to-end supply chain and tightening billing and provisioning is one way in which billing vendors are well placed to assist. However, adding value in this way is very much dependant on cooperation from other third party service providers in the supply chains.”

Those with limited development capabilities or too reliant on technology with a shelf life, such as WLR3, could find themselves standing on a burning platform

With downward pressure on prices and an increasing move towards bundles and subscription-based service contracts, traditional methods of adding mark-up will become ever more unworkable and robust revenue assurance functionality will be far more important in a billing platform. “Billing vendors must support CPs in optimising revenue streams by providing accurate reporting and powerful analytical tools in their billing platforms that will quickly identify loss making services and customers,” added Disneur.

“Billing systems are increasingly required to become part of a larger back office system rather than a separate item that needs manual input and output. Virtually every new installation of our platform has some degree of integration with other back office systems. Afterall, if a CP has spent a significant amount of time, money and resources creating an integrated back office, the last thing they’ll want to introduce is a billing system that can’t effectively integrate with everything else.”

Increasingly, it is integration that is facilitating greater levels of back-office automation with sophisticated task management and workflows, believes Disneur. Information and data can be pushed around seamlessly between software, and a human need only be involved when a decision needs to be made. “Integration of billing and provisioning systems offers exciting possibilities, particularly as time goes on and we move from WLR3 to a more diverse market for digital communications,” he commented.

“By extension, there’s a growing requirement to provide customers with automation and self-service online. This might include the capability to add or remove services, run reports, manage cost centres, estate management, fault reporting, amend orders, change contact details and so on. Providing greater levels of customer control has a dual advantage for CPs – it not only improves their market offering by empowering customers, it also reduces costs associated with support calls and requests.”

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