Show me the money

Leading provider of software and systems, Comverse provides messaging, content and billing solutions to over 450 service providers in more than 125 countries.

Here its CTO EMEA Birger Thorburn tells Shakespeare about how real-time billing solutions can drive customer and business satisfaction.

Thinking about the variety of different communication networks and channels available these days (3G, wireless networks, instant messaging services, VoIP etc.), what are the key requirements that business customers are looking for a network provider to offer?

I think there are several areas where a communications service provider (CSP) can offer differentiated services and deliver value to their customers. A continuous concern for any corporate IT or IS manager is the increased use of open technologies, which at times can be very hard to control. Therefore delivering a range of new communications, whether they be chat, instant messaging, email, push-to-x and so forth, in secure environments will be key. Another area is the service-reliability and the capability of CSPs to be able to back up SLA commitments financially. In addition, the increase in possible communications options and associated features and functions, combined with a desire for ‘real-time’ responsiveness are resulting in a desire for greater ‘self-service’ and end-user management. Self-care has historically been thought of as a consumer offer, we see it providing huge value to enterprises as well. Current business processes for ordering a service, often involving call-centres or paper-forms, can take days to complete and can potentially reduce either service uptake or the range of services offered to business customers.

In order to meet these requirements what kind of technology and business solutions will network providers need to consider?

There will be a challenge overcoming the so-called ‘CRM-master’, infrastructures that many companies have ended up with. Whereas CRM is an invaluable tool, in many CSPs it has become a gateway to all other system functionality, which in turn has slowed down innovation and agility. Companies should look at using SOA as a tool to enable them to provide functions such as service ordering, management of preferences, security and billing information throughout the enterprise. The current assumption that services will be activated through a call-centre will have to disappear. Look at the internet and the kind of take-up it has achieved when the barriers are low. My personal view is that billing and ordering should be tightly coupled to reduce the risk of revenue-leakage and provide a unified view of the customer. Another aspect is service-quality, which will require companies to move towards monitoring services, and their business impact, on an ongoing basis, not just at set points in time. After all, fixing a problem as it occurs, is much more valuable to a customer, than having a refund at the end of the month. This capability, in turn, requires open billing systems that can integrate easily with service-monitoring and business assurance solutions.

On the subject of billing options, many providers have moved towards real-time billing solutions in recent years. What are the advantages of moving from a batch to a real-time billing system for a provider? And for a customer?

There are clear benefits in moving all ‘transaction-authorisation’ to real-time. With authorisation, I mean validating every aspect of a transaction including that a customer is allowed access to the service, his or her current profile, any discounts and promotions and so forth. This validation is a way to reduce revenue leakage and provide better financial control. There is no such thing as a customer with unlimited credit. As a matter of fact, many customers today – especially business customers – would simply like to have more visibility of their spending. Offerings that enable users to switch identities to separate business and personal spending in real-time, and offer the capability for managers to track usage and even receive notifications as their staff reach certain thresholds would simplify many business-peoples’ lives. Another point is that today, there are too many systems in the infrastructure, often requiring complex synchronisation and replication of information. This has again become a barrier to innovation, as every time a new service is launched many systems have to be changed to support it. Moving towards a unified real-time customer management solution can simplify operations, provide offerings aligned to what customers want, reduce financial exposure and revenue leakage and provide better control of charges from when they occur in the network to when they are accounted for in the general ledger as revenue.

One potential benefit of real-time data should be the ability to offer timely content or promotions based on usage patterns, and hence grow revenues. Are businesses taking advantage of this opportunity – and how can they maximize this opportunity further?

Are there other ways that providers can offer added value to customers through their billing systems?

Billing is ultimately part of the user-relationship. Not understanding this and having systems that do not provide a superior user-experience will quickly erode a CSP’s brand equity. In response to competitive pressure, CSPs will have to differentiate through their advanced services and their billing relationship. Providers will be expected more and more to provide a real-time view of a subscriber’s financial relationship and enable users – whether a family or a departmental controller in a large corporation – to manage their spending. Offering customers simple packages with the flexibility to choose what they want is important, yet can make ordering, provisioning and billing complex and is therefore critical. Many people in the industry have talked about flat-fee, all you can eat type of bundles, but I don’t believe this is the way the industry will go. Instead, I think there will be more back to basics: pay for what you use and pick and mix your own package.

What do you see as the next big future trends in this market?

The first and foremost relating to billing, is that the internet experience will become the standard. Anybody using the internet today, expects instant access to their usage, balance, spending etc. I believe this will become the norm for the residential telecommunications market. For the corporate segment, other things will also be important, such as flexibility in billing options, discounts across groups, etc. However, even for the corporate segment, more end-user control of the service will become the norm. Another major trend is that with the introduction of IMS, more services will move towards ‘real-time’ billing, challenging and therefore requiring a change in traditional infrastructures. My view is that to compete efficiently, an infrastructure transformation – that may be part of a larger business transformation – will be needed. Subscribers will want access to the same features, offers and customer experience regardless of their payment or even whether they are a ‘pay-as-you-go’ or a contract-customer. An end-to-end truly convergent solution reaching from the network to the general ledger is required. Finally, the last and biggest trend – again often as part of a transformation – is a re-definition of what CRM means to service providers. The traditional CRM system, which over the years has often delayed implementations and provided dubious return on investment will give way to SOA-based architectures where ordering, billing and customer-care are service-capabilities available across many channels such as devices, call-centres, internet, dealers and self-care. This will develop a new environment, where in our viewthe link between the financial view of a customer and their activities in the network will become much tighter, enabling choice, convenience and control for subscribers and CSPs alike.

About Reena Sharma

Reena is as a Business Consultant within the law sector. Throughout the country she works with firms offering strategic advice and business growth support. Reena also has a passion for growing start-ups from small companies all the way to large exits.

One comment

  1. Great interview guys! I really liked it. I totally agree with the points addressed!

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