Billing Systems Get Smarter, More Complex

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One-dimensional and paper-heavy billing systems are quickly giving way to more streamlined, multifunctional billing and customer-care platforms, allowing cable operators and multiservice providers greater account flexibility and a way of squeezing every bit of customer data from their billing functions.

Ongoing launches of data, Internet, telephony, digital video, cable modems and other services are pushing the billing envelope to include faster, smarter and simpler approaches to the complicated problem of integrating billing systems to handle the huge influx of new services.

With those new services comes a puzzling and complex list of issues such as single versus multiple bills, electronic billing, fees, taxes, payment preferences and more. Just how a billing system can make both customers and MSOs happy is the latest and greatest challenge.

Sophisticated billing and customer-care systems now generate valuable data about customers, as well as linking up with operational functions such as installations, dispatching and communication with field technicians. They also impact sales and marketing strategies and instantly access customers' accounts from anywhere in the system.

Yet even with integrated billing systems nearing the mission-critical point for some MSOs, and despite the technological advances made in orchestrating the ideal billing platform, the search for an all-encompassing, customer-friendly process is a work in progress.

"Integrated billing isn't as far advanced as some cable operators would like. Clearly, they want to offer bundled services, and they are very interested in building multiservices because it enables larger revenue streams. So we have to be able to build for measured service," said George Von der haar, president of the cable and broadband-solutions group at Convergys Corp.

Extending simple billing systems to include customer-data mining, instant account access, predictive data and one-to-one customer relationships is driving companies such as Convergys into uncharted billing territory.

Cox Communications Inc.-arguably the most aggressive company in deploying new data, Internet and telephony services-is one MSO that seems to be getting the integrated billing message.

By year's end, Hatfield said, Cox will have all of its customers on convergent bills, allowing it to strengthen its customer relationships.

"Our new convergent bills will have the same look and will allow us to summarize, show discounts and taxes and talk through the value of the bundle. There's a lot of art to this to see the total picture," he said.

The picture, Hatfield added, reflects a clear shift toward a multidimensional billing process. "A major piece is that it fully automates the services to send statements, and it determines automatic checking-account withdrawals, change of address, billing frequency and how customers are consuming. We have to do this to stay competitive," he said.

That's the easy part, however. Hatfield admitted: "The hard part is closing the loop that generates different statements at different times and getting all of the statements to reflect the things people can do in their billing statements. It's very difficult to glue those together."

Finding the glue to attach new services and products such as cable modems to a billing system is an ongoing project for MSOs and billing companies alike.

"The immediate need is to streamline the launching of digital, data and modem services. How can a consumer buy a cable modem from a retailer, have it provisioned on our billing system and get it out of the call center? There's

no reason why that can't take place," said Bob McKenzie, senior vice president of strategic marketing for DST Innovis Inc. (formerly CableData Inc.).

But for multiservice companies to grow their new services and compete, McKenzie admitted, "It's the bundle. The concept of cross-product discounts and bundling is compelling. Why not marry them all together?"

A big component to the marriage, McKenzie added, is likely to be the emergence of electronic billing.

Electronic billing is pushing work-force management and billing companies such as CSG Systems International Inc. into the electronic space, as well. "In the next two years, we expect about 15 percent of customers to be doing payments via the Web," CSG vice president of product management Grant Gabrielson said.

There is a caveat to electronic billing, however. Many franchises require paper bills from cable operators, which could stifle an all-out move to electronic billing.

The business market is changing, too. More billing companies are ramping up for the expected onslaught of new services to be offered to the business sector by cable operators. According to Hatfield, however, the business market will require a different set of billing tools.

Yet for most integrated-billing-system providers, the business market isn't a priority, at least not yet.

Answers to the single-versus-multiple-bill issue are likely to remain elusive, as well, as most multiservice companies adopt the flexible-billing mentality. And although many customers still prefer different bills rather than the "sticker shock" of a single bill for multiple services, the single-bill approach is gaining momentum.

Concluded Gabrielson: "When we have the ability to manage and provision bills for a number of different products and lines of business from a single platform, MSOs will be extremely efficient."

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