A new generation of integrated billing systems will deliver
a host of different billing options for new cable services and will help vendors to manage
entire business streams for cable's growing number of multi-service providers.
Billing and customer-care systems have expanded to include
responsibility for several business-related functions that depend on next-generation
software and hardware to manage an increasing number of cable business lines.
Almost every aspect of a cable operation is affected in
some way by its billing and customer-care management system and associated software --
from marketing and accounting to operations and maintenance.
Advanced integrated-billing systems will also afford cable
operators a rare view of their customers' buying habits, based on data retrieved from the
sophisticated software and systems incorporated into operators' billing facilities.
But these added demands on billing and care systems will
bring new and daunting challenges. Not only must a system integrate billing for a
traditional cable operation -- it must also manage several different cable functions
"We've traditionally provided pay ordering and
billing, which are given services. Now, the big MSOs are telling us we are a strategic
component to their business and part of their strategic assets," said Bob McKenzie,
vice president of strategic marketing for DST Innovis Inc., formerly CableData.
The merger of flexible billing and customer-care systems
into a cable operator's evolving billing process is the critical piece of the new-services
billing puzzle. Data warehousing, updated software, advanced training and other components
designed to give operators flexibility as to how, when and where customers are billed are
essentially reinventing the one-dimensional billing process.
"The days of the monolithic billing systems are over,
and vendors like us will have to plug and play and integrate back into other
services," said Tom Smaldone, president of the cable and broadband solutions group at
Convergys Corp. "It's a very different view of the billing world."
Once crucial element to that new world view is the speed at
which new services are brought to market. Operators want billing software flexible enough
to offer different pricing plans, various promotions and access to new services.
Convergy designed its ICOMS (Integrated Communications
Operations Management System) solution to address that issue, reflecting the new, expanded
billing mentality of cable operators, according to Smaldone.
ICOMS will integrate service orders and handle network
inventory, workforce administration, call rating and multiple- or single-customer
accounts, as well as provide an interface with emergency services. Many cable operators
now insist upon this type of billing, customer care and management system.
"Integrated billing is the biggest place of impact for
us," said Scott Hatfield, senior vice president and CIO of Cox Communications Inc.
"We have a nicely integrated platform using one system [Convergys' ICOMS], but there
is a gap evolving between what we have and extending it beyond traditional customers to
businesses and offices, and with the extra features to meet that market space."
Cox's use of a single billing and customer-care provider is
proving to be an advantage, albeit an unorthodox one, said Hatfield.
"We've taken a different approach and have one common
platform, and that's unusual. But we've been very diligent and willing to go to a single
vendor. We don't want to survey 20 different sites, and that's the advantage of one
platform. By next year, we'll have 6 million subscribers on that platform, but we must be
disciplined and organized."
Organizing and deploying an all-encompassing billing system
is becoming critical for the handful of large billing and customer care companies that
focus on the cable industry.
Yet most experts agree the coveted "end-to-end"
solution which promises to seamlessly manage an entire cable operation through a billing,
customer care and network-management platform does not yet exist and will mean piecing
together software, hardware and management systems.
"Our first premise is to look at the end-to-end
application and become a utility to our customers," said Neal Hansen, chairman and
CEO of CSG Systems Inc. "But you must build an infrastructure first, and understand
on the front end that you're anticipating what will be the next business, and be able to
scale to that growth."
Determining where that business is, and how much revenue it
will generate, is the latest and greatest challenge facing cable operators in their quest
for the perfect billing system.
"Cable's legacy systems aren't intended for bundled
packages, and not part of the initial design criteria. But we must be able to deliver
bills the way customers want them delivered," said Mina Bush, vice president of
customer marketing for MediaOne Group Inc.
But getting there is a painstaking process, Bush said.
"We have a range of billing systems across our
enterprise," she said. "And the complexity is high when you're trying to
retrofit your systems from scratch. We need to understand which things you can Band-Aid
and which things you have to completely overhaul."
MediaOne uses several billing and customer-care vendors and
is looking at additional billing options, Bush added.
"We're considering actually promoting billing options
such as multiple and single bills on a region-by-region basis, and building a plan that
will get us to the ideal billing situation, which is the flexibility of having multiple
bills, either electronic or paper, and the capability of discounts for customers who want
to pay a year in advance," she said.
MediaOne recently completed an intensive customer survey on
billing preferences. Although the results reflected a trend towards electronic billing,
traditional billing habits are still prevalent, Bush said.
"The options are paying via the Internet by either
credit card or automatic debit from an account; by paper; or hooking into a payment
service," she said. "We don't see a day when everyone wants a single bill."
With that in mind, billing and customer care management
executives -- and cable's decision-makers -- said flexibility and reliability will
be instrumental in the development of the "perfect" integrated billing system.
Without them, they said, new services could be hamstrung. --BW