Flexible Friends

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Billing services and applications are evolving as the communications landscape changes. Once just used for fixed line voice call billing applications, today they need to keep pace with the integration of voice and data applications such as VOIP and cloud based services as well as mobile communications.

Billing services are evolving. As more and more applications need to be charged for in a pay as you go cloud based model the billing systems need to keep up with flexibility that users are demanding for these products. Turning on or off applications for short-term use means that billing systems need to not only track when the switch occurred but also accurately bill that usage.

The days of squirting call detail records in to a spreadsheet to work out charges have been long gone for a considerable time now but many resellers are still using their own in house developed or third party billing solutions that are struggling to keep up with new technology and applications – and that could be holding back sales as well.

We have talked to the key players in the market today to see how they are managing this convergence play within a single solution and examine the implications for resellers and ask the questions:

Can resellers really handle the converged billing requirements of their customers or should they outsource to experts?

Vincent Disneur of Union Street

Vincent Disneur of Union Street

Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies, says that for many communication providers (CPs) it makes a lot of sense to use an outsourced bureau billing service as opposed to managing their billing in-house.

“Telecoms billing is an inherently complex process with numerous legal and practical technicalities and therefore requires a skilled billing manager to oversee the process. Experienced billing managers can however be expensive to employ, difficult to find and difficult to cover in the event of sickness or leave. By outsourcing the billing a CP also has the benefit of being able to draw on the expertise of a whole team of billing experts as opposed to relying on just one person. Union Street for example has a tremendous amount of skill and expertise in this area and our bureau service is backed by a team with over 65 years of combined experience in telecoms billing.

The self-managed option does of course have its own merits. If a CP has staff with revenue assurance skills and expertise in telecoms billing then managing the billing process in-house can provide more control. Most bureau services will also only operate within regular business hours, but with self-managed a CP can work on their bills at any time which can sometimes mean that bills are dispatched faster.

For CPs that choose to manage their billing in-house, it is vital to make sure that adequate training is available from the supplier of their billing platform to ensure staff have all the knowledge and support they need to conduct billing runs accurately and effectively. Union Street for example, provide free training workshops that educate clients not just on our solutions but also on the best practices to deploy to ensure profitability and professionalism.

From an economic standpoint, although choosing a bureau service is cheaper than employing an in-house billing manager when companies have lower revenues, because a bureau service is generally provided in exchange for a percentage of the total billed revenue, there will come a point at which the door begins to swing the other way. Identifying where this point lies is not an exact science however. A bureau service provides many additional benefits such as disaster recovery and resilience against sickness, death, and other unforeseen circumstances. The value of this can be difficult to quantify but it’s certainly safe to say that choosing if or when to switch from bureau to self-managed is much more than just a simple matter of cost.”

Steve Redman, Commercial Manager, Aurora Kendrick James, says that the question as to whether the reseller can handle the billing requirement can be broken into two areas:

“Firstly, do they have the domain knowledge and secondly, do they have a software solution that supports the requirement? The latter is seemingly more straightforward to outsource. However, in order to offer the best solution to customers, any reseller needs to ensure they understand the product being sold.

The intricacies of mobile billing and data vary significantly from those of fixed line. For example, knowledge or lack of knowledge seriously impacts the reseller’s overall package to the customer, from initial sales process to in-life management, in addition to billing, from invoice content to revenue assurance and supplier reconciliation

Using comprehensive billing software designed with you and is outcome driven, such as Affinity, AKJ’s software billing solution, will ensure that your product range, no matter how complicated, is being billed efficiently.

So ultimately, resellers cannot simply outsource to experts. They can however ensure that they work with partners such as AKJ who do have proven expertise and can complement the reseller’s own knowledge.”

Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Derby-based Inform Billing, notes that professional billing software takes the pain out of billing a variety of converged products.

“Many resellers choose to manage their own billing to maximise their control, visibility, improve profit margins and increase customer satisfaction.

However, when managing billing in-house resource must be allocated to fulfil the billing manager role – someone who can learn to understand and utilise the full feature-set of the billing platform. Some resellers do not have the resource internally with the right skills and experience to manage the billing process, or the responsibility detracts attention from a primary role.

In this scenario, or if a reseller does choose to outsource to experts, then a combination of the two is often preferable. Inform Billing offers a ‘managed billing’ service that is essentially the best of both worlds; access to a fully featured professional billing platform yet when the monthly bill cycle comes around it is handled by our experienced and knowledgeable billing team. The team at Inform Billing provide this outsourced billing manager function and the reseller maintains the key benefits of being a reseller; control and visibility.

Suzanne Chappell of TMS

Suzanne Chappell of TMS

No one solution fits all. Some resellers may prefer to outsource entirely whilst others prefer to maintain a greater degree of control in-house but benefit from the experience and expertise of a professional billing partner.”

A relatively new entrant to the billing market is Strategic Imperatives where Director Tim Sayer says there is no doubt that the billing requirement for resellers has become more and more complex in recent years.

“The diversity of products being consumed has expanded and more importantly the way that these products are sold has become more package or bundle based. That said, the best billing systems will provide resellers with a toolkit that will allow them to create complex pricing and cross product bundles and so it should be within the capability of most. The complexity is really in creating and maintaining this pricing information and so if a reseller chooses to create bespoke bundles for every deal then they are essentially creating additional administration overheads for themselves.

The expertise that resellers require will manifest itself in the quality of software that they use to support their business and the support they receive from their chosen vendor. It’s important that billing vendors do everything they can to make their solutions simple and intuitive so that resellers have the flexibility that they need to win deals without the task of maintenance and billing becoming unnecessarily onerous. Reseller salso need pro-active support on how to get the best from the software they are using coupled with more general guidance on industry trends, regulatory requirements and the like. Vendors like Imperatives need to be active in the industry, lobbying on behalf of their customers and feeding back information, not simply supporting their own solutions.”

What should resellers look for in a billing solution provider?

Vincent Disneur at Union Street Technologies, “Taking the time to research the company behind the product is every bit as important as researching the product itself. There are many important questions to ask yourself when choosing a supplier for this important service. Are they independent or are they owned or linked to a company that sells services that compete with your own? You need to be totally satisfied that there’s no potential for a conflict of interest to arise. Can they demonstrate case studies or other evidence of a satisfied customer base? What can they offer you in terms of support and service level agreements? Will they make the effort to understand your business and processes and then commit the time and resources to ensure a smooth implementation? Can they provide your staff comprehensive training and consultancy on their software? If so to what extent, and have their trainers worked in the industry long enough to appreciate the specific challenges facing your business?

It’s also important to enquire about the skills and size of the development team behind the billing platform. Do they have a consistent track record for bringing out innovative new features or do they simply follow the course set by others? Will they be able to cope with the pace of change in the telecoms industry or could the product become outdated – limiting your ability to capitalise on emerging opportunities in the market – if adequate resources aren’t being channelled into development.

I’d also advise credit check your billing provider to ensure financial stability, you wouldn’t want to entrust your billing to a company that’s not going to be around for the long haul. Other factors to consider are what they can offer in terms of data security, disaster recovery, margin analysis and other reporting options.”

Nimans Mark Curtis-Wood says you’ve got to look at a billing service provider and assess if it can adapt to the changing product and service portfolio of the 21st century.

“Can it deal with event and real time billing and can it accommodate decreasing contract lengths of 30 and 14 days with services put on and taken off in the same month. Can the billing system handle that type of flexibility, almost real time billing? If the answer is no then a reseller may have a problem. It’s an interesting market out there in terms of who owns some of the billing providers. Not all billing services are the same. One of the biggest challenges with some providers is that their systems were built 10-15 years ago on the premise that wholesale line rental and CPS would be around forever. A lot of those have adapted by bolting on things to the billing system, which can make everything cumbersome and inflexible. A modern approach is critical where your supplier can bill for you through a bureau service and add new services quickly.”

Suzanne Chappell at TMS believes the key elements are experience, flexibility and service.

“Experience is fundamental and after 13 years developing and running TMS we have that in abundance. We were pioneers in WLR billing, we sit on key billing forums that shape the industry and as the TMS system is our own software we have in-house developers and technical support, second to none.

Every re-seller /partner has their own needs; there are a plethora of carriers and data suppliers all requiring slightly different interfaces and processes so your billing supplier has to be flexible. It is not a case of one size fits all.

In terms of service, if something goes wrong you need to be confident that your billing partner has the attitude, ability and scale to be able to deal with any sudden issues quickly and efficiently. Things do go wrong, networks crash, circuits are broken, files corrupt. We put our partners at the centre of everything we do, it’s a core value that cannot and will not be compromised.”

Shaun Bodsworth at Inform Billing says that the vast majority of our customers come to us when they are taking their billing in-house for the first time, therefore experience, empathy, support and training from experts who know when and how to make that change is essential.

“This is where Inform Billing adds significant value – our job is not just to provide billing software but also to offer additional services, where appropriate, to help new entrants into the re-sale market.”

Eddie Bird, Joint Managing Director at reseller Unify Solutions agrees, “We looked at other billing products on the market and no product appeared to be particularly better or cheaper; we just needed a partner who would support us through the process. When we met with Inform Billing their experience in the industry gave us the confidence we needed and they were there to support us throughout the transition. They helped us to migrate the lines and advised us on maintaining a healthy relationship with our previous provider. Inform Billing don’t sign you up and then disappear.”

3. Are cloud based pay as you go solutions the way ahead for resellers?

According to Mark Curtis-Wood at Nimans, billing is probably the most critical part of a business because it’s your money.

“If it goes wrong it could cost you your business. Is pay as you go the right way? If you are a new reseller then pay as you go will seem attractive. But the most important aspect is that a billing service provides the ability to flex-up within a contract period. It’s the hidden costs a reseller needs to look out for like development work etc. Cheapest isn’t always best over time. A good bureau billing service from an existing supplier who understands your business will add much more value in the long term.”

Suzanne Chappell of TMS, says, “Of course cloud based pay as you go solutions the way ahead for resellers and TMS has effectively been in the cloud since 2001, so we are leaders in this technology. Cloud based solutions are flexible, cost–effective, simple to use and accessible anywhere, anytime.

Add to this our ability to professionally manage resellers ordering, provisioning, fault handling, billing and cash collection, and you have a complete managed service.

This approach means that resellers don’t rely on one key member of staff or have all their expertise in an employee who has to take holidays, could get sick, may even quit the business suddenly and leave you and your customers vulnerable and without the service they deserve.”

Darren Salisbury, Director at Inform Billing, comments, “Cloud solutions provide a distinct advantage to resellers in that they remove the pain and hassle regarding the hardware. Issues such software licences, security, accessibility, managing updates and data back-ups are all taken care of enabling resellers to focus on their core business competencies.

The ‘pay as you go’ model can work for very small start-up resellers, who are not prepared or are unable to commit to a billing system; however it is more beneficial to build a truly supportive partnership where the billing partner provides time, expertise and advice. Resellers are better served by a relationship committed to by both parties.

It is important to remember that ‘pay as you go’ non-committal solutions work both ways, it is a significant risk to resellers to have a major part of their business where the provider could terminate with no notice.

Resellers should be looking for a partner to build a long-term relationship with: “The relationship between a reseller and their billing partner will require time and effort from both parties, particularly in the early days, as well as a financial investment. Resellers need advanced tools to ensure accurate bills, extended functionality as well as ongoing feature enhancements at a relatively low cost, which can only be achieved through commitment on both sides.”

Steve Redman at Aurora Kendrick James, notes that as the breadth of cloud services grows, covering aspects of business operations – including telephony, software and data storage – the opportunity for resellers to incorporate these services with their traditional offering becomes greater.

“The challenge for resellers is to add these capabilities without being ‘me too’. Can they differentiate their offering, provide a more sophisticated or flexible solution, and do they work with a partner who can help? AKJ can help resellers differentiate their proposition and give them stand out in an overcrowded market.”

It’s an easy answer for Tim Sayer, “Imperatives is a solely SaaS vendor so I am bound to answer yes but there are genuine reasons why Imperatives adopted the model in the first place and why it has been so successful for us and others. The commercial model is one compelling argument but I would always focus on the other benefits that cloud delivers. It’s incredible that in an industry where resilience of communication systems is sold to end users on a daily basis you can still find resellers who’s entire customer database and billing system is hosted on a server on someone’s desk or in an unsecured cabinet. So data security is often overlooked and back up regimes tend to be poor or non existent – cloud is a simple and sensible solution to these security concerns.

Ed SaysBut cloud has become an overused term and means different things to different people – is simply trusting a vendor to host your data or servers really any better than having the kit in your own cabinet? It’s really important that resellers understand what’s being offered and question their vendors about the redundancy and resilience in their cloud infrastructure. All Imperatives solutions are deployed using third party, specialist cloud infrastructure providers and our elevate billing system utilises Amazon Web Services which powers many of the worlds leading companies and financial institutions. This not only delivers some incredible performance and scalability benefits that we are referring to as ‘elastic magic’ but also provides an enterprise level of security that is out of the reach of the majority of resellers both commercially and technically. The data within billing systems is incredibly sensitive and of course valuable and really needs to be hosted within secure, resilient environments and companies like Amazon have years of experience and have spent massive sums of money building the most resilient infrastructures available.”

Iain Sinnott of VanillaIP says that if you are just going to bill a flat monthly fee for services and include all calls in that package or have a simple monthly service fee adding in a monthly CDR for calls, your billing system can be pretty basic but you are not really in the Cloud business.

“A billing system for cloud services has to be nimble, allow users to consume services and apps on demand, manage contract terms for products ranging from multiple-years back down to a single day, manage one off and recurring charges with equal easy and ensure you never miss a penny regardless of whether your staff sell the product, your agent/reseller sells the product or your customer self – serves.

When you say you just want a simple, basic billing system what you are really saying I am not into Cloud which I would suggest might be a risky strategy in the medium term.”