A Step Change in Channel Billing

For years, billing systems have been seen as a necessary component for partners to get accurate bills out to customers in order to efficiently drag money through the door. They weren’t particularly sexy, but played an absolutely vital role for partners businesses. Today, billing systems have become an entirely different beast, Editor David Dungay spoke to some key providers this month to see how the landscape has evolved.

“The last 12 months has seen a profound change to how the channel views billing. This is due in part to the steady march towards open cloud based applications but mainly because of a step change in the products and services offered by the Channel.” Wail Sabbagh, Managing Director, Strategic Imperatives

“The last 12 months has seen a profound change to how the channel views billing. This is due in part to the steady march towards open cloud based applications but mainly because of a step change in the products and services offered by the Channel.”
Wail Sabbagh, Managing Director, Strategic Imperatives

The billing market has come a long way from its humble beginnings, it’s had to. The days of billing lines calls and minutes only seem a distant memory as the demands of the industry have broadened to include charging data records, network traffic measurement, calculating calls in multiple tariff zones, and much more. All the while these solutions are compiling charges for individual accounts to ensure accurate delivery of bills, it’s not the simple (ish) task it once was.

For the uninitiated, the world of billing can seem like slow moving beast. However, looking back over the last twelve months we can see much has evolved.

Derek Watson, Managing Director, Aurora commented, “It has been a busy period for billing, the biggest impact has been European Regulatory changes bringing an end to Roaming charges in the EU. Billing systems now need to be able to treat roaming charges like they are domestic charges, and there has been a big impact on out of zone charging. Customers who are relying on the network providers to properly classify out of zone charges are probably losing money if their billing systems are not up to date. Affinity is fully compliant with these changes and we have seen a big rise in our consultancy service which coincides with these industry changes.”

Sean Marsh, Director at ebb solutions said “With the imminent demise of ISDN on the horizon, forward thinking businesses are looking elsewhere for their multiline telecoms solutions. Hosted, as we know, is fast becoming the most prominent solution and with this comes more and more bundling of services. From a billing point of view this means that less and less calls have an actual end user sales value and therefore billing systems have to process vast quantities of calls just to find the odd few calls that are out of package and chargeable. Processing the calls and calculating the cost would at first glance appear to be a pointless task. However, this data can be crucial to the reseller as it enables them to validate whether the package is still producing a profit.”Wail Sabbagh, Managing Director, Strategic Imperatives added, “The last 12 months has seen a profound change to how the channel views billing. This is due in part to the steady march towards open cloud based applications but mainly because of a step change in the products and services offered by the Channel.

The focus today is on flexible monetisation of products, services and events and a shift towards a true subscription model. If your billing provider still talks about lines, calls and minutes then you are missing out on opportunities and risk being stuck in a quickly diminishing market.”

Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies, commented “The gradual move away from on-premise installation of billing platforms to cloud based deployment continues unabated. More partners choose to make the move to hosted with each passing month as the benefits and cost effectiveness of outsourcing this service become increasingly attractive. Almost all new partners now choose to host aBILLity in our data centre.”

“The truth is that no one software solution will ever do everything. An effective back office solution must be formed with ‘best-of-breed’ software packages that are integrated with APIs. This will deliver far greater results than one product alone could ever hope to achieve.” Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies

“The truth is that no one software solution will ever do everything. An effective back office solution must be formed with ‘best-of-breed’ software packages that are integrated with APIs. This will deliver far greater results than one product alone could ever hope
to achieve.”
Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies

New Applications and Integrations
As a core revenue management piece of software for most Channel Partners a key battleground has developed battleground for suppliers to integrate back office functions into software packages. For many Channel Partners the billing platform will be the only piece of bespoke software they deploy and as a central hub it makes sense to opt for something which comes with additional benefits like CRM.

Sean Marsh commented “The increased blending of billing and CRM into one solution is exactly what the channel needs going forward. Resellers simply provide three core functions; billing, customer service (support), and sales. These three core functions are mutually dependent on each other. Without any sales, there is no need for support or billing, without support there’s no provisioning and service so again no need to sell or bill and finally without billing what’s the point of selling and supporting the customer. By combining the three functions into one simple solution enables a smooth business process from end to end.”

Disneur commented, “Incorporating functionality from other types of applications into the billing platform, CRM and accounts functionality for example, may sound good on paper but, in reality, is unlikely to deliver the results a CP is looking for. What reasonable expectation could any billing software vendor have of emulating the range of functionality available in mass market CRMs such as Microsoft’s Dynamics CRM
or Salesforce?

The one exception to this rule is in the area of service management. Functionality that’s specific to network service management is likely to be useful in a billing platform and unlikely to come from anywhere else. This is especially the case if the billing platform also offers functionality for provisioning lines and managing faults with WLR3.

The truth is that no one software solution will ever do everything. An effective back office solution must be formed with ‘best-of-breed’ software packages that are integrated with APIs. This will deliver far greater results than one product alone could ever hope to achieve.”
Dave Dadds, CEO, VanillaIP said, “As a channel we can’t avoid CRM simply because they could end up as competitors attacking the customer’s telephony. Especially when you consider CRM providers purchasing SBC vendors such as Oracle and Acme Packet, notwithstanding that Oracle is more than just a CRM provider.

What’s driving this potential threat?
The sheer breadth of reach that the CRM is having within the customer business. Once used by Sales teams to track contacts and opportunities the CRM is often now crucial to business operations. CRM has helped the adoption of Hosted PBX in that the CRM is typically a SaaS model and that has helped drive adoption of all cloud services.”

Tim Sayer, Head of Business Development at Strategic Imperatives, commented, “I think that there is a place in the Channel for a ‘back-office in a box’ software solution that incorporates elements of prospect/sales management, billing, ticketing and accounts/ledger functionality. However, at the mid to upper end of the market there is a move towards ‘best of breed’ solutions where CPs realise that they need to build a back office that comprises the best software solutions available if they are going to retain their competitive advantage.

It’s highly unlikely that a software company that specialises in rating, billing and provisioning solutions like Imperatives will be able to deliver a CRM solution that can compete with Salesforce or an accounts platform that compares favourably with Xero for example. These market leading solutions are readily available and deliver business benefits that only a specialist in that field can provide. CPs have realised that in order to maximise margins and deliver excellent customer service they need all that these solutions can offer.”

Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Inform Billing, “A few years ago there was a movement towards all-encompassing systems – bringing billing, CRM and accounts into a single platform. More recently we have seen resellers realising the advantages of choosing more specialist ‘best of breed’ systems, designed to fulfil a specific purpose and then finding relevant parts to integrate.

Separate systems, capable of communicating and transferring information seamlessly, provide a far better overall solution than all-encompassing systems that will undoubtedly have limitations in functionality. I foresee this trend continuing, alongside increasing demand for cloud-based billing applications – where the expectation for integration with CRM, accounting and ticketing systems is far greater – leading to improved communication links between individual, specialist applications.”

“The next phase of this convergence will mean an increase in requirements to bill for non-traditional voice services, such as IoT, IT related subscriptions and ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ type solutions.” Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Inform Billing

“The next phase of this convergence will mean an increase in requirements to bill for non-traditional voice services, such as IoT, IT related subscriptions and ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ type solutions.”
Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Inform Billing

What’s next for Billing?
As with any software enabled system, development is constant and demands for more functionality just keep on coming. But what is next for billing?
Sabbagh commented, “The big areas of development for billing are surprisingly not in traditional billing per se where we will continue to see the demise of the once all important bill run as billing systems adapt to the new subscription economy and rating becomes more of a revenue assurance exercise and minutes become less important.

At the heart of a modern billing system and a key focus for development moving forward is analytics. Improved analytics will enable CPs to build more profitable propositions, better understand their customer, detect & manage fraud and monitor their performance in real time.”
Watson added, “Analytics / Reporting – allowing resellers to understand their customers better, and tailor packages that best meet their needs.  Also proactive reporting and analysis to allow resellers and end customers to stay on top of usage and adjust packages as soon as is necessary and avoiding bill shock scenarios.

Automation – along with digital transformation, the need to remove manual steps from processes ie double keying, which adds time and inaccuracy, is growing.  This automation includes billing processes but also customer [tariff] management.”
Bodsworth added, “Over the last few years we have seen a transition in our customer base from traditional voice resellers to an increasing number of IT resellers, as product convergence has taken hold. This has led to changes in the services our platform is used to bill and the way in which they are billed. For example, the advent of SIP bundled with inclusive minutes has changed the way that voice services have been sold. The next phase of this convergence will mean an increase in requirements to bill for non-traditional voice services, such as IoT, IT related subscriptions and ‘Infrastructure as a Service’ type solutions. We expect to see a huge upturn in the requirement for subscription and consumption based billing.”

Marsh continued, “Looking to the future, billing solutions will likely consolidate even more and more into a single business solution, providing the holy grail of one bill for all utilities and services. Once again with the future demise of ISDN on the horizon and more hosted solutions being implemented IT support, rather than telecoms support, will become a part of the resellers range of services they can sell. IT support of the end users network is vital to ensure the quality of service of communications over the data network and this will become part of the overall service bundle for lines and services.”

Ed says…

As a central piece of software for most partners, choosing the right billing platform which not only allows to bill your customers accurately today, but also tomorrow has never been so important. Carefully considering the added value a provider can bring around the proposition is also becoming increasingly important. Choose wisely, choose a provider that shares your vision and will service you as you grow.

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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine