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billing people awards

Winners Announced at the National Billing People Awards

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The winners of the National Billing People Awards were announced on 25 September via video conference. The National Billing People Awards received a large volume of high-quality entries, so judging was difficult to select the lucky winners. The virtual awards event was presented by Vincent Disneur, Managing Director of telecoms billing specialist Union Street Technologies, platinum sponsor of Billing People.

Billing People 2020 Winners

Reseller Billing Team of the year – Glemnet

Wholesale Billing Team of the year – Pragma

Commitment to Customer Service – Lily

Billing Revenue Growth Champion – FourNet

Continuous Billing Service Leader – Virocom

Commenting on the awards, Disneur stated, “The work carried out by billing teams is essential both to compliance and customer satisfaction, the channel could not function without them. Their role is as vital as it is complex, so it’s only right that their efforts should be recognised and celebrated. Unfortunately, due to the ongoing pandemic, we were not able to present the Awards in person. However, we were able to maintain the element of surprise for the winners by having trophies delivered to another member of their households ahead of time, then subsequently presented to the winners live on the call!”

Launched in January, Billing People, the organisation behind the awards, seeks to highlight the vital role billing personnel play in channel businesses. The Billing People community is free to join and provides a valuable forum for billing professionals to collaborate, share ideas and develop their professional skills to the benefit of their businesses.

vincent disneur
Vincent Disneur, Managing Director of Union Street Technologies, platinum sponsor of Billing People

Avoid Growing Pains With Back-office Efficiency

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One of the problems of rapid success in business is that the trading situation often outpaces the ability of the back-office and admin functions to cope. The problems of success are of course preferable to the alternative, but too many telecoms entrepreneurs struggle on with inadequate back-office systems until they hit a crisis, sometimes threatening the whole future of a company.

A ‘make do and mend’ approach to back-office functions is also wasteful of time and resources. Entering the same data for separate CRM, accounts, service engineering and so on requires duplicate data entry which can lead to mistakes and conflicting records. The result can be that the service department goes ahead with an equipment installation, even though the accounts department has put the customer on the ‘stop’ list for non-payment.

When rapidly expanding businesses have an ‘out of control’ experience, there can be an overreaction. Business analyst consultancies are hired and top of the line ERP (enterprise resource planning) systems may be implemented at enormous cost, providing an ‘over-engineered’ solution for an SME business going through a growth spurt. It is a classic sledgehammer to crack a nut scenario. All too often, the implementation of such systems can take far longer and is more painful than expected and may never provide a reasonable ROI.

How Telecoms CRM Offers A Solution

Perhaps a more sensible approach is to take cost-effective ‘best of breed’ applications and integrate them into a coordinated whole where CRM generates a service call, which triggers customer billing and so on. For most resellers, the billing platform will usually be the core revenue generating software in the business, so it makes sense to structure an integrated back-office solution around the billing platform. An integrated solution can be much quicker, and less risky to implement and each element of the solution can be installed configured and tested independently. Each component part of the solution will also offer the best possible functionality for the application it is deployed to do. This approach can potentially reduce the time before CPs will enjoy the benefits and gain a real ROI.

An independent supplier of billing solutions can ensure that the CP has access to integrated back office solutions that link the billing platform with provisioning, telecoms CRM customer management and provides a tight fit with the company’s accounts package. This provides multiple benefits including a single point for data entry, reducing errors; up to date and synchronised data across all applications; and a reduced workload for administrative staff.

As an independent supplier ourselves of billing, WLR3 and back-office solutions for CPs, Union Street understands the ‘back-office’ challenge and can help our user community to offer services that rival and excel anything that their competitors may be able to offer.

For customer contact management, the Union Street aBILLity billing platform features out of the box integrations for Microsoft Dynamics CRM providing a bi-directional data exchange and synchronisation between applications. aBILLity also includes a tight integration with Sage accounts so that the invoices raised can be automatically posted into sales ledger, broken down by nominal account. aBILLity will create a direct debit collections file for the bank and post the payments back to the sales ledger. The accounts activity including payments received are then viewable within aBILLity. As part of the invoice run aBILLity will also create statements for dispatch.

Union Street’s APIs and web services make it possible for third party integrators to link aBILLity to most other applications. This type of integration provided by aBILLity eliminates both the time wasted re-entering data to an accounts package and the errors that can occur with manual data entry, improving customer service.

Some CPs have an unrealistic expectation of an ideal back-office telecoms CRM system that will do everything brilliantly but then end up with ‘Jack of All Trades’ result that is cumbersome and clunky. Instead, they should look at integrating back-office administrative functions so that they function efficiently as one. In this way, telecoms entrepreneurs can ensure that rapid growth is a positive and not a painful experience.

Authored by Gareth Pritchard, Marketing Manager for Union Street

Intelligent Billing Systems of Tomorrow

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Intelligent billing systems of tomorrow – how hefty investments in billing system upgrades will create more powerful platforms and stronger margin opportunities for resellers.

I doubt there’s many CPs that would deny the importance of robust and accurate billing systems, though perhaps there’s still a few out there working under the misapprehension that generating invoices is all that a billing platform can, or will ever be able to offer.

The reality, however, is that billing systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated, providing solutions both to age-old challenges and emerging opportunities alike. In this year alone, Union Street is set to spend well over £1m on the research and development of our products with the overarching goals of helping our clients to increase margins, work more efficiently and gain a competitive advantage in the market place.

So where exactly is all this investment taking us and what does the future hold for billing solutions?

The answer to this question is to some extent apparent in trends that are already visible in the telecoms industry, billing software market, and the wider world of IT.

One such trend that’s easy to spot is integration. Whilst many CPs might believe that a single back-office product is the answer, the reality is that a joined-up back-office solution, formed with the ‘best-of-breed’ solutions from across the software market, will produce far greater results than one product alone ever could. As technology advances, integration between various software packages will become much tighter, eventually providing a completely integrated back-office solution. This will provide multiple benefits such as a single point for data entry, reduced errors, up to date and synchronised data across all applications, and a reduced workload for administrative staff.

For most CPs the billing platform will usually be the core revenue-generating software in the business. It’s also usually the only software package that you’ll find in a typical CP business, that’s been purpose-built for use by CPs. It’s logical therefore that any integrated back-office solution of the future will likely be structured around the telecoms billing platform, and provide seamless integration and business process management between software packages across the business, such as customer relationship management (CRM); accounts; credit management; service management; provisioning; support; and so on.

Change is also likely to be driven by a rise in the number of CPs investing in their own switch, let’s call these switched resellers for want of a better term. Owning a switch offers numerous cost benefits and also provides the flexibility to create innovative packages for consumers. This is certain to be a game-changer for the market, and billing systems will no doubt adapt to complement this change – perhaps by offering a greater range of tools for provisioning and service management.

One disturbing trend in the comms industry that seems set to stay is the increasingly widespread presence of fraud. The Telecommunications UK Fraud Forum (TUFF) estimates that the UK telecoms industry suffered losses of around £953 million in 2011, a figure based on an average loss of 2.4 per cent against the total operator reported revenue of £39.7 billion. This figure is certain to go up as fraudsters’ methods become increasingly sophisticated.

The rise of the switched reseller may well help to combat fraud. Most billing systems already provide some early warning of fraudulent activity. Our LineGuard software, for example, checks CDRs as they are imported and if unusual activity is detected, an alert is sent to the billing manager. However, LineGuard can only work as fast as the CDRs are provided by the carrier, which is usually once every 24 hours. Switches can be set to supply CDRs much more frequently so, it’s likely that in the future, billing platforms will detect fraud much earlier than at present, possibly even suspending the service automatically if the situation is severe enough to warrant such action.

With margins in voice and data being continually squeezed, CPs are becoming increasingly savvy when it comes to optimising their revenue streams to ensure they are neither being overcharged by suppliers, nor undercharging customers. Most telecoms billing systems will to some extent, already be used to conduct in-depth margin analysis, reporting and revenue assurance checks but, as technology progresses, this will gradually become a much more automated, intuitive and less time-consuming process, with far less margin for error.

Over the next five to ten years it’s likely that we will see an increase in the popularity of service-based contracts where each customer is charged a flat fee for their services. In a world where the customer’s bill is fixed but the CP’s bill is variable, there will be an even greater need for a billing platform to provide accurate reporting and analysis to identify loss-making customers. On the flip side of the coin, CPs will need to become proactive when it comes to identifying customers that are overspending on a service they don’t use to its full potential, switching them to a more appropriate service, or risk losing that lucrative customer to a competitor. Once again, such customers will need to be identified by the billing platform.

No view of the future would be complete of course without reference to the cloud. Like all software applications, billing solutions will increasingly be available in the cloud on a SaaS model with all the usual benefits such as disaster recovery, accessibility, reduced cost of infrastructure and maintenance, and so on. Since introducing our Cloud Hosted Billing service we have seen tremendous uptake from customers of all sizes and we fully expect this service to become more popular as time goes on.

Looking at the broader picture, as the telecoms market matures it’s inevitable that lines will continue to blur and that communications technology will increasingly converge and become a part of the rest of the IT world but, no matter what the future holds in store for telecoms, you can be sure of one thing: There will always be a need to bill it.

Authored by Tony Cook, Managing Director of Union Street

telecoms fraud

Telecoms Fraud: Minimising The Risk

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It’s no secret that telecoms fraud has become one of the most widespread and damaging problems facing the telecoms industry today.

Telecoms fraud comes in all shapes and sizes and impacts across the sector in a number of ways, ranging from attacks against interconnect traffic to direct attacks on PBX and even situations where multiple PBXs are hacked in order to create major challenges in both detection and investigation.

An increasing difficulty is the international nature of fraud which makes identifying and subsequently prosecuting frauds nigh on impossible for resellers and authorities alike.

Quantifying exactly how much of a financial impact fraud has on the industry is difficult due to the complexity that is associated in recording losses and the surrounding sensitivities that go with a company declaring they have been
a victim.

Despite these difficulties the Telecommunications UK Fraud Forum (TUFF) estimates that the telecoms industry suffered losses of around £953 million in 2011, a figure based on an average loss of 2.4 per cent against the total operator reported revenue of £39.7 billion.

One thing is certain and that is that most resellers will have encountered fraud at least once, and many companies will have come up against fraud on multiple occasions. New start-ups that haven’t taken the threat seriously are particularly vulnerable and easy targets for fraudsters, the percentage loss for such companies has been known to reach as high as 15 per cent!

The matter of how to deal with a customer that has been the victim of fraud can also be a thorny issue. In most contracts it will be the end user that is ultimately liable for the cost of fraud and there are many situations where resellers will follow the letter of the law, placing the responsibility for the overall fraud management onto the
customer.

This approach can save money in the short term but will inevitably damage the customer relationship, jeopardising the future of that relationship and possibly the reseller’s reputation in the long term.

Many resellers believe that it’s better to take a more diplomatic approach and by sharing the costs of fraud and providing advice on fraud management as part of the service, customer loyalty can often be maintained. Resellers taking this approach are often viewed as market leaders and the people to do business with.

Regardless of which approach a reseller takes when reacting to a fraud event, the effects will always be damaging to some extent. So what can resellers do to proactively prevent fraud?

Educating customers early should be a priority for all resellers. To overcome fraud customers need to know the risks and resellers should aim to engage with their customers in a way that doesn’t scare but educates on the risks and the best practices to deploy in order to reduce or avoid these risks.

For example if a business only trades locally or nationally why should they need international access on the lines?

Or if a small office is closed between Friday and Monday does it have to leave office equipment fully operational? This is particularly important during long holiday breaks such as Christmas and Easter and measures such as these can prevent fraud from ever occurring.

Raising awareness on the latest scams can also help to cut down on the occurrences of fraud.

One thing that Union Street has done to assist our reseller and carrier customers in this process is to join TUFF, which means we’re kept informed on the latest trends and developments in the area of fraud and fraud detection. We are then able to share this information with our customers who in turn pass this knowledge onto their customers.

By sharing information in this way we are able to raise awareness and keep customers up to date on the latest risks and how these can be proactively addressed.

In addition to proactively raising the awareness of fraud, technology is also playing a pivotal role in the early detection and mitigation of fraud when it occurs.

There are now a number of products and services on the market that can assist resellers to both detect and, where necessary, close down fraudulent activity in a much more timely manner than even just a few years ago.

Union Street’s LineGuard module of the aBILLity billing suite can for example use multiple algorithms to analyse CDRs and detect unusual calling patterns and charge rates in a customer’s account.

Once detected, LineGuard can automatically use aBILLity’s WLR3 interface to put a bar on further calling to the suspect numbers, ending the fraud event as quickly as possible and greatly reducing the cost of fraud.

Resellers should aim to select carriers, telecoms billing

software providers, CPE manufacturers and other suppliers that provide the tools to detect and stop fraud early, and question their suppliers to be sure that they understand the various technical aspects of equipment and services that they are offering to their customers.

By putting as many technological hurdles in place as possible, resellers can dramatically reduce the potential for fraud.

In a wider sense, a solution to fraud can only come about through team work, with all the players in the industry being proactive in the space of fraud and fraud detection.

Inevitably fraud continues to evolve to reflect change. So as communication infrastructures improve to combat fraud, fraudsters will continually find ways around systems’ security. It is therefore essential for the industry to work together to develop telecom systems to be as robust against fraud as they can be, ensuring that any weaknesses are quickly identified and closed off.

There will always be people who look to exploit weaknesses in systems and equipment, and it’s likely that frauds will always pose challenges to the industry in one way or another, but by combining our experience and efforts we should be able to have a serious impact on their efforts.
To find out more about LineGuard, Union Street’s Telecoms Fraud Management system get in touch with one of our experts.

Authored by Gareth Pritchard, Marketing Manager for Union Street

choosing a billing platform

Choosing A Billing Platform

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No one can deny that a billing platform is essential to any CP’s business. Yet despite its obvious importance, many resellers don’t often look beyond the most cursory details such as price and basic functionality when selecting a billing platform.

There are several billing platforms on the market and on the surface of it, all billing platforms will ostensibly do similar things. It would, however, be a mistake to believe that all billing platforms are created equal. Some address all requirements, some only support part of the process. Some will be able to process billing data in a matter of hours whereas others can take days.

So what should call providers be looking for? This article is intended to provide a general introduction to the key factors that should be considered when selecting a billing platform.

Choosing A Billing Platform

Pricing will be a crucial factor for any CP evaluating the billing market. Pricing structures can vary greatly from one billing platform to the next which obviously makes life difficult for CPs trying to compare value for money in the various platforms on the market. It is important to look beyond price and aim to consider the total cost of ownership. The cheapest billing platform isn’t often the most cost effective, especially if it is slow to process call data records, inefficient to use and requires a high level of supervision to ensure accuracy. In short; don’t simply look at the financial cost, consider what your billing platform could cost you in time.

Scalability is perhaps one of the most important yet most overlooked features when choosing a billing platform. Most platforms will comfortably generate an invoice on day one, but will they be able to effectively manage your company’s billing process five years from now?

If for example, you’re starting a business from scratch then you may want to keep hardware and staff costs down by selecting a hosted bureau option, but as time goes on and your business and customer base grows it will likely become more cost effective to bring this process in house. Future-proofing your business by choosing a platform that caters to both these requirements and that can be scaled effortlessly without any dislocation is, therefore, a must and will help to avoid the inevitable cost and disruption associated with switching billing platforms later down the line.

Finding out whether or not the billing platform can integrate with other back office solutions should be another key consideration. In addition to a billing platform, most CPs will also need accounting, WLR3 and customer relationship management (CRM) software such as Sage Accounts and Microsoft Dynamics CRM. A billing platform that can seamlessly integrate and provide full bidirectional data exchange with these applications can offer numerous productivity benefits, in effect creating a single point for data entry, reducing errors by updating and synchronising data across all applications, and reducing the workload of administrative staff.

A comprehensive range of revenue assurance tools is also an essential element in any billing platform. Constantly checking that everything is correctly billed at the right tariffs so that revenue is not lost and customers are not overcharged can greatly improve profits whilst reducing disputes and base churn. The largest telco carriers have teams of people working on revenue assurance, double checking everything that is billed. They do this because it pays off.

A telecoms billing system that can help guard against fraud is equally important. With fraud becoming an increasing problem CPs would be wise to find a billing platform that can automatically detect and close down a fraud event before it becomes even more costly. The LineGuard module in Union Street’s aBILLity billing platform can, for example, analyse CDRs and detect unusual calling patterns and charge rates in a customer’s account. Once detected, LineGuard can automatically use aBILLity’s WLR3 interface to put a bar on further calling to the suspect numbers, ending the fraud event as quickly as possible and greatly reducing the cost of fraud.

CPs should also take the time to research not just the product, but also the company behind the product. Take the time to 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. 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 (SLAs)? 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 with 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. Will they be able to cope with the pace of change in the telecoms industry or could the product become outdated – and consequently limit your ability to move with new industry trends – if adequate resources aren’t being channelled into development.

At the end of the day, only you can decide which billing platform is right for your business, but all these questions and considerations should be raised at the tender stage. Ultimately you need to be satisfied that whichever billing platform you choose can be with you all the way.

Authored by Gareth Pritchard, Marketing Manager for Union Street

Telecoms Revenue Assurance

How Important is Telecoms Revenue Assurance?

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One of the things that has come as a surprise to us over the last few years is that the communications providers (CPs) that have prospered through the recession are not those obsessed with pricing. In fact, those CPs most willing to cut their margins in an attempt to offer the cheapest calls are the ones that have generally found themselves in trouble. It’s a sad fact of life that if you sell on price alone, someone will always be cheaper eventually.

Selling on price alone is not a sustainable business model. The customers attracted by the cheapest price point are the ones with the least loyalty, chopping and changing whenever they can see a fraction of a penny saving on a minute. The base churn involved in this model is disruptive and costly.

In contrast, those CPs that have done very well are the ones who take the trouble to maintain their billing tariffs by following good housekeeping routines and making the most of their telecoms billing platform’s functionality. It is revenue assurance, not margin cutting which has been the path to success through these difficult times.

Best practice in telecoms revenue assurance means checking constantly that everything is correctly billed at the right tariffs so that revenue is not lost and customers are not overcharged leading to disputes and base churn. If you think that the benefits of revenue assurance are not worth the effort, then note that the big telco carriers have teams of people working on revenue assurance, double-checking everything that is billed. They do this because it pays off.

When implementing our aBILLity billing platform for new customers it’s amazing to see the number of CPs who do not bother to check their margins prior to every bill run. Some CPs do not regularly check their actual buy prices are in accordance with the tariff agreed with the carrier. Assuming the carrier always gets it right can be a costly mistake. If your end-customer rate tables are wrongly set or not regularly maintained, your customers could be being overcharged or undercharged which is bad practice either way. It often appears that someone set the system up for them in the past and they just let it run!

Common sense says they you should conduct appropriate margin checks as a matter of routine before and after each billing run. Only by doing this can you have peace of mind that your customers are being correctly billed so as to maximise margins and ensure that you’re not losing money. We have seen some absolute howlers, where customers have been charged an expensive 09 premium rate for calls to mobiles, either because they hadn’t taken the time to work out proper tariffs, or in some cases, because they hadn’t invested in training that would have educated them on where they were going wrong! Of course, when the customer eventually finds out they are very upset.

There really is no excuse because most telecoms billing platforms should provide the tools to drill down to where margins can be increased and where potential losses could arise. In the case of our aBILLity platform, there are a number of telecoms revenue assurance tools available as standard within the package. CPs can also create innovative packages and price plans and there are numerous features and billing techniques to increase margin and add to the bottom line, without necessarily increasing published tariffs. ‘What If’ functionality allows variables on the customer’s billing profile to be changed to maximise either a cost-saving or profit. For buy-in rates, Carrier Watch functionality will allow the CP to check buying rates against an agreed tariff and automatically flag up specific over-charged calls, so a credit claim can be e-mailed back to the carrier.

Telecoms revenue assurance is not a big ordeal because full management reporting is generally available. For example with aBILLity ‘Sales Check’, full onscreen reporting is available for the CPs’ to slice and dice their revenues and margin any which way they desire. If you have never audited your margins or simply don’t have time, we offer a revenue assurance consultancy service where an expert billing manager will spend a day scrutinising your system looking for any margin increasing or lost revenue opportunities. For those CPs daunted by the task of getting their billing system back to optimum levels, we also offer a three-day Spring Clean programme of database cleaning with training so that the billing platform is in tip-top condition and the correct staff skill levels are there to maintain it.

Authored by Peppa Campbell, Field Services Manager at Union Street