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 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 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