The billing boom

Comms Business spoke to the Channel about the billing and monetisation solutions available and how they’re adapting to changing needs.

When it comes to billing, the needs of MSPs and resellers are becoming ever more complex in line with the technology landscape. When you add to the mix the current economic climate and the changes involved in recovering from the pandemic, it’s clear that in order to keep up, billing vendors need to be on the ball with paying attention to these requirements.

Brett Harvey, head of new business at Tekton Billing, explained the vital role billing plays in every reseller business. He said, “Billing is arguably the most mission-critical application in a reseller’s BSS arsenal so, above all, the reseller needs confidence in their billing vendor.

“A good billing vendor should provide a rock-solid platform resellers can trust their businesses with. With billing software now being cloud hosted concerns of availability, reliability, security and performance should be completely eliminated and can be left entrusted to the vendor.”

As well as considering practical requirements like the pivot toward hybrid working, and therefore the need to provide flexible web-based services that can accommodate this, billing providers must consider their support and service offering — something that is “just as much part of the billing solution as the software platform itself”, Harvey told Comms Business.

“Whether taking a full bureau service from the billing provider or managing billing operations in-house, resellers should expect billing vendors to act as an extension to their own team. To achieve this, billing vendors must nurture close working relationships with their partners and build an intimate understanding of each partner’s own business propositions and billing nuances.”

He added that the reseller also must be confident that the people supporting them aren’t just experts in their own software, but have strong domain knowledge in the Channel too.

“Often our partners aren’t just looking for a matter-of-fact ‘click this, press that’ answer, but instead are looking for more insightful responses gained from real-world experience and explanations of why a particular approach may be the best solution,” he said.

Simon Adams, managing director at PRD Technologies agreed that MSPs and resellers need more than just a billing system. They need a sophisticated platform, he said, capable of highly complex, real-time automated data processing, analysis, invoicing and payment collections for increasingly complex and integrated revenue streams.

“We believe it is extremely important for billing providers to provide insightful data analysis and reporting,” Adams said. “This is becoming fundamental in the development of MSP’s and reseller’s business strategies, enabling them to assess the performance of the products and services within their portfolios in order to maximise profitability.

“When it comes to billing, resellers have the added complexity of needing to process data from one or more distributors to onward-bill their end customers. This can be complicated for cloud-based services and licences, such as Microsoft Azure. Resellers need a solution from billing providers to address this challenge.”

PRD’s range of flexible Intelligent Billing solutions has been designed to be adaptable to each client’s individual requirements, rather than being a one size fits all system.

“We’ve specifically developed a VAR version of our billing platform, at the request of Westcoast Cloud for their VAR network, to automate the processing and analysis of distributor data for resellers, giving them faster and more precise billing,” he said.

The concept of a ‘one size fits all’ billing solution can be suitable where the MSP and resellers are happy to offer products from a wholesale partner that has complete ownership of the billing system, said Keith Pearshouse, managing director at Symbiant Technologies.

“The billing needs for vanilla products can be easily met but does that limit the MSP and reseller from designing products to stand out from the crowd? At Symbiant our focus continues to be on providing our clients with tailored simple-to-use solutions to meet their specific requirements. Billing can be a complex task; billing solutions need to be simple for billing managers to use.”

For Vincent Disneur, managing director, Union Street Technologies, being able to provide one bill that brings together various suppliers is essential. He explained, “More and more, resellers are looking to their billing provider to be able to process charge data from their various suppliers in any given format.

“Having to utilise multiple systems to process billing for different services is inefficient, time consuming and is likely to result in multiple invoices for the end user. As product portfolios increasingly diverge into IT and other areas of opportunity, resellers need their billing system to be able to process whatever they throw at it and generate one, easy to understand bill, for each customer.

“The current cost crisis has made this requirement even more important, as being able to process all supplier data in a single platform makes it far easier to conduct reporting and to assess the overall profitability of each customer account.”

New market movements

As with any type of software being used in the Channel, current trends and broader changes across the UK will impact the market for billing and monetisation solutions in numerous ways.

Wail Sabbagh, director at Strategic Imperatives said that rapid change driven by a new connectivity landscape, more digitally savvy customers and layered applications is reshaping the telecoms services market as well as the business model that has ‘long been the bedrock of the channel’.

While some may see this as a threat, he added, agile service providers that are able to adapt will see “amazing opportunities”.
“As a result, the traditional role of billing is evolving to empower service providers to offer new products, subscription services, smart packages and innovative propositions,” Sabbagh commented.

“A modern billing solution is also a protector with its role extending to identifying and plugging revenue leaks, reducing churn and of course providing a real time view of margins, turnover and profitability. Selecting the right billing solution is more important today than at any time since the early days of telecom deregulation.”

Sabbagh also pointed to the increasing complexity of the telecoms supply chain, with partnering becoming ‘essential’ for service providers to broaden their offering and target new revenue streams.

“The service provider’s role within this new value chain will vary and will need billing and transaction data to be integrated across all partner systems for accurate billing and clear accountability,” he said.

“With the majority of billing providers now providing various flavours of cloud service delivery, integration frameworks and web-based frontends, forward looking service providers are now looking to address more sophisticated and complex challenges and asking more difficult questions from their billing providers.”

For example, questions are being asked around launching multiple brands, billing using different currencies, system integration with payment providers and scheduling product launches in advance, Sabbagh said.

“In short, can my billing system take me to the next level, or will I be stuck with a mishmash of workarounds and manual processes that only act as a roadblock to growth and future expansion?”

Elsewhere, trends in flexible working practices due to the pandemic and skills shortages seen across the UK are driving demand for improved cloud-based services from the Channel, said PRD Technologies’ Simon Adams. He explained the knock-on effect that this is having for the billing market in particular.

“In order to meet these demands, diversify and remain competitive, most MSPs, ISPs and resellers need to offer a comprehensive range of flexible products and services in the form of bundles and packages including telephony, fibre broadband and other cloud-based systems,” he commented.

“Hybrid and remote working trends are impacting the requirement for billing and monetisation software that can accommodate rapid changes in providers offerings, with instant scalability to meet new demands. Loss of revenue is a real risk if this is not done rigorously and in real-time.”

Tekton Billing’s Brett Harvey said that end users have become familiar with self-service such as usage alerts and spend caps from their consumer experience, and now expect the same in a B2B setting.

“As this trend grows a competent customer portal becomes a USP in its own right to the reseller, often being critical to winning big tenders. Beyond this, network integrations for customer-led SIM swaps and call barring allow resellers to compete on portal functionality alongside the ‘household names’,” he said.

“When the contract lands, resellers need to make the most of frugal buying. We’re seeing a big trend in telcos buying large wholesale shared data pots and reallocating this into smaller bundles across individual customers and connections. Ultimately it’s the billing platform itself that enables this.

“Instead of basic ‘pass-through’ billing, sophisticated supplier reconciliation and revenue assurance tools are required to monitor and manage the bundle optimisation.”

The connectivity landscape is in a hugely transformative period with the rollout of 5G and Project Gigabit, and the upcoming PSTN switch-off and move toward all-IP.

These trends, and the shift from traditional call methods, are forcing resellers to identify and deliver alternative sustainable income line, said Symbiant Technologies’ Keith Pearshouse.

“Customers are increasingly demanding to only pay for services when in use. Billing providers need to be able to convert new data feeds into billing information, with the ability to charge in line with whatever tariff structure has been agreed with the end user,” he added.

Disneur, from Union Street Technologies, expects bill simplification and data unification to continue to shape billing innovations. He said, “Resellers are looking for more than just a billing system. They want that wrap around service which brings their sale to bill process together into one single flow of data that doesn’t need to be re-keyed along the way.

“Resellers want to simplify and unify their internal processes and teams. They want to create repeatable processes and automate activities wherever possible to save them time and effort and allow them to re-focus internal resource elsewhere.”

He added, “Telecoms is a changing marketplace, and over the coming years, we will see the closedown of the PSTN network, increase of services such as FTTC and FTTP and VOIP / UC solutions to replace other forms of communications. Mobile network offerings are also evolving, for example, the recent changes to roaming regulations.

“A reseller’s billing system must be able to keep up with all these changes in order to fully capitalise on emerging opportunities and bill new services. A good billing provider will be ahead of the curve, offering solutions and support that will help guide resellers through these changes in ways that maximise productivity and profitability.”

Adding value

According to Harvey, features once considered nice-to-haves are now increasingly becoming must-haves in the billing market. He offered the example of manual CDR import and reprocessing, something he said should be a “thing of the past” — a comprehensive end-customer self-service portal should be ‘par-for-course in any credible billing platform’, he added.

“There are certainly other value-adds, beyond core billing functions, that a billing solution can offer. But I’m a firm believer that even these should be part of the standard offering and not a chargeable add-on from the billing provider,” Harvey commented. “The reseller and billing provider relationship is symbiotic so locking features away behind paywalls only serves to stifle reseller growth and vendor success.”

Many business functions hold close synergies with billing, and resellers can benefit directly from these within their billing platform, he said, resulting in a ‘harmonious end-user journey’.

Harvey said, “For instance, driving customers to an online self-service portal to collect invoices gives resellers a known captive audience every month for cross-sell and up-sell opportunities.

“Marketing messages can be targeted to customers not currently subscribed to specific services, and billing analytics in the portal itself will highlight to a customer if they need to increase bundle allowances or line capacity. Using an onboard ticketing system then lets the user raise product enquiries directly under a single pane of glass.”

He added that this promotes a great experience for the customer as well as streamlining resellers’ internal business processes, allowing them to support a larger base with less demand on manual resources.

Simon Adams at PRD Technologies agreed with the concept of providing what might once have been seen as add-ons as standard practice, pointing out that API integrations to other key third-party systems such as banking, accounting, CRM and marketplace should be standard functionality.

“That’s inspired us to invest heavily in the development of integrations, automating processes wherever possible, even with our entry-level solution. The resulting speed and accuracy minimises the risk of manual errors whilst maintaining a steady cash-flow for our customers,” he said.

“As previously mentioned, we also feel data analysis and insights are a basic requirement and crucial to support MSPs and resellers strategies. Again, we have included a range of real-time management reports as standard across all our billing platforms, plus revenue assurance, customer and product performance, market share, validations and reconciliations reports.

“Other basic requirements we include at entry level are web-based user portal access, multiple rate scheme and pro-rata billing, along with onboarding and ongoing support.”

PRD’s Intelligent Billing solution now includes a full API integration with ConnectWise to auto collect and process variable data, apply rating and push rated data back to ConnectWise for invoicing.

Adams described the company’s recently created API integration with GoCardless as a huge win for resellers with large customer bases, allowing for rejected DDs and collections to be automatically updated in the system without the need for manual intervention.

“For more complex data analysis, insights and business intelligence we have developed an API to Microsoft Automate and PowerBI.

“Our multi-lingual and multi-currency functionality is available on our Pro and bespoke packages for organisations expanding into new territories. Corporates can also take advantage of our converged platform for group multi-sector and multi-hierarchical billing add-ons, along with white-labelling, automated bureau billing and BoBo options.”

Adams said that completely bespoke services are designed around specific customer needs, because not every MSP or reseller has the same requirements.

“Channel companies need to see investment in a highly automated and sophisticated billing solution as something that not only provides them with long-term cost savings, but also feeds into their strategy through insightful business intelligence,” he said.

“Investing in additional features and functionality will increase efficiencies in data processing, payment collection and ultimately cash flow, maximising revenue streams and giving channel partners a competitive edge.”

The most basic requirement is that a solution is always-on and simple-to-use, delivering accurate bills on time every time, added Symbiant Technologies’ Keith Pearshouse.

“Cloud-based solutions are rapidly replacing the traditional client server based options. This has allowed us to develop a variety of solutions that provide some of the customer management responsibility to their white label partners, that has been particularly attractive to resellers running partner programmes by offering them secure access to their end-user data, with add, update and delete customer data.”

Approaching new challenges

Pearshouse recognised that turning prospects into billing customers has resulted in demand to include sales management functionality.
“Credit checking of prospective customers is becoming a more regular requirement with direct access via APIs to the selected credit checking portal,” he commented.

“Continuing the theme of credit risk and debt management during the current challenging economic conditions we are being asked to support clients manage their debt risk whether that is from payment default, Direct Debit cancellation, or intra-month total debt risk. As ever with debt management, timely action is critical. Fundamental to that is having a billing solution that enables our clients to issue invoices no later than day four of the following month.”

Thanks to the redefined importance of billing as the landscape evolves, emerging requirements are now traditionally out of the comfort zone of many channel billing providers, said Wail Sabbagh, director, Strategic Imperatives.

Sabbagh explained that forward thinking service providers expect their solution to fully automate the lead to cash process by integrating with payment gateways, processing payments automatically and maintaining customer balances in real-time.

Sabbagh added, “Automating the lead to cash process is critical to ensure commercial agility. In the current economic climate, communication providers want to play their part in supporting their customers by offering payment plans, accepting partial payments, taking service deposits and allowing ad-hoc payments. After all being socially responsible is a highly effective strategy for maintaining customer loyalty and enhancing reputation - not to mention, it’s the admirable thing to do.”

There are also challenges around reporting, with Sabbagh pointing out that record numbers of connected devices, increasingly sophisticated customer behaviour and a growing trend for complex multi-tiered propositions is resulting in a huge amount of data created by service providers, continuously growing in size and complexity.

“For service providers, it is very challenging to manage this surge in data volumes using traditional reporting functionality; however, a modern billing solution can transform this challenge into an opportunity through the powerful insights gained from utilising intelligent and predictive analytics.

“Predictive analytics enable service providers to turn the enormous structured and unstructured data at their disposal into a valuable asset, providing a unique strategic advantage and competitive edge through actionable customer insight. Access to predictive analytics unlocks the power of real-time customer insights, enabling service providers to proactively offer services and create bundles at a price point and time when their customers are most likely to respond positively.”

He concluded that with a “new breed” of digital challenges and managed service providers shaping the Channel, a sophisticated billing model is more important than ever.

“The need for subscription management, automatic contract renewals, on demand calculation of early termination charges and project based pricing is becoming prevalent whilst service providers focusing on SMEs and consumers look at bill run automation and anniversary billing that aligns customer expectations, service activation and billing date to reduce inbound enquires, improve cash flow and enhance the customer experience,” said Sabbagh.

“Ultimately a billing provider must be ready to support future billing requirements and this can only happen with industry engagement, investment, commitment to research and development and a future proof service delivery framework backed by a well-defined vision and a dynamic roadmap.”