The Extras

The two key features any billing system needs are accuracy and the ability to get bills out on time.  But billing solutions can provide much more than this today. 

In a world of IP based communications and applications we are now very far removed from just billing lines and minutes. Today we need billing solutions that can easily encompass the flexibility afforded by the likes of hosted telephony for fast turning on and turning off individual applications.

Hosted telephony can deliver applications fast and flexibly. You can turn features on an off when you want which is a huge advantage for users that have fluctuating business needs such as seasonal activity or product promotions.

We put a number of questions to billing solutions companies to get their views on the features required for a modern system.

Q – What about WLR3 integration – is that necessary for a billing application?

Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies says virtually all CPs supply WLR so integration is still an essential part of any billing platform.

‘Ask your billing supplier if they are a recognised third party integrator (TPI) as this can bring a lot of additional benefits in terms of automation and speed of processing.

If you have a lot of orders relating to WLR3 then inputting the info manually will inevitably create a greater probability for errors. This is even more the case if you frequently have to add, remove or change the billing characteristics of the line at a customer’s request. Integrated billing and WLR3 means that everything can happen automatically.

Having your Openreach files within your billing platform along with your orders can also make it far easier to identify any incoming or outgoing errors.”

According to Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Derby-based Inform Billing Solutions, WLR3 integration is not essential for a billing platform.

“Billing of wholesale line rental is relatively simple and most of the billing platforms on the market will do it.  However WRL3 integration is more about provisioning and customer care; the impact on billing is solely avoiding duplicating data entry.  Whilst some platforms interface directly with WLR3 and some via a third party WLR3 portal, the problem arises when other carriers or distributers have their own portal, or their own version of a third party portal.

This makes it difficult for all billing providers to offer the full suite that resellers are looking for – it is important to recognise that a system that integrates directly with BT Openreach may not integrate with the WLR3 portal of your chosen carrier.

WLR3 integration may give advantages for those who have a direct Openreach account, but little or no advantage if ordering lines through a different carrier.”

Whilst Bodsworth suggests that WLR3 is directly associated with provisioning and customer care, he doesn’t refute the importance of integration as a whole for billing platforms.

“For me, overall integration is where real benefits are to be achieved.  The capability to integrate billing platforms with provisioning systems, customers’ CRM systems and accounting packages for example, allows for an automated back-office including but not limited to WLR3. From my perspective there are currently bigger issues facing resellers in the market, particularly smaller providers, who would find it more advantageous to bring their billing in-house.  Lack of knowledge can lead to confusion and reluctance for resellers to take control of their billing.”

Simon Adams at PRD says the ability to integrate into any system is paramount, whether WLR3, accounting systems, direct debit collections or into a business  IT infrastructure generally. QuickStart Billing can be used as a stand-alone billing system, or part of a sub-system with full integration capabilities. With QuickStart Pro, our view is that it should fit into a customers current IT environment. There should never be a requirement or pressure on a customer to change other systems to accommodate a billing system.

In terms of WLR3 specific, we have found that most reseller requirements is simply the ability to upload WLR3 files into the billing system, as the WLR3 portal is provided by most of the minutes suppliers as part of their offerings to resellers, rather than with the billing vendor. However, we do partner with a third party WLR supplier if this is what the reseller requires.

Sally Ainsley Head of Account Management at AKJ, “A billing system does not need to integrate with WLR3, for example, however an integrated solution means the billing system is aware of the products that have been ordered, and is ready to bill as soon as the product is live, affording the reseller the advantage of timely, accurate billing.  When that system is integrated with the finance system, and customer care functions are also available, the entire reseller business is able to view the same information at any time and ensure that the end customer is receiving the highest level of service.

The growth of systems to support more business operations does however bring with it a consideration not needed of a billing system that is used once a month to generate bills.  System and service availability becomes critical when resellers need to manage customers 24/7, and even a few hours’ down time impacts the business.  Resellers need to ensure their solution is availability to support their business, either through investment in IT resource and infrastructure, or to consider outsourced hosting of the solution.”

Q – Are all billing solutions the same? 

Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies, “On the surface of it all billing platforms might appear to do the same job and offer similar functionality, but the ways in which they do it and the varying degrees of effectiveness are where the true differences lie. It can be surprising to see just how different two platforms that ostensibly offer the same features can be, so it’s important to see a billing platform in action in order to judge how effective those features are and how easy they are to administer.

Differences in performance can also be huge, with some billing platforms taking days to process data that another system could complete in minutes. Scalability is another important area where many billing systems falter and are unable to keep pace with a reseller’s growing business. A billing platform that scales effortlessly without any dislocation is therefore vital and will certainly help cut down on growing pains as a company expands.

The service wrap that comes with a solution is of course another key differentiator and the differences between the services you will get from one billing solution provider to the next can be huge. At Union Street for example we’ve made a huge investment in support and project management to ensure our customers are able to use our software to its full potential. Training is another area we’ve heavily invested into and as a result the scope of our training programme goes far beyond simply explaining how the features work but also provides general advise on the best practices to deploy in areas such as revenue assurance, maximising margins and managing fraud to name but a few.

Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Inform Billing Solutions says: “Essentially all of the well-known billing platforms on the market will do the same thing, but of course as with any software there will be differences in usability and some functionality.  The most noticeable differences for customers lie in the levels of training and on-going support that a re-seller can expect to receive.

Sally Ainsley, Head of Account Management at AKJ, says that most billing systems will operate in a similar way and for the same inputs will produce the same figures, most of the time.

“The services sitting around that core function however, define the success of the billing solution. Organisations could spend their time building a billing system in-house, but whereby investment was traditionally the deciding factor in outsourcing, expertise is now the driving force.

Typical reseller operations follow a lifecycle of which billing is a single but critical part:

• Prospecting & Sales

• Order Fulfilment & Provisioning

• Billing & Collection

• Analysis & Reporting

• Customer Management

Whilst being a one-stop-shop means reduced rekeying, fewer fragmented systems and one single version of the truth, it’s not critical that all elements are addressed via a single provider or system, particularly when starting out. At the outset of a reseller operation, a business may not require a sophisticated billing solution which brings with it a cost that is not necessarily essential at the beginning when investment is needed elsewhere. For example, small numbers of customers and a low staff headcount mean resellers can deliver high quality support to those customers with a collection of spreadsheets and no integration between systems.

However, as that reseller grows, the number of customers and staff increases and the limitations of a disjointed system become more evident: disparate systems and processes do not integrate; operational efficiencies degrade; mistakes occur; customer satisfaction drops; and ultimately customers seek alternative suppliers.”

Simon Adams at PRD is emphatic; “Not all billing solutions are the same. We have designed QuickStart Go to be as user friendly as in reasonably possible without sacrificing functionality. Billing should just be a few clicks and that’s what we’ve achieved with QuickStart Go. If a process can be automated, then we will automate it to minimise manual intervention.

However, we also recognise that many customers, especially larger SMEs have unique and complex requirements. These requirements are often unique to them, business differentials to win them new business opportunities. QuickStart Pro was designed with this in mind, to be customisable to meet current and new requirements in a time and cost efficient manner.

Flexibility and understanding  customer requirements and their businesses is crucial. Trusting that any functionality can be made available, the  ability to process the most complex call plans on behalf of any customer.   However, crucial is also the level of support to ensure customers maximise the benefits of billing. We have a dedicated team of Billing Analysts to support customers with any queries on a near immediate basis. Customers also have direct assess to developers for more challenging software requirements and change requests.”

Q – What are the cut off points between outsourcing and having your own billing platform?

Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies, “Outsourced bureau billing solutions tend to be a preferred option for many start-ups whose focus is purely sales as it eliminates the need to invest in servers and other hardware and also helps to keeps staff costs down. Once a reseller gets to the 100k per month revenue stream then it starts to become more economical to bring that process in house.

Where outsourced billing is provided by a network aggregator for free a reseller should consider whether this is truly free, or will they be paying a premium for other services that are provided by that supplier? Often this route will suit smaller resellers but as they grow they should consider whether or not it’s beneficial for their organisation to be so heavily tied in to that supplier. An independent billing platform provides resellers with greater control and makes it easier to cherry pick the best of breed products from multiple suppliers to create innovative and competitive solutions for the end user customer.”

Shaun Bodsworth, Managing Director at Inform Billing Solutions explains, “There’s no hard and fast rule around when to bring billing in-house, however at Inform Billing we generally advise customers that if they have a billing output of a few thousand pounds or more, it would be worth considering bringing billing in-house.  It is worth remembering that it is always easier to make this move sooner rather than later.

Although using a third party for billing has benefits in some areas, many resellers quickly outgrow this option.  As their base grows, they find that their product and service requirements cannot be fulfilled by a single provider, which in turn impacts on outsourcing the billing to a third party.  At this point many resellers would do well to consider bringing their billing in-house, allowing them to maximise their visibility, improve profit margins and improve customer satisfaction.

For those that are still reluctant to make the full move to in-house billing, Inform Billing Solutions also offers an outsourced billing manager service.  We take responsibility for the monthly billing run, but there is always the option for the reseller to take control when they are ready – enabling a seamless transition for their end-customer.”

Sally Ainsley Head of Account Management at AKJ, “We have seen that although historically the outsource option was adopted by smaller resellers that were unable to provide the required investment into IT, many larger organisations are choosing to use an outsource solution.  Whether in house or outsourced, a billing and operational system solution that is designed from the ground up to be highly available, protected from any single point of failure, and hosted in a secure environment provides the reassurance to a reseller business that critical operations can always continue.

AKJ has created a modular solution giving the option of a single system covering prospecting, sales, provisioning, billing, collection, comprehensive reporting and dedicated customer management all in one place but also allows integration with third party applications via a suite of APIs.  The Affinity solution can be hosted in our state of the art data centre where it benefits from a highly available, secure infrastructure, or can be installed within the reseller’s environment and configured to an appropriate level to meet the reseller’s need.

Billing systems can appear similar, but true business critical solutions will always differ depending on the experience and scope of the billing provider.”

Simon Adams at PRD, says that as long as the customers have the options, we let them decide.

“We have a support team to help and deal with any questions. QuickStart is cost effective and proven with no capex or any up-front fees to get going, simply monthly rentals from when the system goes live. We have constant road map enhancements to ensure QuickStart remains up-to date with customer requirements. The management, hosting and software matters are with us and not the customer. With outsourcing, it’s simply a business matter less for customer to worry and plan for, with no capax budgets and staff resourcing required. We take care of everything.  Whether a simple billing system or a complex bespoke system. It is what we specialise in doing, so resellers can focus on their core business while we take care of billing and reporting.

Q: Are billing solutions up to the task of integrating new applications such as VoIP?

One of the best places to start with this question is to ask a hosted telephony provider.

Lee Crowe, Managing Director of Arbitel says his billing system provides all the answers a reseller needs.

“Take a call centre application for example. In a traditional PBX deployment model a user pays for say 100 seats or user licenses at the outset of a contract. It may be that they only have 70 agents at that time but are planning to expand over the next two years and so they pay for 30 licences more than they need.

That’s a waste of money! The next thing you know the user will be charged for another 30 licences for a year or more when they undertake a sales campaign that only lasts two months. It’s a trap the CPE model lays at the door of the unsuspecting user.

In the same scenario the hosted deployment model works to the advantage of the user. They start by paying for 70 users on a per user per month basis and add individual users as they expand to the anticipated 100 or more users. No waste there. If they want an extra 30 licences for two months then that is all they will pay for. It’s the ultimate in flexibility.

The trouble is that traditional billing systems just can’t cope with these events based changes automatically and let’s face it, once the user knows that he can turn on and turn off features almost at will then they will soon realise they can control their costs far more easily that with the CPE alternatives and so the frequency at which they change their configurations will increase as a result.

In the past it was left to the SP to pick up on these changes manually and enter the start and end periods for the billing of each feature turned on and off per user. As you can imagine, this is likely to turn in to a huge catalogue of errors and either the under or over billing of the customer. Apart from a less than happy user the other problem is that disputes of this kind take an age to sort out.

That is why Arbitel deploys a real time, events based billing solution. Based on Microsoft SQL and built upon start/end dates our Telavanti billing system provides accuracy combined with flexibility and user friendliness. Telavanti is one of the first to do this with a Broadsoft platform, which our service is based upon.

Gaining competitive advantage is key in any market and in communications service one of the most successful ways of achieving this is by offering a bundled array of services – often bespoke to individual end users.

Say for example a simple core bundled offering included the hosted seat and 1000 minutes per month. This is simple to set up and bill using automatic events based billing driven by EDRs (Events Detail Records) as opposed to CDRs – our billing does CDRs as well by the way. If you were including hunt groups and voicemail in the bundle then as soon as these features were activated for any user the events log would pick up the application and bill it accordingly until the application was turned off.

Now because the Telavanti solution is fully integrated with the Broadsoft platform and pushes the event information to the billing engine automatically the possibility of human error is removed. The result is more accurate billing, far fewer disputes and a happier customer. In parallel billing runs alongside a traditional billing solution we have saved users very large sums.

You also get a happier reseller as well as they know they are billing for all the services supplied.

Reseller access to the billing solution is simple via our portal or we can supply the reseller with a virtual instance of the system. Some partners use both methods.

Vincent Disneur, Head of Sales for Union Street Technologies, “VoIP should be a key part of any billing platform and we’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that our aBILLity billing platform is able to handle these services and other new emerging technologies. The capacity for billing software to adapt to new technology and market conditions is a key differentiator between the various billing solutions, and the importance therefore of a solution’s potential for future development cannot be overstated.

If the billing provider behind the software doesn’t invest sufficient resources into research and development then this could hinder a reseller from entering into emerging areas of the telecoms market and consequently limit their growth. Agility and speed to react to the fast changing telecoms industry is essential for all forward thinking resellers and so it’s important to choose a billing platform that’s going to be able to keep pace with your company.”

Simon Adams at PRD, “As long as a customer can define their requirements, then integrating new application is not an issue within QuickStart Billing. To us it’s just data and how this data is presented. Our view is that  as long as there is an input and the  customer defines the required output ,then it is our task is to ensure the processing part in the middle does its job. We’ve been doing VOIP billing all along. It’s just another application to us.  QuickStart Pro is extremely customisable. Customers define what the want, any tasks, reports, applications, integrations etc., then our developers will configure QuickStart to meet this. Even our out-of-the box QuickStart Go solution has integration capabilities to meet most core reseller requirements, including applications such as VOIP. We regard this as standard requirements and base applications.

Ed Says…

Billing solutions need to evolve to take account of new applications and deployment models whilst retaining accuracy and flexibility for the service providers. You don’t hear the term bureaux services much these days but then swap the term for managed service and you get pretty much the same deal as far as we can see. What I can’t see is the wisdom in developing your own solutions when the channel is awash with excellent systems to choose from.


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David Dungay

Editor - Comms Business Magazine
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