The heart of commercial success

What do resellers and service providers need from their billing provider? Comms Business examines the solutions available to channel companies and hears about emerging requirements and functionalities.

Billing and monetisation software can make or break a business. Timely, accurate and decipherable billing is at the heart of both commercial success and customer satisfaction. As such, selecting a billing solution or provider should be a carefully considered task for any reseller or MSP.

Exact requirements can vary, so it is important that channel companies understand the options available to them, as well as emerging functionalities. In addition, broader market trends can impact on what a channel company will need from their billing provider in the near-term. Bringing these considerations together is essential.

When asked what resellers needs from their billing provider, Samantha Dennahy, product owner, Union Street Technologies, said these companies want to be able to process their full range of offerings in one system, so simplicity is key.

She said, “A reseller doesn’t want to have to manage different billing systems for different product sets. They want to be able to throw everything into one place and it come out the other side in a clear and concise way that is easy to report on and easy to onward bill to end customers.

“Additional features that are of benefit to add onto a billing system are anything that makes the billing process easier for the reseller to manage, and anything that puts power into the hands of end customers to facilitate self-service.”

Chris Bell, head of marketing, Giacom World Networks, had an equally straightforward analysis. He said, “To put it simply, billing should be easy for channel businesses to manage and easy for end user customers to understand. And this needn’t be a difficult thing to achieve.

“Primarily, the billing system should be simple to use, require a small amount of time to manage and be built using automations, especially to proportion the correct costs to each client. The benefit of this to a small business can be vast, both in terms of time and the amount of stress that can be caused by managing the monthly billing cycle.”

Bell added that resellers and MSPs should select a billing system that can manage invoices from multiple vendors in different formats. Crucially, the system must be able to “assign the correct costs to each of your customers”, with billing runs automated where possible so they are not a heavy burden on the business.

Bell pointed out, “Simple billing to you and automating billing to your customers is the start. Businesses can enjoy even more benefits by integrating PSA software with your billing and your CSP’s portal.

“Despite recent advancements in cloud software solutions, many of our partners still use Excel for manual billing. This old-fashioned approach is inefficient and unnecessary. Replacing manual data entry with automated processes is better for people and profits.”

Similarly, Simon Adams, managing director, Intelligent Billing, pointed to automation as obligatory. He also listed additional components, such as integration capabilities. “A high level of automation should be basic functionality in any billing platform to negate human error and eliminate time spent on manual processes. Our Intelligent Billing platform now automates every process possible, even our entry level platform, for ease, accuracy and speed.

“Scalability is crucial too – the ability to scale up rapidly and handle higher volumes of data in-line with clients’ potential business growth. Capability to incorporate client specific bespoke requirements. Not every reseller or wholesaler is the same.

“API integrations enables clients to cherry-pick the best-of-breed systems for all of their business needs and automate further processes, saving a huge amount of resource time, maximising efficiencies and boosting productivity, whilst eliminating manual errors. Converged platform functionality for multi sector and multi-corporate group billing is also important.”

Reacting to shifting needs

Customer service trends are having an impact on what resellers need and how they want to use their billing software. Dennahy at Union Street said, “The consumerisation of B2B customer service means that end customers are demanding more from their reseller. They want quicker turnarounds, they want more ways of communicating, and they want to be able to do more for themselves. This is helpful to the reseller because if done right, they can increase NPS and drive customer loyalty whilst also reducing their overall cost of service.”

She explained that over the last 18 months, there has been a shift towards digital channels of communication, specifically through mobile devices, with “50 percent of the web traffic worldwide now com[ing] from a mobile device”. Resellers are finding they need to respond to these changes, with their billing solution able to adapt to shifting customer service requirements.

Dennahy added, “This is where end user portals and apps can be extremely beneficial for our resellers. Resellers can give their end users access to billing information on the go. They can allow them to self-serve and place orders themselves and they can proactively service those customers via those digital channels of communication.”

Bell, from Giacom, believes convergence of markets such as IT and Telecoms, bringing connectivity and voice much closer together, is going to be a major industry shift. He said, “This has a significant impact on the requirements of the billing system. It will become more common place that MSPs will have a broader offering. With this comes an increasingly complex billing process for them, more often there will be a mix of fixed cost licenses and variable cost items such as data.

“Channel businesses will need the ability to bill for both of these from the same system and provide their clients with the correct levels of visibility on their in-month usage so that invoices are understood when they arrive and with without unwanted surprises.”

The channel was already growing at a rapid rate prior to the pandemic, according to Adams at Intelligent Billing. This means channel companies now need more from their billing provider. He said, “The pandemic has significantly accelerated trends in certain areas within the channel, such as increased demand for cloud-based systems to support remote home-working, virtual subscription and consumption services for leisure purposes and bundles and packages solutions.

“As a result service providers, whether they be telcos, CSPs, VARs or other providers, are continually having to review, adapt and redefine their monetisation strategies, in-line with the need to diversify and expand their portfolio of products and services. Therefore, billing and monetisation software needs to be capable of accurately processing, analysing and billing the data for these increasingly complex and integrated revenue streams.

“More powerful, flexible and accurate billing and analysis capabilities are now essential for this continually evolving commercial landscape. Billing software needs to adapt with client and market requirements, whether converging multisector requirements, data sources, or dealing with multiple currencies from a single platform. This is especially the case for businesses that need to rapidly scale their customer base and adapt fluidly in response to new market trends.”

Reducing complexity

Many resellers have a disparate supply chain which brings all sorts of complexity to collating and managing billing data, and these businesses would benefit from using a billing provider that can handle this.

Dennahy, from Union Street Technologies, said, “Having a strong reconciliation process within a billing system will take a lot of the stress out of managing multiple supplier files every month. The billing system is often the only place a reseller can access a single view of an end customer and the various products and services they use.

“Resellers need a billing platform that can help them demonstrate to their customer how well they are valued and how well they are being managed. The billing platform is the place where usage comes together with product charges, and a good system will be able to calculate and demonstrate if the end customer is getting value out of what they are paying for. Better managed customers leads to less churn and gives the reseller an excellent base to grow their business from.

“Once all that data is in one place, what resellers need is for their billing system to provide them with easy ways to report on the gaps in their product spread across their customer base. The right data analysis tools will support a reseller to produce targeted sales and cross sell marketing campaigns to win more business and drive more revenue.”

Bell, at Giacom noted that MSPs and resellers need their billing system to provide transparency and a single view of their customers. “This is often the primary source the reseller has on what SaaS or software licences they have sold to each of their customers. It is therefore critical that the correct costs are attributed to each of their customers; for their own visibility, but also to provide confidence to their customers that they are being billed correctly and getting value from what they are being billed for.

“A big change we are seeing is the maturity in SaaS pricing models. In years gone by SaaS would be priced per user, per month often with a scale for volume purchases and types of system user. Whilst there were some complexities to this the pricing was easy to understand, input into systems or build formulas in spreadsheets in order to manage costs and produce invoices.”

Adams, from Intelligent Billing, discussed the importance of using billing to shape a reseller’s business model. He said, “MSPs and resellers need accurate, real-time billing and reporting, along with data and analytics, from their billing provider to assess end-customer performance and value.

“This in turn enables them to quickly identify which services and offerings are performing and may need additional resource and investment in order to maximise those opportunities. By the same token they can identify what isn’t working and quickly modify their business model accordingly.”

Billing cycles

Billing software should also give resellers and MSPs the flexibility they need in terms of how frequently they bill their customers. The consensus from those we spoke to was that billing cycles are largely remaining static. Harry McKeever, director at Tekton Billing, said, “Calendar-month-aligned billing has always been the defacto standard in B2B billing; and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

“What we have seen increased demand for however is ‘advance plus one’ billing. Traditional telecoms service rentals have always been for the month in advance but now, to protect cash flow, some resellers are billing 2 months in advance. This is only possible with a billing platform that permits services to be billed on different conditions than provided in the carrier SDR file.”

What is changing is the balance between usage and subscription. Wail Sabbagh, managing director, Strategic Imperatives, said the telecoms market is shifting away from billing based on minutes used, data consumed, and messages sent. He added, “Alongside this, customers are also demanding greater flexibility and expect to be able to choose when they receive and pay their bills.

“Billing is at the heart of the customer experience as the primary touchpoint between service providers and their customers. It is the make-or-break that can turn a one-time buyer into a lifelong customer. The responsibility therefore lies with modern billing and monetisation platforms to support flexible billing cycles and anniversary billing, enabling the customer to select the day they are billed, or for the billing date to be determined by when their services go live.

“For each service provider what this looks like is unique, and the right billing platform should be capable of addressing a variety of needs. For example, some of our Elevate customers target the social housing market, and their end users prefer to be billed weekly rather than monthly to help manage payments. Whilst on the other end of the scale there are network operators with a large customer base who have elected to use automated anniversary billing to manage up to 28 bill cycles per month.

“A critical aspect of managing this new approach to billing cycles is integration of the platform with payment providers, to enable automatic collection of payments and Direct Debits as well as handling mandates, refunds, and chargebacks.”

Keith Pearshouse, technical director, Symbiant, said that billing cycles have always been service provider specific. “Some just do the main monthly run whilst others run ad-hoc or daily cycles for large value services/installs. The beauty of not being tied to one or the other is being able to not only manage your cash flow but also that of the end user. There will always be a need for a main run which includes usage, always billed in arrears, there may be several cycles but usage will always be billed this way.

“A big advantage of being able to select a billing cycle is that white label clients can specify exactly when they would like their invoices issued for their customers, although the typical request is as soon in the month as possible.

“Another big advantage of having a system that can handle multiple billing cycles to help with cash flow is, as we all know within the industry, that usage files are not always available at the same time across providers. If you have a large percentage of your business coming from provider ‘A’ that issues files early on and another provider ‘B’ who distributes their files seven to ten days later, you don’t want to hold back the full run for every customer, only those customers with usage over provider ‘B’.”

Shaun Bodsworth, managing director at Inform Billing, thinks consistency is key. “Monthly bill cycles work because both resellers and their end-customers need consistency and to know when a bill will arrive and when a payment is due. It is critical in any business to manage cash-flow from a sales and purchase ledger perspective, all the way through the chain and whilst this can be done more or less frequently as required, monthly billing is still overwhelmingly preferred.

“Flexible billing software like Eclipse enables resellers to offer bespoke periods for subscriptions, recurring charges and usage or call charges – with periods covering days, weeks, or years – and some resellers choose to have multiple bill cycles throughout the month, but most of their customers will still receive one regular monthly invoice for everything that is not ad hoc.

“Where we have seen change, is resellers are increasingly expecting their channel suppliers to deliver billing information in a timely and predictable manner to allow for prompt billing, but also for information to be delivered more frequently. This enables the reseller and in some cases the end-customer themselves too, to effectively monitor usage on a daily basis – detecting potential fraud and alerting customers to bill limits.”

Emerging requirements

With increasing adoption of 5G, it is becoming easier for customers to consume ore data than ever before. Tekton Billing’s McKeever said, “Ofcom’s mobile spend capping legislation was introduced a few years ago for this sort of thing, but in reality we see few business customers actually choosing to implement it.

“Instead of being restricted by hard limits, they prefer notification-based protection. In response to this, Tekton’s custom self-serve portal allows users to apply SMS and email alerts on usage. Whether based as a percentage of bundle consumption, or as an explicit spend or duration value – alerting can be configured by the end user. And with an API integrated network, they can even specify automatic usage barring when higher thresholds are met.”

That viewpoint chimed with that of Union Street’s Dennahy. She explained, “Billing and provisioning go hand in hand. When a billing system expands into automated provisioning, it’s extremely powerful, saving the reseller time and effort and drastically reducing the risk of incorrect or missed billing. Portals and apps that link into a billing system are also really beneficial end customer tools which can reduce the cost of service whilst offering a better level of customer service. Automation is the key to achieving a high percentage of successful customer on boarding activities, and reducing internal costs associated with new customers.”

For Sabbagh, competition is fiercer than ever, with new players disrupting the market and exploiting new opportunities at an incredible pace. He said, “It’s clear from the many success stories within the channel that service providers understand the need to transform, and that need has never been more important than now with traditional products giving way to new, more complex and layered digital services.

“For those billing providers that still see billing as a tool that simply collects usage records, allocates them to a customer, rates and bills them alongside simple recurring service revenue there is certainly trouble ahead; this approach simply won’t cut it in the new digital world. In the age of OTT services, 5G, IoT and universal high speed connectivity, billing has become monetisation and with that comes the capability to provide intelligent analytics, contract and subscription management, payment processing, flexible billing cycles, complex packages and of course to do so at scale and in real time.

“Empowering service providers to transition from offering a commoditised product to a model with a sophisticated digital services portfolio and a strong focus on customer experience will certainly set apart the leaders from the stragglers in the billing market.”

Accessible billing

Symbiant’s Pearshouse pointed out how Covid-driven changes to working practices over the past 18 months has sharpened focus on system accessibility. “Gone are the default days of systems hosted on client servers accessible via desktops, using servers that could be expensive to maintain and upgrade. Increasingly there is a demand for billing systems to be available in the cloud and accessible across a range of devices. We have responded to requests for our billing systems to be usable on tablets and laptops with customer portals now adapted to work effectively on mobiles.”

“We have for many years offered integration with banking and accounting software and popular back-office systems. Increasingly we are coming across examples of prospective clients having committed to ‘state of the art’ back-office systems for which integration via APIs is required and can be achieved.

“Our systems have been designed with client needs in mind. We would recommend that before committing to the expense of further systems they speak with billing providers to ascertain if their needs can be met without extra expense.”

Bodsworth concluded, “To date we have invested over £2.5m into our Eclipse NG billing platform and continue to plough 45 per cent of revenues back into continually developing the software, prioritising enhancements that lead to a smoother customer experience. Executing our development road map is critical to our success and we have full control of this through our highly skilled in-house development team.

“With customers spanning traditional telecoms, IT, mobile and IoT as well as utilities, waste management, banking and even hospitality all using our software for billing, we are developing partnerships in diverse markets relevant to the subscription economy, opening up future opportunities for both us and the channel.

“It’s an exciting time – the changes in the channel and digitisation open up valuable opportunities for us to further showcase the power of our software and services.”

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