CSPs are missing out on maximising the billing experience
Billing has always been important but the focus has traditionally been on its utility to the communications service provider (CSP) and not on the way it impacted customers. Now though, Alan Coleman, the chief executive of Brite:Bill, tells VanillaPlus, CSPs are waking up to the benefits of providing better customer experiences through telecoms billing
VanillaPlus: Why did you establish Brite:Bill and what gaps in the market did you see?
Alan Coleman: Historically, the bulk of the billing effort was put into ensuring bill accuracy, a highly complex exercise and a pre-requisite to the success of any business. Less emphasis was placed on the billing experience from the customer’s perspective. The billing interaction slipped into being a perfunctory process where the CSP sends the bill and we as customers are just meant to hurry up and pay it, whatever the amount.
This was the billing paradigm when Brite:Bill first emerged six years ago. Most of the billing interactions we saw reminded me of a particular scene from one of my all-time favorite movies, Goodfellas. For those who are not familiar with it, Goodfellas is an epic retelling of life in the mafia from the perspective of Henry Hill, a mobster turned witness for the State, played by Ray Liotta. In the scene I’m referring to Liotta narrates over a montage of scenarios where poor, hardworking local businesses are shaken down by organised crime. As he recounts the various excuses he hears from the businesses to avoid paying their protection money, he responds in all cases with “Pay me!”.
Although this exaggerates the situation for effect, in telecoms billing there was definitely very little attempt to soften the blow of what is always going to be a touchy transaction. No one likes paying bills, ever. Bad bills result in ambivalent or poor customer relationships, drive operational costs, more billing related calls to customer care and low net promoter score (NPS) associated with the billing interaction. How long could this racket go on?
VP: Are CSPs recognising that the bill isn’t just a means of collecting money but a critical means of customer communication?
AC: Thankfully, the market is not standing still and leading CSPs are recognising the urgency of improving this highly strategic customer communication. One prominent telecom CMO recently told me that for decades his company had been spending billions on television, print and, most recently, digital advertising in the hope of winning and retaining customers. And it was gorgeous stuff, all of it. The thing was, if he was great at his job, maybe 5% of all that highly curated marketing ever really got noticed. Meanwhile, 50% of his more than 30 million customers spend five minutes a month with his bill, and it’s embarrassing to look at.
As we approach full market penetration of mobile devices an increasingly larger proportion of CSP growth strategies are predicated on selling new services to existing customers. The bill is both a foundation for the trust necessary to enable a sale and also an environment where sales messages can be personally tailored for each customer, bringing contextual relevance to the offer.
The foundation of any sale is trust and transparency. If your bill is confusing and opaque to your customers the likelihood of them being interested in new services is greatly diminished. As a customer, why would you buy more stuff from a company when the bill you’re paying for the stuff you already have from them looks like a print off from a 1980s green screen?
Broader service portfolios demand more transparency, not less. They require better explanations, not just more columns on a page. As CSPs expand the range of services for which they bill customers the impetus is on the CSP to make bills more transparent, more personalised and more human. Your bill will either be a major problem or a real asset.
VP: How can CSPs ensure their bills live up to their brand promises?
AC: CSP brands spend billions on marketing and advertising. We all see the cool campaigns, promising clever, money-saving price plans and promotions, painting new services and devices as the must-have gateways to a better connected you. Yet that brand promise is shattered when the first bill lands – a cold, poorly constructed, difficult to decipher demand for payment. It feels like there’s a gun to your head to pay now or else. The friendly brand that enticed you in now shows a less welcoming side. A cold, confusing, unfriendly side that is at odds with what you thought you signed up for. That brand that offered you ‘Life in Colour’ or the promise of ‘getting thanks like you’ve never been thanked before’ is a far cry from the stark demand for payment issued every month.
It is estimated that 30-70% of customers look at that unfriendly bill every month. Shouldn’t they be having as good an experience as possible, one in line with the branding used to woo them in? Just think of the marketing dollars you spend on sophisticated direct marketing efforts to achieve a mere 3% open rate.
The desire to change this situation and help CSPs was the goal for Brite:Bill when we started and has only grown over the years. The challenge for the CSP is to provide a presentation layer that resides outside of current systems and processes that allow for more nimble response to issues – and provide for more customer self-help across platforms. The jumbled, messy legacy systems many CSPs use and the prohibitive costs associated with modernisation mean that the bill has been seen as too difficult to improve meaningfully; but where there is a will there is a way.
This has proven to be Brite:Bill’s opportunity, to help our customers along the maturity curve of world-class billing communications.
VP: Can you talk us through the path CSPs can take to change their billing communications?
AC: We’ve identified four distinct stages on the journey to better billing. In my experience, these stages help CSPs assess their current state and provide a path towards transforming their most important communication into their very best communication.
The first stage is the base level which involves generic bills. These see every customer get the same type of bill and bills are tightly coupled with the billing engine and difficult to change. These are the prime driver of billing-related calls to customer care.
The second stage involves building trust and transparency which can start to be achieved with improved bill design and by applying the principles of an information architecture to the bill. Such bills are highly flexible, easy to change and enable CSPs to drive continuous improvements.
The next stage is for the billing communications to become proactive and pre-emptive. Dynamic personalisation enables bills to be changed based on what is in the billing data and other adjacent systems. Such bills are proactive and tailored for each recipient and that means contextual, situationally-aware cross-selling on the bill can be successful.
The final stage is billing with an emphasis on developing the customer relationship over time. This sees atomic, enriched, personalised billing data made available in a real-time API to power other customer experiences that require usage data. In addition, such billing communications should be ready for next generation support and marketing such as chat bots or voice artificial intelligence.
VP: Do you think CSPs have understood the benefits of billing communications and the necessary steps they need to go through to improve them?
AC: Moving through these stages is challenging but do-able. Some forward thinking CSPs are already well down the path to stage four, with their customer billing relationships now an integral part of how they continuously improve the customer experience of their brand.
About a month ago, the chief customer officer of a North American CSP told me something that stuck with me. She told me that when measuring customer satisfaction all you’re really measuring is the delta between the expectations you set in the selling process and the experience you actually deliver post-purchase. We want CSPs to continue setting high expectations because in truth, the products they sell really do enable people to live richer more connected lives. We help them deliver a customer experience that finally matches those high expectations.