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Put it Down to Growing Pains

Posted: 09/1997

Put it Down to Growing Pains

Clients Rate Their Billers in a New Report

Debera Bell-Beam

The report card is in, and it’s not great. But it’s
not bad, either.
Among the findings, one in four telecom
service providers would give their billing suppliers an average
or below-average rating, according to the new survey compiled by
ATLANTIC-ACM, a Boston-based strategy consulting firm. On the
brighter side, 56 percent of those surveyed reported their biller
overall was very good to excellent.

The average or below score came as a surprise to the
consulting firm, "but more significant was that many
companies in conversations identified billing as the bottleneck
in their operations despite expressing overall satisfaction with
their biller," says William West, ATLANTIC-ACM project
manager. "In many cases ramp-up time was a significant
concern both in terms of starting initial operations and in terms
of adding capacity."

Billers provided interviews and company information, also
forwarding a client survey to a selection of their customer base.
ATLANTIC-ACM’s Executive Research Board, a collection of
executives from service providers nationwide, also completed the
survey.

Service providers rated their billing vendors according to
performance in rendering an end-user bill, providing end-user
customer service, ramping-up service and pricing.

The report, "Billing Services: Trends and Provider
Analysis," studied various aspects of the billing industry,
including both direct and local exchange carrier (LEC) billers
from service bureaus to platform providers.

Platform Providers Last Longer

The report found that service providers maintained longer
relationships with billing platform providers than with billing
service bureaus–up to 50 percent longer. West says this could be
attributable to the fact that companies are more locked in,
because of the larger initial platform cost for an in-house
system. A second possibility is that telecom service providers
tend to express higher satisfaction with systems they can run–at
least partially–themselves.

The strategy consulting group is also seeing an industry trend
to initially outsource business needs because it is more cost
effective, and, later, to internalize billing and customer care
as revenue to purchase the necessary systems becomes available.
"One inescapable conclusion is that clients prefer to
maintain control of customer contact," West says. Moreover,
"we are seeing a tremendous drive toward persuading clients
that advanced systems are capable of translating and upgrading
legacy systems to add efficiency."

The Highs and Lows

In looking at individual categories ATLANTIC-ACM found the
end-user bill received the highest rating of all categories. Two
issues are involved here: First, billers are making an effort to
improve the quality and appearance of the customer’s bill.
Second, clients have considerable amount of control over the
format of the bill that their biller produces for them.

Also noteworthy was that within the format category, accuracy
and clarity were rated more highly than timeliness and
flexibility. "I think that points to client satisfaction
with the simplicity of the bills and the electronic compilation
of bills, but they would like even more design choice and have
on-going concerns about timeliness."

Ramp-up time and pricing received the lowest scores. West
views low ramp-up scores as a byproduct of the explosive growth
in telecom which leaves billers with more work than they can
handle right now. Plus, "there are probably some existing
customers in the industry who fear that responsiveness from
billers might decline if this growth continues."

Under pricing, customer service received a particularly low
score. "This is not so much a reflection of high prices as
an indication that clients believe they can provide the highest
quality service at any level of cost in house."

Growing Pains

Nearly one-fourth of respondents revealed a client would not
recommend a billing firm with whom they had worked. "That
figure indicates there are some (billing) firms in the
industry–a very limited number of them–who find it difficult to
keep pace with the overall expansion of the telecom market,"
West says. "Telecom service providers themselves have
experienced extremely rapid growth and, as a result, have placed
unprecedented demands on billing companies."

For example, "several billing companies have reported
that telecom service providers have contacted them because
they’re already providing a service but have no billing mechanism
in place. And that is a reflection of the time-to-market
pressures that telecom service providers face in today’s
market."

But solving the problem is also, in part, up to the service
providers. "Unlike the past, telecom service providers today
need to address billing issues earlier in the product and service
development process," according to West. "Telecom
providers need to be more explicit about their needs and show as
much foresight as possible."

The Bigger Picture

Clients are understanding, but telecom growth and increasing
competition are raising performance pressures and industry
standards like never before. Formerly, clients focused more on
the balance of cost and experience issues when selecting a
biller, West says. But the evolving competitive landscape has
made flexibility and performance guarantees equally important.

"The final conclusion is that the telecom industry as a
whole has evolved toward a marketing orientation that requires a
sensitive customer touch, and billing and customer service issues
cannot easily be overcome by advertising dollars," West
says. "In other words, telecom service providers would find
it very expensive to try to repair any damage done by poor
billing or customer service."
For more information on ATLANTIC-ACM’s Billing Service Report,
call (617) 720-3700


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