Better information use drives loyalty

Billing continues to be an inexact science for communications service providers of all types. Though current billing debates often revolve around flat-rate bundles for consumer services, enterprise billing is where the real challenges and competitive advantages lie.


While the whole world seems to be talking about consumer services and new content, the real action from a revenue and profitability perspective remains in the enterprise domain. Enterprise billing remains extremely complex because of one-off rating schemes; a high volume of move, add, change and disconnect orders; and ongoing integration programs that are driving hard-to-cut costs by eliminating dozens of legacy systems left over from the mega-mergers of the recent past. Billing does not stand alone though, because it is tied closely to customer experience.


Enterprise customers are facing increasing expense pressure, and the predicted economic recession in the US will only tighten the grip. Enterprises are also facing more accounting scrutiny, thanks to Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. As a result, they seek an increasing level of instant access to billing data and reporting capabilities. The online self-care portal has become a real competitive differentiator for telcos playing in the enterprise space.


According to Mark Chodoronek, executive director of customer enablement for Verizon Business, its customers have three options for accessing their billing, usage and related services data: an online portal, EDI-based system-to-system transactions, and direct integration with CRM environments for billing, reporting, ordering, repair and inventory functions. Customers can submit and track trouble tickets; track move, add, change and disconnect orders; and track their service performance against their SLAs with a NOC-like view of complete topology maps from the global level down to individual devices.


Customers can also examine their billing detail at any level and have a range of payment options from credit and debit cards to purchase cards and electronic funds transfers. They can access archived reports and invoices going back seven years, and can do so in nine different languages.


The value of reporting applications to enterprises has increased significantly. Chodoronek explains that Verizon Business has responded to an increasing demand for telecom expense management capabilities with its self-care capabilities. Enterprises want to "check the checker" in multiple ways.


First, the CSP is providing downloadable reporting software with 75 pre-defined reports and an endless number of customization options. Enterprises tend to use these capabilities to create custom reports; perform internal analytics; analyze expenditure at regional, organizational and user levels; and perform internal charge backs. These tools are also used to identify and monitor fraud, as well as to validate slamming and federal, regional, state and local taxes among their many subsidiaries.



He says enterprise customers are scrutinizing their expenses and costs increasingly in terms of service performance. SLAs are being tied to billing, but enterprises are also looking at the opportunity costs they incur when performance problems happen. Verizon Business has begun to monitor its customers' services and devices - including those the CSP doesn't itself provide.


Sometimes it's a problem Verizon Business has to fix - or even pay for - as fast as possible, but most of the time, the customers simply value having access to the data so they can respond quickly. This kind of visibility, information sharing and accountability is helping Verizon Business win and keep enterprise customers.


Wireless bills


As Verizon Business extends its portal's purview, Chodoronek says wireless bill analysis may be next to enter the picture. Providers in European markets, such as O2 in the UK, are already seeing marked success due to simple strategies like providing best plan advice.


The US wireless market is often considered collusive, however, which makes for a less competitive playing field. Wireless providers tend not to cater to enterprises very well and rarely offer best plan advice. When they do, they generally offer sales that are disguised as "plan advice," but don't make much of an effort to save customers' money.


Enterprises face challenges in wireless because users generally acquire their own handsets and services from a range of operators. They then expense some portion, or all, of their bill. There has been a distinct lack of tools in the market to address this challenge for both enterprise expense managers and consumers. This not only frustrate end customers and accountants, but also the wireless operators' own account managers.


Todd Dunphy and Tom Pepe were two such account managers with Verizon Wireless. Working on behalf of their clients, they could see that the operator wasn't doing enough to help customers navigate price plans, analyze bills or identify inaccuracies. The problem wasn't that operators were deliberately trying to cheat or confuse anyone, but rather that they were organizationally unable, and sometimes unwilling, to make things simpler and more responsive.


The two have since launched Validas, a company that provides wireless bill analysis and validation as well as best plan advice across the five major US operators. For around $2, a user can visit to upload electronic copies of bills to the site.



Visitors typically save about 25% per bill as a result of being directed to an optimized plan and due to the site's ability to identify a range of errors for which it automatically formats proper billing disputes. The service is also available via license to higher volume users and has been encapsulated as a web service so it can be integrated into other websites or online portals.


Validas provides complete breakdowns of each subscriber's usage, looking at factors such as the five most called parties; usage by time of day; the number of one- or two-second call segments billed as complete minutes; and complete per-call detail. The service also finds errors most consumers will never expect to find.


For example, 3% of all wireless bills are added up incorrectly by carriers, and 11% of all universal service fees are overcharged due to miscalculation. More than 30% of all users have unused minutes on their plans, 37% pay for handset insurance they did not order, and more than 50% pay for text messages they don't use. Only 44% of the cost of a typical wireless bill actually pays for services. The rest goes to taxes, universal service fees and unspecified fees and charges that the wireless providers aren't required by law to disclose.


Though some argue that Validas won't make many friends among the major wireless providers in revealing this sort of information, the service can be a boon for enterprise telecom providers, expense managers and wireless carriers.


The upside is all about improving the customer experience and driving loyalty. Wireless carriers like O2 in the UK have proven that providing the kind of information, analysis and plan advice Validas offers is a winning proposition.


US carriers need to wake up to the reality that customer loyalty is their biggest problem. The only way to earn it is to treat customers with respect and provide them with good information.