Bill shock...horror!

The phenomenon known as 'bill shock' has been reported, usually sensationally, by the general press whenever someone goes public after receiving a bill of gargantuan proportions from their service provider. It doesn't happen very often, but when it does it makes great news because everybody loves to read either about someone else's misfortune or that their suspicions about faulty billing systems, harbored secretly for years, have been proven true.

The fact is that billing systems rarely make mistakes that cause bill shock. It is nearly always the result of human error - either from the input of data into systems or by over-usage by the customer. How many times have you heard the arguments - "I didn't realize I was being charged for that" or "I thought it was included in my package?" Not that long ago, bill shock simply referred to the avoidance of a high value first bill to a subscriber that was always followed by calls to customer care.

In today's context, the bill shock phenomena is racking up new "victims" as mobile users succumb to the temptations and traps associated with next-generation smart phones. Popular devices such as the iPhone and Android mobiles provide one-touch access to Internet and social networking applications that can prove far more costly to access than voice services. Not all mobile operators are offering all-you-can-eat data plans, and most operators in markets like Australia have steadfastly avoided their introduction. 

Like the early days of GPRS availability on mobiles, early adopters showed off their new found tech status, only to be brought back to Earth with a massive bill soon after. Bill shock has now reached its next level of evolution.

Billing shock and awe

A bewildered mobile phone user in Australia recently sought advice on a technology user forum after being hit with a bill in excess of $2,000. In his post titled 'Virgin Shocker Bill $2,458.67,' he said he had accessed the Internet while on holiday in Cairns, and hadn't realized his $450 cap plan applied only to voice calls.

Another user experienced a substantial increase in his monthly bill after he bought an Android G1 phone that had been shipped from the US by a specialist local supplier. Little did he know the original distributor of the phone in the US had programmed the handset to send out automated SMS messages, which were then charged to him at an international rate, resulting in a $120 bill. Now that's a smart phone!

The Australian Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman said mobile user complaints for 2008 rose 50% over the previous year, with a large percentage of these concerned with billing and payments. Much of the confusion among consumers stemmed from misunderstandings over the term "cap." Popular applications like YouTube and Facebook generate enormous traffic for the service provider, but also enormous bills for unwary subscribers (and their parents).

Many customers don\'t understand that using data services while roaming is not included in their "home" unlimited plans, and are stunned when they return and get their first bill having been charged per kilobyte at the highest tariff, plus loadings. At least Apple thought that one out with iPhone, which not only does NOT connect to data roaming networks automatically but also warns the user about the risk before allowing them to override the settings.

Another problem for postpaid users has been the lack of tools that can monitor their mobile expenditure throughout the month. Smart operators are now starting to implement schemes to help customers better manage content subscriptions and keep tabs on their account via their mobile or the Internet. Some also alert customers when they have reached a certain limit.

Whether we like it or not, the responsibility for prevention of bill shock will fall on the service providers, especially with the proliferation of more devices with features that will allow better interactive mobile management. This is one of the drivers for rating all subscribers in real-time and providing price information direct to the user via "advice of charge" notifications.

After all, anything that makes things simpler for the customer, reduces calls to customer care, and prevents bad press must be good for all service providers, right?
 

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