NEW YORK-If the trend in communications is bundling services to customers, then the key to exploiting the trend is in combined billing for those multiple services.
“Most of the research we’ve looked at and most of what our customers tell us is that local, long distance, wireless, cable television and online services more and more will be bundled into packages,” said David Stein, director of strategic marketing for Cincinnati Bell Information Systems Inc. CBIS provides half of all the billing services for wireless communications in North America, according to company officials.
“For now, the goal is to do this at the back end, taking data extracts from existing (billing) systems and electronically stapling them together at the mailing facility,” Stein said.
In the longer run, the goal is to move the bundling/billing “further upstream” so that a subscriber to one or more kinds of communications providers can get incentive discounts to other kinds of communications services. “To do that involves all sorts of complexity,” Stein said.
Ultimately, one-stop-shop billing also may entail one-stop-shop calling centers for all manners of customer services, such as order entry, credit verification and problem resolutions, for the various kinds of communications providers on the single bill. A transition this significant likely would lead to outsourcing by communications companies for all forms of customer care.
Right now, many communications providers may be reluctant to dispense with embedded systems that to date, they’ve invested in heavily, Stein said, “but people are growing out of what they currently have.”
A launching point for this three-part scenario is Precedent 2000 Customer Care and Billing System. In late March, CBIS announced PrimeCo Personal Communications L.P., West Lake, Texas, had agreed to use the system.
Meanwhile, Three-sixty Communications Co., Chicago, has been working with CBIS on deployment of Precedent 2000 for the past two years. A test run is under way in Peoria, Ill. “If it plays in Peoria, we’ll take it elsewhere,” said Kevin L. Beebe, executive vice president of operations for Three-sixty.
“We already bundle services to our customers. You receive on one bill both cellular and long-distance charges,” Beebe said. “One of the major enhancements of Precedent 2000 is its flexibility to make faster pricing changes. It is fair to say we anticipate the new system will increase our ability to do promotions across product lines and within wireless services.”
The external simplicity and flexibility afforded by these emerging billing technologies mask the inherent difficulty of producing them, according to Mark Nielsen, president of Subscriber Computing Inc., Laguna Hills, Calif.
“The biggest issue in functionality is the distinct difference between one kind of service and another,” he said. For cellular carriers, subscriber telephone numbers are the companies’ main asset. For a paging carrier, the paging equipment used by customers is the primary company asset. Therefore, paging companies are much more concerned with physical inventory control than are cellular companies.
Computers also must be programmed to recognize very diverse types of identification codes in order to handle paging, cellular and wireless data services, according to Nielsen.
The way customer usage is tracked and billed also varies widely, he said. Paging often is billed on a flat rate recurring cost with unlimited usage, although some paging companies recently have included an added per-call surcharge after a certain limit.
Cellular service, on the other hand, “is more time sensitive, with peak and off-peak air time, plus toll charges for long-distance and various promotional rates,” Nielsen said.
“The third level of complexity is wireless data,” where rates depend on factors like time and date, the size of the information packet and its degree of priority, he said.
Subscriber Computing, which provides programs to manage billing and other customer care services, is “being asked (by wireless companies) for long-distance resale, while some use it for paging, GSM (Global System for Mobile communications)and AMPS (Advanced Mobile Phone Service) and the Internet,” Nielsen said. “We’re also getting wireline companies asking us to bundle wireless services for them.”
A decade ago, Luis Escobar said, “people told me I was crazy, that I was trying to do too much, by putting everything on one bill.” Escobar, based in Norwalk, Conn., owns Escotel Software, which develops systems for managing billing. He also owns Escotel Communications, which resells paging, cellular and long-distance telephone services.
In the long run, Escobar predicts not only that billing and services will be bundled but that their transmission to customers will be paperless. “My vision for the future is that in five years, you won’t receive any paper billing,” he said. “You’ll review your bill on a television screen, like when you’re checking out of a hotel.”