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Phone bill woes? Help is at hand

Surajeet Das Gupta | February 09, 2005

It's a common call. Agitated customers keep complaining about telecom companies overcharging or being charged for calls they never made.

Worse, they lament shelling out for a tariff plan, which they hadn't subscribed to in the first place.

Don't worry. Such troubles might be mitigated to a large extent, as new billing technologies sweeping the globe are fast making their way into the country.

With the cost of customer acquisition on the rise, Indian telecom companies are investing millions of dollars in their billing systems to prevent churn, create product differentiation and provide them with the competitive edge in the marketplace.

Says Jay Menon, director IT at Bharti Televentures: "Billing systems provide the differentiation that in turn adds to your competitive edge."

Competitors like Hutch, however, think otherwise. Says a senior executive of Essar Hutchison: "Virtually everyone gets the new technology, and it is available at a price so you cannot use billing for differentiation. It is more for providing customers more convenience."

So what can customers expect to make their cell world simpler? Ice World provides a peek into how these new billing technologies will change the lives of customers.

What are telecom companies doing to reduce billing errors and what are the key billing technology trends?

Here are some of the new billing systems that are making their way here.

One bill for different services

If you are a Bharti subscriber using their mobile service apart from a fixed line connection as well as a DSL broadband service, you might wonder why you get three separate bills.

After all it is such a pain.

Well, soon you need not. Bharti is working on a billing system, which will provide you a single bill for all the three services. Says Menon of Bharti Televentures: "We are already working on convergent billing.

"The project blueprint is already on. We will synchronise billings for our enterprise customers and then go for individual customers." Menon does not want to hazard a time frame, but he admits its completion will take at least a couple of years.

For telecom companies, a single bill makes immense sense, for they can bundle offerings across services. A survey undertaken amongst telecom company consumers internationally, have shown that a single bill has been cited as the most compelling reason for selecting a telecommunication carrier.

Studies by world billing system leaders CSG Systems, have shown that subscribers to packaged bundled offers (including different services) are less likely to churn than those who subscribe to one service.

In simple terms, it means that customers can get more attractive tariff offers. For instance, operators can offer consumers multi-balanced accounts, where they can use surplus time in one service for another, get volume discounts (a specific airtime usage on mobile can attract more minutes in broadband at a special rate) and so on.

That's not the only advantage. With customer relationship building becoming a complex exercise, a single bill offers a total view of the customer.

And that, says CSG Systems' country manager Rothin Bhattacharya, is important. Says he: "A single bill gives telecom companies a total view of the customer, how they pay their bills, what type of service they use more, what new service offers could entice them and at what price. It becomes easier for telecom companies to roll out new services with this integrated information."

More importantly, telecom companies will be able to value the importance of the subscriber based on the total strength of his financial relationship (how much he pays for all the services together) rather than an individual paying for each service separately.

E-billing

You might be in Beijing or Los Angeles, but that does not matter. You can access your account online either on the net or your mobile, from anywhere in the world and keep a tab on your bill.

Customers can do virtually anything: change tariff plan, subscribe to a new service by making a request, lodge a complaint, book a movie ticket or a candle light dinner with his wife and arrange it to be billed at the end of the month through his post paid bill. All by pressing few buttons.

That's not all. You might suddenly get an SMS from your daughter while you are abroad, saying that her prepaid is running low and she needs to top up but does not have cash.

Don't worry. All you have to do is to log on to her operator and activate a prepaid top up for your daughter.

Of course, the top up will be billed by your operator in the next bill.

For all these services, telecom companies fork out nearly Rs 15-20 per customer to send paper bills home. It includes printing costs and courier services, and, of course, the billing problem of never delivering on time and the telephonic services which are prone to errors.

The antidote to all this is e-billing, and virtually all the companies like Bharti, Hutch and Reliance are adopting this with gusto.

Executives in Hutch say that e- billing provides you with immense flexibility for the customers. It puts great convenience and control in the hands of the customers as well as improves the overall quality of service.

Bharti which is rolling out its electronic bill presentation and payment system, will offer both voice as well as data option to be in touch with your bill. You can make a call and update yourself on the status of your bill.

This also saves money for the companies. Their operational costs reduce as they don't have to deliver bills physically. Also customer care costs shrink as they shift to a web-based customer self care mode.

Pay according to quality

Can companies offer you service guarantees or else they pay up? Is it possible for customers to pay according to the quality of the download received for data, and not pay for calls, which dropped in the middle forcing them to redial the number? Are billing systems versatile enough to identify such calls?

The answer is yes. The new motto in Bharti is that customers only pay for what they use. So for data downloads, Bharti customers pay for the service only after the download reaches the mobile phone.

The reason is simple. Says Menon: "In many cases, the customers might find that the connectivity has snapped while downloading. It's unfair to charge for such a download."

It is also putting a billing system in place, where customers can pay different rates for data depending on the quality. So for images of higher resolution, you fork out extra compared to a normal quality one.

For ringtones which are hot and popular, you might have to pay more rather than have a common tariff for all ringtone downloads.

Menon and his team are trying to spread the service guarantee ethos also to voice. But this could be difficult. A few months ago, Bharti experimented with a service where a customer could call a number which had dropped within 30 seconds and pay less for the call.

But Hutch executives say that it does not find much value in offering such goodies: as call drops are not that high, and tracking such calls is not easy. Even Bharti withdrew that service recently.

Bills which help you choose the right tariff plan

Can telecom companies recommend the best tariff plan that you should pick up? Modern billing systems can help solve this. Billing systems are a repository of information.

They can pick up and analyse your previous bills and call patterns and can provide you intelligent answers. Bharti has already started innovating with this system.

But why do bills have problems and what are companies doing to erase them?

Earlier, Reliance Infocomm was deluged with billing complaints. Customers' three common complaints were: that they were charged for the wrong plan, earlier payments were not reflected in the new bill and bills were reaching late.

A Reliance Infocomm spokesperson cites the reasons for the complaints:  "These problems crop up because incorrect information has been filed in the forms, there are data entry errors by the telecom companies and incorrect addresses."

Hutch executives point out that in 95 per cent of the cases, where customers have complained of a billing problem, it is because of miscommunication or difference in perception of what the customer understood and what the company executives actually explained.

CSG Systems however points out that errors in the bill due to the system are virtually minimal. But Bhattacharya says, that since their systems depend on the backend inputs, and any errors there impact the output adversely.

Some common problems, according to him, include the call duration record from the exchange being duplicated, the bank payment gateway not recording the transaction and so on.

So to minimise errors, Hutch ensures that every data entry is rechecked by another individual. It also has a group, which randomly checks bills to ensure that the tariffs match the call minutes.

Bharti is putting together an end-to-end revenue assurance system, where the data will be checked up from the switching stage (were the minutes' records are kept) to the billing stage on a continuous basis to see if they match.

This is to ensure that no revenue leakage has occurred and that consumers are not overcharged.

Many billing systems are also incorporating some elements of fraud prevention.

Like telecom companies programme their computers in such a way, that the alarm rings when a consumer makes calls which are much higher than his average bill usage.

Companies use this alarm to send messages to their customers to warn them or even deactivate their accounts if they think something is amiss.

So what are companies looking for in the billing systems of the future? Well simply, scaleability, centralised in one or a few locations, integration of both prepaid and post-paid customers needs and wants and the challenges of convergence.

That is why transformations are already on the cards. The accent here is to build a centralised billing system. That's because, as Bhattacharyya says, it is easy to manage from one place, it lowers operational costs and offers more flexibility.

Bharti recently scrapped its legacy system (it had four different kinds of billing solutions) and has shifted its entire billing operations to Delhi for all its circles.

It has already invested over Rs 250 crore (Rs 2.5 billion) to put the system in place, and experts say that it will help them reduce operational costs by over 30 per cent.

Even state-owned Bharatiya Sanchar Nigam Ltd, which has been under attack for its faulty billing system, is looking for a major revamp.

For long, private operators have been cribbing about BSNL's billing systems, which has forced them to fork out much more in interconnect revenues. The company has just introduced broadband solutions for customers at lower tariffs.

Realising the need for a modern billing solution, BSNL recently issued an expression of interest from companies who would replace the old multiple, decentralised operations into a centralised billing system operating from only six centres.

Clearly, with all the telecom companies sprucing up their act, the complaint calls could soon be a thing of the past.


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