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Feature Article
September 2000


Footing The Bill: Stay On Top Of New Service Charges


When it comes to understanding what is necessary to compete in the turbulent service provider industry, OPEX Communications, Inc., provider of telecommunications and Internet services, has learned from experience. The need to maintain and grow a customer base and the need to deploy an empowered sales force are paramount, and such efforts are given a boost when the company is able to take full advantage of the benefits of the Internet. However, these core business functions fall off the radar screen when the company is unable to rate calls and bill customers.

Soon after its launch in 1998, OPEX faced problems with its billing and customer care (BCC) system that ultimately halted operations. The BCC system in place touted important features that were never delivered. Unable to bill customers for several months, the company enlisted the help of Info Directions, Inc., to install CostGuard, a usage-based billing, rating, and customer care solution to get operations up and running and to effectively enable the OPEX agent network.

In 1998, OPEX set out to offer full electronic provisioning and reporting for its service segments. They would also seek to leverage technology to target small to mid-size businesses. With one of the most aggressive agent programs in the industry, support of a remote workforce was of high priority. "We are committed to the advancement of our agents," said Sean Trepeta, OPEX president. "Our ability to empower them with technology is critical for the success of our organization." OPEX agents required a high degree of autonomy in the field while being supported by technology that allowed them to sign up new accounts and troubleshoot customer problems on site.

To set this vision in motion, an integrated, Web-enabled billing and customer care solution was essential. Within a short period of time, OPEX encountered a stumbling block: Not all rating and billing engines are created equal. Implementation of the first billing system fell short of expectations, not meeting agent needs and leaving the company unable to execute mission-critical billing operations. Trepeta explained, "We're not in business if we're not billing. Accurate and timely billing is essential." The company philosophy of being "operationally excellent," from which the OPEX name is derived, would not be negotiated. Trepeta continued, "We can't compromise on reliability."

Info Directions was brought in to jumpstart OPEX operations with the installation of CostGuard. Trepeta's first order of business was to get billing operations back online. Performing an accelerated installation process, the system was deployed within a month -- cutting the implementation time to less than half. Info Directions converted the OPEX customer database to CostGuard, and in turn, provided accelerated training. The system was then evaluated.

"We were able to realize an immediate return on investment," said Trepeta regarding CostGuard's Recycle Tolls Management program. "Not only does the billing system rate and bill calls," he said, "but now we have the ability to audit every call detail record (CDR), to never lose a call. We are maximizing revenue." For reasons such as unknown service number, invalid originating or terminating NPA, or no rate plan associated with the call, a CDR could elude the usage database and end up in recycled status. These CDRs are corrected and recycled into the usage database to account for and reconcile each and every call.

To empower their sales network, OPEX deployed OnlineRep, an integrated component of CostGuard. The use of OnlineRep provides OPEX agents a window into managing customer accounts. The three-tiered, thin client architecture allows multiple clients to interact with the same application remotely, through a standard Web browser. The use of thin client technology provides a greater locus of control for a dispersed sales force. Trepeta explains, "Our remote agents and direct sales force are signing up over 100 new customers a day. The ability to create and manage customer accounts from remote sites unifies our agent network while giving them the means to provide excellent service. It also creates value for the customer and thus is crucial to what we do." OPEX agents in the field can establish new accounts, create or review trouble tickets, add new services, post payments and adjustments, and review usage detail information.

As the thin client's disposition causes a natural shift in technical support investment from the client to the server, the use of OnlineRep affords OPEX a reduction in total cost of ownership. Upgrades and maintenance occur at a single source and thus the burden of maintenance is significantly improved. In fat client fashion, the process of implementing upgrades at each desktop is costly and time consuming. The centralized nature of a thin client customer service tool greatly reduces the demand for IT support as well as reduces the financial costs that accompany this demand. This keeps OPEX as lean as their architecture is thin.

The usage-based rating engine affords OPEX room in the future to expand their offerings seamlessly into other associative business lines. This control and flexibility allows OPEX to be resilient to the demands of the market and their customers. "The market demands convergent billing," said Trepeta, "We have a lot of value-added services and now it's easy to implement a single bill for multiple carriers."

Trepeta said that the prospect of using an electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) solution would be another extension of support to his agents and would add greater value to the customer. An additional, integrated, customer care component, the EBPP solution would further promote the benefits of access while giving the customer more control. Trepeta added, "If our agents and customers are empowered and they have the resources they need, then we are assured success."

Allyson Martel is marketing communications manager of Info Directions, Inc. (IDI). IDI is a software development company that manufactures, installs, and supports core billing, rating, and customer care solutions to the telecommunications service provider and data marketplace. IDI's CostGuard products deliver convergent, usage-based billing solutions to multi-service providers, CLECs, and ISPs that offer local, long-distance, data, VoIP, wireless, and other services. 

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Six Key Capabilities For Next-Generation Billing Solutions


Service providers operate in a fiercely competitive marketplace, requiring rapid adaptation to customer demands and requirements that can change overnight. So the service creation and business infrastructure platform must be dynamic and flexible. Here are six critical "must-have" capabilities when selecting an advanced billing solution that helps providers maximize revenue.

1. Supports delivery of any service when needed. The provider must be able to introduce virtually any new service as the demand for a new service arises.

A dynamic billing system therefore needs to be easily and quickly adapted to support new service-specific parameters such as customized services and price plans, and the processes of provisioning and event collection and processing. A billing solution that doesn't require core software to be reengineered every time a new service is offered enables services to be delivered to customers in a matter of days. A next-generation billing and customer care solution should also provide the platform for new offerings, price plans, discounts and promotions, and should be packaged for on-the-spot introduction by the marketing team.

2. Supports value-based billing. Service providers should be able to bill for service and content quality, not just usage. Consumers don't buy books based on page count. Neither should service providers sell "by the pound." Providers will need to package and price offerings based on new, qualitative metrics such as quality of service (QoS), relevance, and timeliness to name a few. These new revenue models, linked closely to customer perception of value, are based on a combination of quantitative and qualitative billing criteria and data from various sources, including network usage, demographic data, customer behavior, and other service-related software applications.

3. Capture business rules guiding partner relationships and manage revenue shares. To expand their reach, IP/broadband providers must create and alter affiliate and co-branding relationships with hundreds of different partners. Partner revenue streams may include commissions, licensing, per-click, or per-transaction fees. A next-generation billing system should be able to capture and manage unlimited e-partner relationships and have the flexibility to define any revenue-sharing relationship. This could include business models such as co-branding, syndication, and affiliation or marketing agreements for licensing, volume/QoS-sensitive commissions, and per transaction or per impression/click-through payments.

4. Automation of all aspects of customer care. A billing system must support automatic, Web-enabled self-care functions such as user registration, service ordering, order tracking, trouble reporting, and information updates, as well as bill presentment and online payment. Automation of service activation and maintenance takes the burden off the service provider to manually service every customer request, while saving significant resources.

5. Modular and scalable to start small and grow fast. An advanced billing system should allow service providers to "start small" and add services and features later. A modular approach to the solution design helps the service provider deliver permutations and combinations of the same service without having to re-code the core billing solution engine at every instance. In addition, the system should separate "plugs" required to create network connections from "plugs" required to define services, so each new service can be added as simply as the appropriate plug is added.

6. OSS interoperability. Integration is key to ensure that the business processes flow smoothly from end to end. It is imperative that all operating support systems (OSS) and business support systems (BSS) maintain open and standard APIs that will allow integration. Billing systems need to interface with systems such as CRM, call center, provisioning/activation systems, information buses and OSS middleware, network management and network devices, application servers, directories, policy management systems and financial systems such as A/R and G/L systems, Web servers, online payment services, and more. Integration is needed not just in the provider's organization, but also between the provider and its partners' OSS/BSS systems. 

Itay Arad is marketing manager for TeleKnowledge, Inc. TeleKnowledge is an innovative provider of value-based billing, customer care, and e-partner management solutions.

[ Return To The September 2000 Table Of Contents ]

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