The billing metamorphous

Tony Poulos, TM Forum
07 Aug 2009

While chairing a BSS conference in Europe recently, something I've done regularly for more years than I wish to remember, it dawned on me that things were changing, and changing rapidly. The secure world of service order processing, billing, payments and customer care I had been accustomed to had changed. I called it a metamorphism, because the change was so gradual I had hardly noticed it. I was about to experience an epiphany of potentially life-altering proportions.

The ugly, writhing caterpillar-like mass of disparate systems and silos known as BSS is now pupating into a single horizontal organism that is about to emerge either as a glorious butterfly of many dazzling colors or a slovenly dark brown moth that will capture the eye of a predator and be chewed up. I'm not sure which it will be, but if it's the latter, it may suffer an even more ignominious fate and be regurgitated to feed the young!

No, I hadn't been ingesting mind-altering substances; it just hit me. All those wonderfully complex processes that we managed to develop over many years of careful planning (and some with no planning at all) were changing. Gone were the golden years of the internal IT empires of telcos. Gone was the era in which those same departments spawned off multi-billion dollar billing software enterprises producing prepaid and convergent billing solutions and CRM systems that required more investment than the GDP of a small, developing nation. I recall the height of that era when billing company acquisitions made the world's financial industry headlines, and when thousands would turn up at billing and CRM conferences in exotic cities and party until dawn.

Billing people, you see, held the key. Not unlike the builders of the Great Pyramids, they held the secrets that were passed down from generation to generation. The world of rating had become so complex that it almost required the skills of a mathematics professor to fathom, and CFOs knew they could not afford to upset the one department that was seen as the financial lifeline of the business. It got what it asked for, few questions asked, much like marketing departments in today's world.

Today we are entering the world of "flat rate" and "online" charging. Complex voice and data rating is giving way to "all-you-can-eat," and digital content is being delivered from an online catalogue, pre-priced and ready to go in real time. The vast majority of the world's mobile consumers is prepaid, and work on simplex tariffs that decrement a balance rather than complex tariffs that increment an account. Our greatest challenge these days is how to merge those two worlds, giving postpaid customers the benefits of real-time information processing and the dispensing of paper bills in favor of electronic presentment.

You can also forget the days where talking to a live person in customer service was an option, unless you are willing to pay for the privilege. Like the software industry that spawned this brave new world we are being thrust into, customer service will be a privilege that we will subscribe to (probably as a capped, all-you-can-eat plan). It will be replaced by online self-care. Bad luck if you don't understand how to access this revolutionary self-care, because you will go the way of the dinosaurs. Those brilliant minds that once calculated billing algorithms must now turn their attention to making life simpler and easier for the masses and master the dark art of Human Interface Management. That could be a very tough call.

Tony Poulos is head of the TM Forum's Revenue Management Sector

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