Everyone's still bogged down by dogged billing problems

14 Jan 2016

Call us cynical, but when a senior company executive, commenting on a billing problem, says, “We have reviewed the incident and associated processes to rule out a recurrence,” you have to smile. You know – you just know – that some patch has been applied to some system somewhere like chewing gum. And heads have probably been bashed together.

This time it was Vodacom in South Africa, who double-billed 200,000 customers. But they are far from alone in having billing problems, even in this modern, digital age. In the UK, 500,000 npower customers were wrongly billed, the company was judged woefully inadequate in the way it addressed customers’ complaints, and the company was fined – heavily.

Every month, there are stories of bill shock, customers being overcharged, and the press has a field day. Even “digital dudes” like Apple are not squeaky clean on this issue. The scene is easy to visualize. Mum is sitting on the sofa with her toddler, playing with an iPad. The phone in the kitchen rings and she rushes to get to it. Meanwhile the toddler carries on playing and inadvertently downloads loads of expensive stuff. This “oversight” resulted in a class action suit.

While the Apple incident is – perhaps – the result of not thinking through the consequences of a delay before the screen locks, the utility and telecoms examples are because of outdated legacy systems and processes. Which is not a simple problem. And there is constant discussion as to whether or not to upgrade, add on, farm out or start again with systems that have to support huge numbers of customers.

Clearly the npower situation was caused by the transition to new systems. We may not find out (officially) the cause of the Vodacom glitch, but these situations go to the heart of why utilities are finding it so tough to keep up with the digital dudes.

Except in extreme cases, a wholesale transformation nowadays is a risk too far, and too slow. Therefore, once complete, the transformed structure will need to be transformed again. Those digital dudes do not have road maps to fit in with, and have IT strategies that are months in scope, not years.

Farming out a problem never works. If the billing and related processes are a mess, then at best all you are doing is adding a legal headache to a technical one. Correct me if I’m wrong, but not one example of outsourcing a mess has ever worked.

Bolting on solutions is an obvious way around the problem, but that in itself is a problem because it is a workaround, not a complete solution. In many cases, though, it is the most direct means to an end.

Starting again (creating a new entity) is technically the safest solution. If you asked the billing and IT guys at most telcos whether they would like to join a team on a greenfield site, they would wonder what the trick was. And, free of legacy, they would be there in a heartbeat.

This situation is not easy. Utilities (and many telcos could be classed as such) are burdened with both legacy systems and regulators who happily fine them when those legacy systems fail.

Yet, the world is now digital, with all the threats and opportunities that brings. Somehow utilities must find a way of throwing away, bypassing or solving the legacy problem, otherwise they will never be truly digital and be consigned to carrying other people’s products, without so much as a by your leave.

And they will continue to be dogged by billing problems.

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