Online billing still in search of demand

Since the advent of the Internet, it has been called the salvation of business, opening up new opportunities that otherwise may never have existed. So when a company decides to add an online billing element and later claims there really isn’t a demand for the service, it begs the question why push a service that the end users aren’t prepared for – at least not yet.

Info Directions launched Cost Guard circa 1996 as a client/server model and combined (Cost Guard) with its online billing services last year. Running on an MS SQL Server, some of the functions include corporate account support, creating an account hierarchy, multiple billing cycles, a discounting mechanism and the ability to import records from other applications.

James Lazeroff said billing is assessed on a usage-based rating engine, where the companies determine what they are rated on. “We rate all of their calls frequently in addition to the recurring type charges. The customer delivers their records to us and then we rate their calls,” said the director of marketing for the Victor, N.Y., company.

He said they also offer customers an ASP model through their data centre and will host the software for their users.

Lazeroff added that while the company decided to add an online initiative, the bulk of their clients still prefer the client/server model. “Online billing is something that people like to talk about but when it comes down to it, there really isn’t that high of a demand for it yet.”

Senior industry analyst Brownlee Thomas said the telco companies themselves are interested in online billing, but have expressed their own concerns about vendors and the privacy issue.

“If the telcos are saying they are not interested in it, then there’s something else going on there. The Canadian telcos have very archaic billing platforms that have been mainly Oracle-based and built internally…And I think the hesitation may be an issue of privacy,” said the Montreal-based Giga analyst. She said the real disinterest is from their customers, who are insisting on receiving their bills in the mail. Telcos, she said should be salivating at the possibility because it would absolve them of the responsibility of bill collection.

Bell Canada, for example has attempted to shift to online billing, while conversely in the U.S., AT&T residential customers have expressed virtually no interest in the concept. She said end users should be given the option of either paying their bills online or through the more traditional methods. “The online billing can be an optional thing but not the only thing. Telcos want help but they’re suspicious of these software specialists, that they’re not going to be there.”

Road Post (formerly Rent Express), the Toronto-based company that provides global wireless products and services, is currently using both versions of Cost Guard. Louis Chang, the company’s CTO said the rationale for incorporating both offerings is that the client/server version allows for specific adjustments to the account itself.

“If a client calls saying we billed them $100, but really it was $90, we can give them the credit through the client/server version,” Chang said. He called the software a straight forward out-of-the-box product that has allowed them to integrate Info Direct’s software with their own system. “We’ve developed in-house our own entry system, a customer management system that sits on top of the Cost Guard client. From that we have an order input interface to transfer those orders into Cost Guard.”