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Unlocking the Real Benefits of E-Billing
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By John Korvin

When the notion of electronic billing first began to appear, the immediate attraction was the obvious cost savings that would come from eliminating paper, postage, handling, and customer care costs. But like true love, the virtues of e-billing continue to reveal themselves; virtues that in the end may prove to be far more valuable than just simple cost savings.

Though electronic billing is still in its very early stages of development, astute marketers are looking ahead to a time when consumers will make the necessary habit shifts and embrace the convenience of e-billing. When that happens, savings will soar as costs gradually disappear. But very quickly, cost savings will be yesterday’s news and the real story will emerge. This article will reveal the “real story” of electronic billing that can be told for virtually every industry, whether that’s wireless telecommunications, lending institutions, department stores, or car manufacturers.

The real story
Sales-- that’s the clear and simple benefit of e-billing. Once each month, your customers will come to your Web site, either directly or through bank, portal, or commercial consolidator sites. When they arrive, you will have the unique opportunity to talk informally and deliver targeted messaging to people who are buyers of your products or services.

Customer relationship management programs that allow companies to centralize customer data can prove invaluable in allowing you to segment your customer base to almost any level-- even down to the mythical level of one-to-one. The e-bill provides the ideal forum to combine customer data with solid marketing strategy to deliver cross-selling and up-selling messages with calculated appeal. Examples of such a strategy include:

  • A car manufacturer might offer a printable coupon redeemable at a local dealership for a discount on the next upgrade model of vehicle. This might go to all customers who have owned their vehicles for 20 months and have less than two late payments. Some car manufacturers may even offer an online buying service with instant credit approval for their best customers – turning the monthly payment into a vehicle sale.
  • A wireless telecommunications company may elect to offer customers between ages 35 and 48 the chance to get a free cell phone when they add a teenage child to their account. Online signup and home delivery of the phone and any ordered accessories could complete the transaction.
  • Depending on the level of database sophistication, a department store could provide online buying opportunities on classes of items the customer has bought in the past, redeemable at the storefront location or through an online catalog. Women who buy a certain brand of cosmetics, for example, could be offered a free gift with immediate online purchase. Customers who have spent at a certain level could be offered a 20 percent discount on anything from the online catalog.
  • A lending institution carrying equity loans could offer an automatic increase to borrowers who have the best credit history, based on home value information already contained in the customer database. Borrowers who are reluctant to go through the long process of getting a new loan may be delighted to take advantage of a hassle-free loan increase.
For every type of product or service provider, customer-direct online marketing offers an unprecedented chance to sell, sell, sell. The real-time feedback of the electronic format also makes it possible to segment and test market different messages, and then roll them out more broadly. The Internet also allows you to quickly replace an offer that is not pulling any response.

But wait, there’s more
Another big advantage of online billing is the opportunity to provide help and self-service customer care. Because most customer calls relate to billing questions, the ability to find answers online while paying the bill reduces call center traffic. Answers may come through frequently asked questions (FAQs), account history detail, live-chat customer care, or other channels. Some companies may elect to offer automatic dispute resolution tools, assuming that the amount of the challenged transaction is less than the cost of customer calls. The important outcome of self-service customer care is happier customers who feel their needs are being met quickly and intelligently.

Billers can also provide online self-serve ordering of products and services, such as a cable company allowing customers to add pay-per-view features or premium channels through a direct link from the statement. As the capabilities of broadband cable access continue to grow, customers may be able to order I/P telephony or Internet access with the cable modem or other equipment sent directly to the home. Online instructions for installation could eliminate any need for a truck and technician to come to the house – adding convenience for customers who cannot make time to wait for technicians, and increasing cost savings to the biller. Likewise, a wireless provider may allow customers to perform a plan analysis to select the calling plan that best suits their needs. Or a credit card company could let customers change the billing cycle dates to better suit their bill-paying habits. Almost any service currently performed by customer care representatives (CSRs) can be structured for some degree of online automation.

A word of warning-- research shows that customers adamantly expect that they will still be able to reach a live customer service representative quickly through a toll-free number. Until usage rates are firmly established, keeping call centers adequately staffed is critical to making a smooth transition to e-billing.

A meeting place
Increasingly, Web sites are becoming the visible face of many companies. With the advent of purely online companies such as Amazon.com and eBay, the Web site may be the only presence a customer sees.

When your customers come to pay their bills, they are coming to your place of business. Just as a well-kept office creates an impression, your billing Web site offers the chance to create a strong, favorable image of your brand in the customers’ eyes. It also provides a forum to let customers know more about you as a company. Public service programs, charitable contributions, community outreach events, employee achievements, and other activities of the organization can be spotlighted through direct links from the statement.

Upping the power
While many billers have long recognized the importance of using the statement as a marketing tool, electronic billing has dramatically increased the power of the opportunity. It may be cost savings that first appeals to billers, but it will not be long before costs will be faded line items and the real benefits will begin to pay dividends.

The challenge for the coming months will be to find ways to encourage customers to make the connection to e-billing sites. Going back to the love story analogy, billers must be creative about finding ways to meet their customers on the electronic page. A solid introduction and a good first impression will lay the groundwork for a strong and happy relationship that will continue to grow over the years.

Article courtesey of Family Business Strategies.

About the author: John Korvin can be reached at http://www.youraccounts.com. John Korvin is the president of YourAccounts.Com, which is dedicated to helping companies use Internet bills and statements as an effective means to connect with their business and consumer customers.

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