When the notion of electronic billing 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 may prove far more valuable than simple cost savings.
Though electronic billing is in its very early stages of development, astute marketers are looking ahead to 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 cost savings quickly will be yesterday's news, and the real story will emerge. That story can be told for virtually every industry, whether it is wireless telecommunications, lending institutions, department stores or car manufacturers.
The real story. Sales — that is 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. You will have the unique opportunity to talk informally and deliver targeted messaging to people who buy your products or services.
Customer relationship management programs that let companies centralize customer data can prove invaluable in allowing you to segment your customer base to almost any level — even the mythical one-to-one. The e-bill provides the ideal forum to combine customer data with solid marketing strategy to deliver cross-sell and upsell 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 fewer 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 offer customers ages 35 to 48 a chance to get a free cell phone when they add a teen-age child to their account. Online sign-up 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 could be offered a 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 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, then roll them out more broadly. The Internet also lets you quickly replace an offer that is not pulling any response.
But wait, there's more. Another big advantage of online billing is the chance 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, account history detail, live-chat customer care or other channels. Some companies may 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 also can 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 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 as well as 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. A credit card company could let customers change the billing cycle dates to better suit their bill-paying habits. Almost any service now performed by customer care representatives can be structured for some degree of online automation.
One warning: Research shows that customers adamantly expect that they still will 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 customers come to pay their bill, they are visiting 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 your 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 long have recognized the importance of using the statement as a marketing tool, electronic billing has dramatically increased the power. Cost savings may be the first appeal to billers, but costs soon will be faded line items and the real benefits will 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, happy relationship that will grow through the years.