Electronic Telecom Bills: In Pursuit of Paperless TEM
Line by line, telecom records add up to millions of lines of data and thousands of pages per month. We would never tolerate managing other sets of data in that volume with paper. Why do we still do it with Telecom bills?
In the 1960s, telephone bills were reviewed manually. An accounts payable clerk would enter the payment information into a mainframe system (or on a ledger sheet for smaller businesses) and then file the original invoice in a large file cabinet. As telecom grew in complexity and options, the size and quantity of invoices grew along with it. Office file cabinets and archive storage boxes were soon filled with bills for voice and data services, and to this day, most enterprises still store huge volumes of paper bills. Let’s compare this to any other I.T.-centric data. Line by line, telecom records add up to millions of lines of data. Page by page the paper can be from 3,000 to 20,000 pages per month. We would never tolerate managing other sets of data in that volume with paper. Why do we still do it with Telecom bills?
TEM (Telecom Expense Management) systems are implemented primarily to save money. However, one of the values of an electronic TEM system that is often understated is the ability to get rid of all this paper. We can’t get rid of it completely. There will always be a few exceptions, but hopefully you can reduce it to a single file drawer instead of whole rows of cabinets.
When Should You Start Thinking About Electronic Billing?
You have to think about two things before converting to electronic invoices: the TEM process/vendor you will be using and the formats that your specific service providers support. The more you know about the electronic billing formats that are available from your primary carriers, the better off you are. Knowing your format options can ensure that your goals are being met as far as audits, matching to circuit inventory and any other objectives of your TEM program. If you have not yet decided on a TEM vendor it is essential to make sure that the vendor has readers or converters that can manage your data. If you already have EDI data for any of your bills, give it to the vendors you’re considering to see how well they do mapping it.
This caution about seeing real data is very significant. I've seen demonstrations where the "electronic" data is clearly artificial data, with a $50 circuit and exactly $10 in taxes and fees. The vendor who had the system was reluctant to map the client's real data for a demo, even after we asked them to not worry about organizational information or anything other than just mapping the EDI data into the system. It became very clear that this was not a small task for them. At this point, any leading TEM vendor should be able to very easily take data from a tier 1 Telco carrier and drop it into a demo system. If you do not have a way to get your own data, ask to see data from the same carrier for a reference account. Your telecom analyst should recognize the same types of price elements and fees as on your own invoices.
Unless you are only managing wireless invoices, make sure you that see how legacy wireline billing looks in the system, not wireless. Usually the electronic data available from your wireless vendor is either a comma delimited file or very flat data table. TEM vendors love to demonstrate using wireless data. Wireless is where all the cost reduction buzz is right now, and it is so much cleaner, so easy to show a lot of detail! Wireless may show you enough to see how the system works, but make sure that you see some good old-fashioned Bell company EDI data in the system as well.
In summary, you have to know all this in advance:
* What your carriers offer
* What you're trying to accomplish
* How well your TEM vendor is going to be able to meet those objectives.
In the TEM selection phase, we are tough on the TEM vendors, but you don’t want to actually order anything from the carriers or rearrange billing structures until you have selected a vendor. Different TEM systems do a better job with different formats and you want to make sure that you are using the format that is the best for the vendor you have selected.
You can have some choices to make as far as formats. One choice will be whether you get CDs, web-based downloads, EDI, or some custom format if you have some unusual type of billing. With the churn in Telco companies, custom formats are more common than you may think. It often is the only option in a partnership between two carriers or where a large carrier serves as an aggregator for international services.
CD Billing: CDs are usually much easier to understand than EDI data. I think the best example is AT&T Billing Edge. With Billing Edge you can actually reprint your OneNet Bill, and it has some great report capabilities. Most important--it contains database tables that can be imported into a TEM system for display outside of the program that comes on the CD. A CD program may be great to manage using the carrier's own CD-based program, but it may not work as well for your TEM vendor. Another disadvantage to CD programs is the logistics of getting the data to your TEM vendor (assuming a managed services environment where the vendor loads the data), but even if you are loading your own data, a physical disk can easily be misplaced.
EDI (Electronic Data Interchange): EDI delivery is theoretically the most reliable. EDI is an official bill of record, which means that there is an expectation that the information will be available on the bill date, or within a few days. Your company or your TEM vendor can automatically pick up that data through a FTP process or VAN (Value Added Network) transaction. Another advantage to EDI is that you will be notified in advance of any format changes that will impact a TEM system. However, some CD programs change less than EDI does. OneNet has not changed much for 10 years when they combined toll-free and outbound services on the same CD. On the other hand, Verizon CDs and Sprint CDs have changed to a completely different format. For local carriers, EDI is often the only choice. With AT&T for example, you cannot get private line data, competitive local exchange carrier data or local data on a OneNet CD.
Web Based: When we talk about web-based programs, we are really addressing the access method rather than the data itself. Web-based programs can be EDI formats with a secure FTP download, or they can be a CSV file. Sometimes they can be a text version of the paper bill, and sometimes they can just be a duplication of what you would get on a CD.
In all likelihood, you will end up with a variety of formats and ways to access the data, depending on how many carriers your organization uses.