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Electronic Telecom Bills: In Pursuit of Paperless TEM
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.
Organizing Your Billing Hierarchy
One of the biggest changes when transitioning away from paper billing is how your invoice information is organized. With paper billing, you may have come up with all kinds of ways to manage and charge back costs within your company. This could include grouping services into subaccounts that all belong to the same cost center, or even directing service providers to label invoices with department codes, "attention to" information, or even a manager’s name. Ideally, the TEM system will now take care of a lot of this organization. It is best for the customer to manage the employee data, GL codes or cost center data instead of trying to keep it up to date on carrier records.
So there are two goals in organizing the billing.
* The first is to have as much consistency as possible, within the constraints of the service provider’s invoicing system. All of your main accounts and subaccounts should roll up on the same level across your TEM database. If you ask a TEM vendor "how many hierarchy levels does your system support?" often the answer will be "as many as you need". This really does not help you in organizing your data. You will want your TEM system to normalize the varying billing structures that you get from your carrier, so it is easy to use. You want it to look as much like a single dataset as possible for administration and consistency in queries and reports.
* The second goal is data visibility. Make sure that your data is displaying down to the USOC and individual circuit level. For example, third party charges such as USBI, ILD Teleservices are printed on the paper bill as a separate page at the back of the bill. Usually the EDI bill defines these as a whole separate bill to a different company in the same feed. Make sure that this data does not get buried as a bunch of miscellaneous charges. At the same time you can't predict every third party charge that that is going to end up on your bill so it's not something you can preconfigure your Telco accounts to accommodate. Ask your TEM vendor to show you how they handle these third party charges.
There is so much to know about EDI, I only know what I know by accident. Here is a screenshot using a freeware product called Softshare EDI Notepad. With this software I can toggle between the real EDI data and the mapped version and I often use it to explain how there are billing elements that don’t change, but there is also a lot of flexibility in how the carriers can arrange the data and describe the data.
The above example is showing the header data, which is usually very consistent. The things that are always the same are the customer information, the billing dates, the amount to pay, the amount past due--all the stuff that you need to just pay the bill.
In this second example above, you will notice how generic the tags become once you get into line-by-line detail. This is where there is a lot of flexibility for each of the carriers to structure the data differently. It is up to your TEM vendor to properly interpret all the other data. Each of the service providers publishes an EDI guide that describes what they use all of the tags for; these change more frequently than they ought to.
The Paper Bill had Errors, Why'd you Expect the Electronic Bill to be Perfect?
Within this flexibility, each of the service providers may put limitations on what they display. In this example, a circuit ID appears in the description field. In Telco EDI, there is a specific tag for circuit IDs which is preceded by SI TN, and if your TEM system is always expecting to find the circuit ID there, this would be a problem. However, you don't want the system to end up mapping every description field as a circuit or a USOC because usually it's just a free-form description.
This is where your TEM vendor's expertise comes in. There are a lot of variations in the data, but on the other hand there are only a finite number of Tier 1 carriers in North America. It really should be up to them to keep up on the changes.
Here's a screenshot of something that Qwest does. If you looked at a literal translation of this data, you would wonder why a single measured business rate line costs so much money. On the paper bill it turned out to be a group of circuits. This creates another challenge if you are trying to match a charge for every single circuit as an inventory item; you can't with this bill.
Your first reaction might be to tell your TEM vendor they are not mapping the data correctly, but the limitation is in the electronic data. Digging into the electronic data will help you understand when the TEM software is not doing its job, or when the limitation is in the data that's been delivered.
Testing and Reviewing Data
The most basic way to review data is to take your paper bill and to compare the components on it to the electronically displayed bill in the system. One word of caution about this is that you need to think of your paper bill as a report. You will not necessarily see everything that is on the paper bill in the TEM system. The components that should always work are the dates, the dollar amounts, the payment history, and the balancing of subaccounts. You should also be able to see charges on a circuit-by-circuit level.
I have found reviewing the EDI data to be very helpful to make sure that if there is data in the electronic feed that you want captured, your TEM vendor is capturing it. Conversely, it's not reasonable to demand detail that doesn’t exist in the electronic data.
Many times you'll get data in the electronic feed that does not exist on the paper bill. For example, I found an AT&T bill that contained order details for every PIC freeze that was on the account, displayed every month on the bill, including the name of the telecom analyst who ordered the service.
In summary, testing at a minimum should include:
* A review against the paper invoice and any issues with balancing
* Third party charges or subaccount information that is not visible.
Make a note of the issues, and then discuss them with your TEM provider. Ultimately you want to have enough information that you never need the paper bill again.
Sending Data to Accounts Payable
There is some information that uniquely makes sure that you get from the electronic invoice if you're going to send the data through a payment feed to Accounts Payable.
When you get a paper bill, your Accounts Payable department probably has an account number assigned to that vendor, remittance addresses which they match up to the remittance address on the paper bill, and a payment history in the AP system, either by account number or invoice number.
All this information needs to be captured in a way that enables Accounts Payable to process the bill. Get to know your accounts payable process before you start receiving electronic invoices. For example, will you set up the accounts in the TEM system to already contain all the remittance information, or you are going to have to capture that information from the electronic invoice? How will you handle changes to the service provider remittance address? You will need to understand the fields required to build an AP interface for your company, so start early in the process to understand what you need to capture from electronic billing.
Several years ago, I wrote an article for NoJitter covering why there were different TEM providers for wireline and wireless. A special concern with wireless invoicing is matching the data to an employee record. Wireless devices do not exist in a single location like a measured business line, so you can't give a list of wireless devices to your on-site cable tech to trace from the telephone room. There is also much more likelihood that you will cycle through employees before you cycle through office locations, that you are more likely to end up with unused wireless services still billing in the system.
The best way to handle this is to map each of the wireless services to the employee who is assigned the device. This is especially important for air cards or smartphones that you don’t want to leave with the employee or to end up in an empty desk drawer.
On paper invoices I have seen clients try to manage wireless devices by employee name--for example, a wireless device assigned to L. Jones. For most companies that are large enough to use a TEM system, this is not effective and doesn't give you a way to determine when an employee leaves. Most organizations have unique employee IDs. Work with your human resources department to include an interface with those employee IDs.
If you are charging back to employee cost centers, then you can address the second main challenge of wireless billing: chargeback. You may also be able to get cost centers for each employee from the same interface. It is futile to try to manage this data on carrier bills, or manually in the TEM system. Your company is the subject matter expert on the human resource data and that is where it should be managed, and then imported into the system through a regularly updated interface.
When Telecom Carriers Change Data
Pay attention to the changes--Make sure your TEM Provider is planning ahead.
When you sign up with a service provider for EDI data, you will get a notice when there is a change to the EDI interface. I would recommend paying attention to these notices to determine if they have an impact on you. Ideally, your TEM vendor keeps up on all these changes, at least with the major carriers, but this is not necessarily true. Many of the change notices you get will be for minor changes that won't affect the ability to pay the invoice.
However, there have been some major platform changes in the last few months. Verizon once had a separate interface for each of its legacy MCI products: data, toll-free, VNET and access lines. Verizon also had a separate interface for each of the acquired LECs: Verizon East, Verizon Southeast and Verizon West. They have now consolidated all of these into a single Verizon business 811 interface. This was a big change and required complete re-testing. Soon after, Verizon Northeast was sold to Frontier. The Frontier feed used for Verizon Northeast customers is the same format that was being used as Verizon business 811, but now with new remittance address and vendor information.
Embarq was acquired by CenturyLink, which required complete remapping of all of the electronic data. Qwest was also acquired by CenturyLink, but kept using the Qwest interface. If you're evaluating a TEM vendor right now, ask them how they're handling these changes to see how committed they are to supporting changes proactively.
When Can I Stop All these Paper Bills?
I know a telecom analyst who was asked to provide information on an incoming toll-free call to their legal department. The request was last year and the toll-free call was in detail records from 2006. One of the things you should consider doing if you decide to go paperless is to make sure that you are replacing the level of detail you get on a paper bill, either with data available on a website or CD billing records. You probably will not want this level of detail in your monthly telecom invoice processing, but there’s also a lot of information that you can get from detail records that are not necessarily provided in summary records.
Here are the steps that will get you to paperless billing.
1. Order all of your electronic invoicing for your TEM system.
2. Make sure that you have captured every single account that you are receiving a paper bill for.
3. Test the interfaces and make sure that you are comfortable with the billing records that are coming into the TEM system.
4. Contact your carriers for each account number and ask them for the media options for receiving detailed billing. Just a note on this--this doesn’t have to be that elegant. It can just be a CSV file. You're just archiving it for when you need it occasionally.
5. Once you receive detailed billing and cross-reference each account number, stop paper billing for that account number.
6. Keep a single drawer in your file cabinet for the few invoices that you will always have to receive as paper. Examples of these are pay phone bills, some CLEC bills, and smaller carriers that don’t offer electronic billing.
Robert Lee Harris is president of Communications Advantage, Inc., a telecommunications consulting firm. He specializes in strategic technology acquisition and implementation. He is a member of the Society of Telecommunications Consultants and can be reached at 800-765-9497 or www.communicationsadvantage.com.