Wireless bills tend to be extremely confusing. Despite the fact that bill formatting has made great aesthetic strides, people are still confused about what’s on the bill. A big part of the reason is that product descriptions that end up on a bill don’t make much sense to people. Telecom operators have been great at creating arcane product names that do a relatively poor job of describing the product. As we advocate for direct operator billing and direct-to-bill charge-based mobile payments, it certainly occurs that the bill confusion problem will only get worse. The partnership AT&T and GM announced at MWC last week, wherein AT&T will provide 4G connectivity for GM’s OnStar service and open the door to far more “connected car” applications, is another harbinger of billing confusion yet to come.
Product Definition is a Problem
While nearly everyone wants to blame the bill for this confusion, there is a difference between what ends up on the bill and the bill itself. Certainly there are instances where older billing platforms leave very little flexibility for naming and describing line items. But more often these days, the problem is one of product definition. When product definitions reflect the complexity of the organization behind them, users generally fail to understand them. Often, organizational complexity is a reflection of the many different systems that can be involved in product delivery.
I’ve had many discussions with Tribold’s Simon Muderack and Ernest Margitta over the years on this subject. When contacted for this article, Margitta explained that the various product-facing systems will almost always require different forms of product identifiers; typically product codes or SKUs. This ultimately results in “product data misalignment” where “the product purchased in the store has a different name in the ordering system, rating tables, and on the final invoice.” Tribold has had success offering its centralized product management solution to deal with this set of problems. Regardless, Margitta suggests that whatever approach a provider takes to solve it, “at every point the customer is impacted, those product identifier needs to be meaningful and simple for the customer to understand.” As we put more direct-operator-billed services and mobile pay charges on monthly invoices, there must be common sense ways to name and define the line items so that customer confusion doesn’t fly out of control.
Merchant Billing is a Hidden Thorn
Keep in mind also that as we move into more third-party charges, merchant billing will likely add to the challenge. This article from Practical eCommerce does a good job of explaining the twists and turns merchants face as they try to decipher monthly statements regarding all of the transactions they’ve processed and the fees banks charge them for the service. These statements are particularly confusing because they reflect the complex and convoluted rules that govern fees for all different sorts of payment transactions.
If you have multiple credit cards from different issuers, you can see that they haven’t solved billing confusion either. Even issuers like American Express, which provides an aesthetically simple statement, will push charges through from merchants that just don’t make sense. Funny enough, until a month or two ago, AT&T charges pushed through to Amex were described as “ATTM************* ILLMIDLAND TX” (*** stands in for a random account number). If you think about it, you can decipher that ATTM stands for AT&T Mobility, but at a glance, mind tends to think, “what did I spend $154.32 on?”
Because the cost to deal with billing confusion is so high from customer care, contact center, and customer loyalty perspectives, higher care costs are bound to be an unfortunate and unintended consequence of introducing all sorts of new services to wireless (and other telecom and cable) bills. The industry should probably support efforts to create a common approach to naming types of products and their line item descriptions. The TM Forum has devoted significant efforts in this area through its Information Framework initiative and is, at the very least, one starting point for a cross-industry effort to address this fundamental problem.