What Is a Bill?

In an earlier post I raised the question of “what is sexy billing?” That is: what would an organisation’s billing capability look like if it was regarded as positive and desirable rather than negative and boring? This was based on assumptions about what “billing” was – an assumption questioned in the comments. So I then wrote a post describing what I thought “billing” meant. This in turn raises questions about what a bill really is, which I will attempt to answer here. Note: here I am primarily talking about a telecommunications bill, but this is directly applicable to other industries or organisations that present bills, invoices or statements.

Why does this matter? I believe that if we understand the information presented on a bill:

  1. We can understand what it might represent to a customer, the uses they might put it to, and therefore their needs of it.
  2. We can understand what uses the bill might have to us as an organisation.
  3. We can understand any regulatory or policy requirements that apply to that information.
  4. We can understand where in our IT landscape this information comes from, and therefore the scale of integration needed to produce a bill.
  5. We can understand the organisational dimension to the bill, who owns the different information that appears on the bill, and who needs to be involved in making the bill a success.

Without understanding this we might underestimate the effort required to put in place a bill presentation system; we might miss important regulatory requirements (such as tax law); we might miss opportunities to improve our processes or systems, and we might miss out engaging important stakeholders. These are not theoretical possibilities! I have seen all of these occur on billing related projects. I’ve seen people have to re-design bill presentation over and over because they had missed key legal (tax) requirements. I’ve seen systems integrators underestimate effort and design poorly because they had overlooked information flows required to produce bills. And, I’ve seen bill design fundamentally fail because people didn’t realise what roles a bill played for customers and the organisation.

So what do I think a bill is? Or, more precisely, what do I think a bill is made up of? Well, I think it is important to understand that it is a physical presentation of information in a particular medium (or via a particular channel). People, like myself, who work in billing can get hung up on the abstract thing generated by our billing systems. But, for most people it is a physical thing. For instance we can have a traditional printed bill, delivered through the mail; a PDF that has been emailed or downloaded, or a dynamic webpage available on the service provider portal to name some of the main options. The physical “thing” that is presented is made up of a number of different kinds of information. We should recognise that this information contains both static and dynamic elements and that these can vary based on the channel or medium used to present the bill. To help me think this through I have drawn up a “map” of the information that I believe makes up an invoice.

An information map of a bill

My information map of a bill

The elements of my map are:

  1. The “logical invoice” itself: a presentation (in summary or detail) of the charges incurred during the period covered by the invoice. This often has a legal status and as such there are usually legal requirements on it (e.g. in New Zealand it must display the GST number).
  2. The “account information”, information that is about the account or account holder, and is not specific to this invoice, such as the account holder’s name, the address the account is for and whether some form of automatic payment has been established for it.
  3. Any “balances” associated with the account, and this invoice. In terms of a traditional postpaid account this would be the amount that is owed against the account. This might be broken down into a due amount and an overdue amount. It could also include such things as balances of loyalty points. Again – this information is associated with the account, not the invoice per se.
  4. Information about payments (sometimes officially known as receipts)  that have been received on this account.
  5. Marketing and communications messages that are placed on and within the bill. Sometimes these form an integral part of the bill and some times they are done as inserts to printed bills. These messages might be targeted or personalised, or they might be generic messages for an entire customer segment.
  6. General company information, such as the mailing address, contact phone numbers, email addresses and website addresses.
  7. Terms and conditions associated with purchasing or using the products and services. These might include general terms and conditions, or segment and product specific terms and conditions.

These are just the typical pieces of information that I have seen on bills, or that I have seen people want to place on the bill – if you’ve seen others that I have missed please feel free to tell me about them. Most of these are common, but some are less so. I believe that unless we think of this full range of information we will miss opportunities and overlook potential problems when we are developing, managing or maintaining the bill and its supporting processes and IT systems.

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2 Comments to “What Is a Bill?”

  1. Hi Doug,

    If my bill comes with a prepaid reply envelope, which element are you putting that in?

    Regards,
    James.

    • Hi James,

      I don’t think that I would regard the prepaid reply envelope as a piece of information – to me it is more of a thing, the key part of the description that makes me think that is the fact that postage has been paid for: That is not information, but the result of an exchange/agreement between the service provider and the postal service. That thing is itself composed of information elements, but I don’t see those as germane to the bill itself. You can in some way think of it as company information I suppose – as it contains the postal address and instructions for how to use it.

      Doug

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