Chris Sanders (FCICM) gives his 5 top tips to improving your billing function.
Every business function can be improved – through technology or better processes, for example. Billing is no exception. In over thirty years upgrading the billing operation in organisations across the world, I’ve always found ways to make life better for both customers and the employees who look after them. Here are five things that billing often gets wrong - and what you can do about it.
1. Being ‘responsive’
But being responsive is good, right? Well, it’s better than not being responsive (and plenty of accounts departments have a reputation for that…) but it’s not nearly as good as being proactive. The classic view of a billing team is predicated on a call centre: if the customer has a problem, they can contact us and we will put it right. That is actually a very expensive way of going about things. Instead, I often talk about “shifting left” as one billing professional colleague said– solving issues before they become problems by engaging earlier in the process: helping salespeople to get elements of billing right first time and spotting mistakes before they are ever put in front of the customer. Particularly with the new connections which digital operations have given us, there’s no reason that billing can’t see the entire sales process from the moment a customer shows initial interest.
2. ‘Hiding’ in Finance
Billing is instinctively part of the finance team. I don’t have a problem with that, but it’s easy (and this is true across all functions in a business) for us all to fall comfortably into our silos. Most other parts of the business have learned that everyone now has a Customer Experience role, and that is no less true of billing professionals. In fact, since billing people are often the final part of the sales process – wrapping up a successful deal – it’s the billing professional who influences whether the client goes away with a smile on their face or a nasty taste in the mouth. This shouldn’t be a surprise: billing is an essential in the process which is already called “order-to-cash”: it extends well forward from the finance team towards the original placing of an order. Billing is often grossly undervalued in the corporate structure – a necessary evil, a back-office burden. When billing professionals stop hiding in finance and spread their wings more broadly, they will be appreciated as a key part of the proposition.
3. Thinking process instead of experience
It’s tempting to look at billing as a process – one which begins at, say the arrival of an order into an inbox and where processes can be mapped out to handle payments, disputes and collections. This is not the best way to get the most out of a billing team. When I’m looking at a billing transformation programme, I start at the other end: with the customer experience: what does it feel like for a customer engaged in the billing process. A good example is the utility bill which we’ve all received, which includes the words “If you have already paid this bill, please disregard this letter”. That cannot possibly be an acceptable customer experience in 2023! It can only serve to irritate the customer. We have the technology to eliminate these negative experiences once and for all. If you have poor NPS scores at the back end of the sales cycle, it’s imperative to start there, understand what has caused them, and then work through the processes to the front of the sales cycle to ensure they don’t happen again.
4. Assuming today must be like yesterday
The world of customer experience is changing all the time. And customers’ expectations are changing all the time, too. This extends into billing. A great example is Buy Now Pay Later (BNPL) services like Klarna, which have given consumers new access to credit, in turn giving businesses which offer BNPL services a competitive advantage. Firms like Bluechain are similarly creating new opportunities for businesses to pay on their own terms without increasing the administrative burden on billing teams. Billing should constantly be looking for ways to add new value, turning back-office processes into commercial benefit.
5. Thinking like an accountant
Customers aren’t finance professionals. They have better things to do than spend their time interpreting bills. Yet since the 1990s, some 60% of calls into call centres have resolutely been billing queries. To reduce the cost-to-serve overall and minimise the number of customer problems which demand expensive attention, it’s crucial that bills are expressed in a human, non-expert way.
Chris Sanders, FCICM has consulted on billing and credit management for businesses on four continents, including leading turnarounds and post M&A integrations of the function in multiple major enterprises across many industries. He developed and managed the Chartered Institute of Credit Management's Quality in Credit Management Programme for 12 years and serves on CICM’s Advisory Council.