Long reads

TV Everywhere billing and customer care challenges

ADDing-machine-posterTV Everywhere presents challenges for billing and customer care systems that were only ever designed to serve single premises hardware or define customers as a building with a street address, writes Adrian Pennington. 

Last month in the US Netflix launched Profiles, a feature that allows subscribers to create up to five different profiles, one for each person that shares the account, each with individualised suggestions and recently watched lists. The multiple account set-up was apparently a response to customer demand and is likely to be a feature of the way we all receive our VoD going forward.

“The deconstruction of the traditional household ‘account’ into known individual users, or subaccounts, is inevitable,” says Jim MacDonald, vice-president, sales and marketing, UPX Systems. “Contemplating an individual bill for each household member may be a stretch, but TV operators need to enable personalisation to offer social TV, video bookmarks, personal recommendations and blended services.”

Where services were associated with a premises, now digital and OTT services can be associated with devices, or individuals with multiple devices. “Ultimately, the impact is substantial,” says Sanjay Mewada, vice-president, strategy, NetCracker Technology. “TV service providers need a roadmap for how they support individuals and multi-device-based services in the near term without disrupting existing billing and customer management operations, but also a long term approach that moves them to product and customer models that are aligned with more services geared towards individual customers.”

Deconstrucing the base

It’s not just services enabled by tablets and smartphones that are deconstructing the customer base. Personalised DVRs cater to individuals and also allow TV operators to begin engaging single people in the home or group.

The implications for billing are huge with the ramifications for the pay TV industry in particular still being worked through. Some, like MacDonald, contend that new billing functionality “would require massive customisation or a forklift upgrade. Fundamental changes would need to be made to data models, processes and functionality.”  Others caution against the assumption that new billing and care systems necessarily means you rip-and-replace what already exists.

“They may need to do so, but not always, and never overnight,” says Mewada. “There’s too much risk of business disruption. It’s true that many current systems that were developed specifically for pay TV models may not be readily adaptable to new product and customer models. It’s not always the system that can’t adapt, but rather that the product or customer models implemented in the system need to change.” Mewada holds that current systems are “extremely well placed” to accommodate the shift in consumption habits because they are ultimately the source of record for all billable events and transactions.

“Does a billing system – if fed the right source data – really care if a VoD purchase is done through a tablet rather than through a set-top?” he asks rhetorically. “It should not.”

The first challenge for an operator when addressing a customer rather than a household is the very definition of customer. This quickly becomes a complex question.

“Is it the person who pays the bill, the channel viewer or viewers, the children, the lodger, and what about adult children in education in another location?” poses CoralTree director Mark Price. “TV Everywhere takes it to another dimension – a device? The key to this debate is, firstly, what do customers want?”

A related challenge is the need to cater for different billing models within the same household. Instead of bundles centred around  sports or movies, there may be more ‘Family Plan’ packaging where parents, teens, and kids all have bundles designed for them.

“Some operators may offer all or a subset of the same content online as in their traditional broadcast, as with catch-up TV, while others want to offer unique content to their multi-screen subscribers,” explains Rafi Kretchmer, director, cross portfolio marketing at Amdocs. “The billing system may need to treat this content differently based on what subscribers are authorised to view. Gaining access to this content will typically involve a DRM system that the billing provider must integrate with.” [icitspot id=”120881″ template=”box-story”]

Authentification issue

Different usage rules often apply in multiscreen offerings. “Buying versus renting content, shorter subscription time periods, and limits on the number of times content can be viewed, must all be options available to pay-TV operators,” says Hansen Technologies’ pay TV product director, Coen Vanbaar. “Even though much of the responsibility for enforcing these rules fall on the DRM system, this may require new or different interfaces from billing to DRM. It will also affect the product catalogue, and product bundling rules.”

Supporting real-time authentication and entitlements is, for Mewada, the biggest  issue and not something traditional pay TV business support systems (BSS) have been tasked with. “Many pay TV providers are building out more realtime customer authentication and entitlements capabilities on top of, or in front of, their traditional BSS,” he suggests.

PayWizard also believes existing pay TV billing systems can’t cope, simply because they were never designed to extend bundles with transactional add-ons.  “When bringing content to new routes to market, infrastructure becomes complicated, and platforms lose control of the ability to support the customer,” says commercial director Jamie Mackinlay. “This doesn’t just apply to subscriptions but individual transactions. When you have a core subscription and you want to add-on a service bundle you have to do this via a VOD store – and this requires a completely different business model. Users have high expectations, and will expect a service to work just as well on an unmanaged network as it does on a managed network. Customers expect to receive a robust and flexible service, which allows them to do a mix of things. All of these expectations require different business models, and this is what current systems cannot manage.”

The dilemma facing pay TV operators has similarities with the switch telcos made from  landline to mobile phones, with services centred around individuals and devices. It’s a situation tailor-made for mobile operator payments experts like Dimoco. “Our carrier billing method works almost the same way on each web-based platform,” says CEO Gerald Tauchner. “Therefore, with every activation of a new platform the requests remain the same.”  Tauchner cites Germany as an example of a mature market where credit card penetration averages 25% and mobile penetration 140%. “So the vast majority of the market is practically excluded from e-consumption,” he concludes. “The number of credit cards – major payment media – is decreasing on European markets. We fill the gap.”

Hansen also intends to capitalise on its telecoms expertise. It acquired the pay TV customer care and billing suite of Irdeto at the turn of the year, integrated it with its own systems and rebranded it as ICC.

“Billing systems that previously only stored set-top boxes and smartcards may now have to know about all devices in the household, or at least store an expanded customer profile with more information,” says Vanbaar.  For example, parental controls that were applied to a single set-top now have to be applied to many devices, and be defined differently for your teens versus small children as they all consume on different devices. “Business intelligence must also change in a multi-screen environment,” says Vanbaar. “The raw data must be captured by the various DRM systems, but fed back to the billing engine to generate new insights and the appropriate actions. How well you can identify your consumer viewing behaviour, recommend additional content, and turn this into targeted advertising may be the difference between success and failure in an OTT play.”

Service providers need to offer flexible data packages, urges Kretchmer. “It’s a huge challenge, but a way for them to deal with this is to offer services that are on multi-device plans, allowing consumers to use data across any device and providing these offers in realtime in a personalised manner. For example, what about if a service provider knows that I’m a sports fan? They could offer me 120 minutes free to watch my favourite sports channel. You can also use this approach with films.”

Kretchmer advises that up-selling services based on subscriber data, either in monthly bills or by sending pop-up messages based on a change in usage patterns, can help monetise multiscreen, for example by asking subscribers to change to a new plan with a saving of percentage for the first three months.

“Offering alerts, as well as being able to control data usage on channels like Facebook, Netflix and YouTube in realtime, can also help,” he says. “If ten days into the month a customer has already consumed 4GB, they may then want to increase their data package to 10GB in the middle of the month. It may be a challenge, but, in reality, it comes down to a basic request from a subscriber to upgrade.”

Service providers who do not implement new billing systems face losing customer satisfaction and damaging customer relationships, it is argued, though Price draws a distinction between mature and less developed markets. In the latter, where basic subscription-based TV packages are offered, it is unlikely that their CRM, service activation and billing systems can be enhanced cost effectively to support new TV Everywhere services.

UPX emphasises the concept of ‘lifecycle management’ with its MINT software.

UPX emphasises the concept of ‘lifecycle management’ with its MINT software.

“The long-term sustainability of businesses that struggle to move out of this position is questionable, given the choice being offered to consumers today,” he says.

“Service providers may develop retention issues, where customers will churn to robust systems which they can access more easily,” Mackinlay suggests. “Ultimately customers want an enjoyable user experience, and ease of use plays a significant part in that.”

As seen by Netflix’s lead, consumers want access to anything, anywhere but also to take control of when to use this service, as well as how to use it. Plenty of BSS vendors put the onus on service providers to be aware of this evolution in consumer behaviour and convergence in their policy management.

Consumer perspective

“There is a notion of ‘real-time is the only time’, leading to frustration if a service provider cannot offer a high QoS when it comes to video streaming,” says Kretchmer. “Providers need to ensure they are offering a consistent experience as consumers exhibit a zero tolerance towards service failure.”

For UPX’s MacDonald it’s all about the end-user experience. “Operators don’t need to touch their billing and care systems to accommodate personalisation and the shift in consumption habits,” he argues. “Customers want simple pricing at an account level, and billing and care systems do this well enough today. We believe that current billing models will continue to persist. What will change, are consumption habits: How services are used, by whom and on what screens?”

To quantify the loss to operators if they continue to differentiate billing and care by ‘customer experience’ rather than the consumption-based ‘user experience’, MacDonald urges a look at Apple’s successful user-centric experience: “To achieve this kind of personalised, seamless experience in the pay-TV space, operators need new platforms that work with the care and billing systems.”

The theme of integrated business processes is picked up by Amdocs. “Complexity can inhibit service providers innovating. They need a holistic view of the customer, the device and the network,” says Kretchmer. “There’s a need to address shared customer data, shared product catalogues and provisioning of services. It’s imperative to do this in real-time and it can only be achieved with integration of policy, charging and CRM systems.” While nearly all service providers are engaged in front-end video experience services for their subscribers, no-one has done a good job yet at integrating that with back office functions, according to Kretchmer, though naturally Amdocs claims market leading OSS and BSS expertise which which “can leapfrog the competition making the transformations necessary for this space”.

Service providers are in the experimental stage with new billing and care systems. It’s too early, perhaps, to tell whether there are any major hurdles to leap, but certainly customer service needs to step up a level. Typical support issues are for things like entitlement miss-matches, video delay or poor quality, and device player support. In some cases, pay TV providers train teams to deal with device issues because it is new to care reps’ skillset.

“What’s coming next are teams to support device-related issues but also more self-service troubleshooting through the device itself,” says Mewada. “Device management takes centre-stage. Being able to push upgrades remotely, remote monitoring, tracking usage and interactivity, and managing the customer experience become about more than service quality; it also encompasses customer engagement and activity all the way to the device.”

Anecdotally, it seems operators are adding specific departments to handle device support. MacDonald says there continues to be a significant opportunity to assist operators in reducing the costs associated with multi-device support: “This is a prime growth opportunity for the traditional customer care vendor.”

Amdocs’ Kretchmer also highlights the importance of effective self service channels to help resolve customer queries. “It provides a major opportunity for service providers to reduce call centre costs and improve customer experience by creating a more complete, consistent and accessible self-service capability, while using customer insight to proactively prevent and eliminate calls.” Indeed Kretchmer points to a rise in self-service care. “Most people don’t call the call centre any more,” he reports. “As this moves further into the mobile space, service providers will also need to consider self-service apps. This market is still nascent but many app developers are currently looking at this segment. In fact, with Vodafone and O2 you can download a self service app from the Apple App Store.”

“Quite simply, if viewers have a great user experience, they will continue to use services,” says Mackinlay. “If viewers have a terrible experience, whether it’s because of a bad broadband connection or a fussy and hard to use interface, service providers risk losing customers – and it will be hard for them to win these customers back.”

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