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E-billing and self-service, a perfect match

Edocs' latest acquisition demonstrates the importance of linking e-billing and account management with Web self-service tools, according to one analyst.

With so many customer service calls centering on back-office questions, a Web self-service application that incorporates billing and account information would seem to make perfect sense.

That's why Natick, Mass.-based edocs Inc.'s acquisition of the Brightware business unit of Firepond Inc. is such a good fit, according to John Ragsdale, principal analyst at Forrester in Cambridge, Mass.

"It seems such a logical thing to me," Ragsdale said. "E-service was originally created for product technical support. If you're trying to push customers to self-service, you need the technology to answer the questions they're going to ask."

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Edocs will immediately begin offering its customer self-service and e-billing applications together with Brightware's e-mail response management, knowledge management and chat applications, said Chris Gardner, edocs' vice president of products and marketing.

Terms of the acquisition were not disclosed.

According to Ragsdale, the acquisition makes edocs the first vendor to offer online account management and e-billing integrated with best-of-breed e-service for Web self-service and contact center agents.

Traditionally, online account management and questions regarding products and services have been handled by companies as separate initiatives on separate pages on their Web sites. A holistic strategy that moves users to a single portal will encourage customers to use self-service and will cut down on calls to the contact center, Ragsdale said.

Recent studies of large wireless providers have shown that between 60% and 80% of calls to the contact center involve billing and account inquiries, Ragsdale added.

"I suspected a CRM vendor was going to do this first," Ragsdale said. "It was a logical step for edocs."

He said that future development in this area is likely to come from companies like Israel-based Amdocs Ltd. or Convergys Corp. of Cincinnati, which do billing but aren't known for having as flexible an account management feature. Amdocs has added billing features to the desktops of agents running its latest ClarifyCRM application, and it makes sense to expand that to the customer side as well, Ragsdale said.

Because edocs and Brightware applications are built on a J2EE architecture, the products will integrate easily and future development will focus on leveraging a customer's transactional history during service requests, Gardner said. For example, a credit card customer might ask for a history of restaurant spending over the past month delivered in an e-mail, which a combined edocs and Brightware system likely could provide.

Companies considering investing in self-service and e-service initiatives should start with customer input, Ragsdale advised. Surveys and focus groups can help determine how to prioritize features like online account management, e-billing and knowledge-based tools. If customers complain about service levels from agents, organizations should begin with agent-facing applications like the automation of e-mail handling and tools for managing multiple chat sessions, Ragsdale said.

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