Last month the Javelin E-commerce research company released its annual report on who they see to be the "innovators" in the on-line Billing space (at least as it relates to US experience). These are many of the companies that are not the Billers themselves (or merchants with the facility to render a bill directly at their own web site and to readily accept online payment at the same site) and the Banks and / or Credit Unions (or what Javelin calls FI's) who offer an online BillPay service to their customers.
Let's start with a few quotes from the report:
"A number of innovative companies are seeking to overhaul and streamline the chore of paying bills with services that potentially could steal market share from the dominant models of paying bills at Financial Institutions (FI) s or directly at biller sites. not come easily or soon, however. These innovators not only are competitive against one another in a crowded field with piecemeal offerings, their survival will depend on changing entrenched consumer habits for paying bills at FIs, at biller sites, and by mail. "
"Billpay innovators have the potential – at least on paper – to offer a package that combines or orders the strengths of FI bill pay and the biller d irect model. These strengths include the ability to view and pay all bills in one place, oversee all account balances in one place, pay from any account at any FI, and file away documents from all sources. "
BillPay Innovators lack the necessary four – part combo: money management, bill pay capabilities, archives, and mobile access. To convince consumers that they are a charging bill pay alternative, innovators must offer a package that combines the control of money management, the practicality of bill pay, access and control via mobile devices, and the convenience and security of electronic archives. "
In summary then, Javelin concludes that independent online billing companies may have a potentially disruptive impact in the future, but it will not take long, it will take small, consumer habits functionality that will be available is not that compelling and there is a lot of competition rendering the effort relatively unprofitable. In other words, this is not a very positive outlook. Unfortunately, this overall conclusion is based on faulty assumptions leading to spurious and incorrect forecasts and in this article we will briefly suggest why this is the case and take each of these four overall objections one by one.
1. The market penetration of a well-run cloud-based online billing business will take a long time and the impact will be small.
The argument here is that Bank Bill Pay and "Biller direct" has already "locked up" much of the market and the small innovative online billing companies now have only the "crumbs from the rich guy's table". This assures that both merchants and consumers are happy with these two currently available options. For a start only the largest billers typically have an online presentation and payment solution and even it may be slow and not easy to navigate (and creates a different user experience for the consumer for every merchant that has such a site). On the Bank / FI side, online bill payment is offered but presentment is either not available at all in most cases or is only at summary single line level (so the consumer can not view a full digital bill). The consumer may also only be able to pay bills for large merchants and only from their checking account. Both of these parts of the market are therefore only "technology interfaces". They will be quickly swept away by a full and integrated digital portal-based technology and this is available from several of the innovators right now.
2. Consumer habits will be difficult to change
It is true that consumer behavior is hard to change but it is not impossible. Look at the significant shift to internet banking in the last decade (which is what has mainly driven online bank bill pay in recent times). However, more significantly the pain is not essentially on the consumer side in the bill presentment and payment area-it is on the merchant side of the equation. Merchant pain here is considerable and long standing. Many merchants have been sending out paper-bills for decades and collecting payment by offline means (like cheque and cash) for as long. Even where they can take credit and debit cards they need to have a response team or call-center, which is costly. But despite most significant (and this envelopes even those merchants that have switched to emailed invoices), the big merchant challenge is reconciliation, most of which is done manually and may require two, three or even four sets of data-keying. Online billing reduces this task to almost zero time and therefore on-going cost. And with a sophisticated cloud-based online billing and payment solution it also means no up-front capital cost and the avoidance of the months of time it may take to integrate with the local accounting software being used. This is a very big win for merchants and allows them to offer incentives to customers to switch to online payment or face extra costs if they do not. From a consumer perspective this not only quickly changes the thinking but if the online solution allows them to also get a bill on the phone as a text message, as an email or they can still print it if they wish, the resistance is likely to fast melt away.
3. New online bill presentation and payment functionality will not be very compelling
Javelin are magnanimous enough to recognize that some of the innovators technology is "impressive" but then fail to draw the conclusion that it will be valuable. Once again, we have to look at the value to both consumers and to merchants themselves and when this is done, the benefits are substantial. There is insufficient space in a short article such as this to list the range of features offered by many individual innovators technology companies but if we look at the more agile e-presentation and payment companies, the consumer has the ability to see full bill detail instantly , 365 days of the year and 7 days a week, pay by almost any method (including cash remittance) can calendar payments and set up automatic debits, can receive customized alerts, and track all bills (which they can progressive see from multiple merchants in one place under one login and password). And for the merchant, bills or invoices can be securely sent immediately they are ready in digital form (which cuts down delivery time and lost or undelivered problems), increased payment options are offered to consumers and accelerated cash-flow is created (as consumers on average pay earlier with an online transaction). This is not to mention the call-center and reconciliation cost savings mentioned above. Even these few features are worth huge amounts of time and money for consumers and merchants and are therefore anything but trivial.
4. There is too much competition among these small innovators making substantial profit making illegally
Much of the payments industry see so-called "innovators" as either non-bank businesses trying to get into the payment space (like accounting software companies) or businesses that are supplying online billing software of some kind (which will always face a high integration hurdle). What they miss is the few companies that are either of these-really focused e-commerce, billing or payments companies that are primarily offering a cloud-based or hosted solution. Apart from a large company like PayPal who are trying to offer this kind of service in this sphere (and they have the financial muscle to be highly disruptive without facing much in the way of competition), most companies that are competitive here are relatively small at the moment and there are not that many many of them. This means that there is a chance to offer quite a differentiated service in particular geographies and within certain market verticals. In addition, there is potential for one or two of these to emerge as a market leader very quickly (most likely in the next 12-24 months) and create a "sea-change" in attitudes and behavior at all levels.
As if the counter-arguments to Javelin's conclusions above are not enough to convince us that a big change is coming soon, there are many other compelling benefits that are available right now that will mean the innovative cloud-based bill presentation and payment company will make large inroads into this very large market. This includes the immediate availability of an e-commerce version of bill pay on any merchant web site that wants it, the scope to offer the same service for B2B transactions (and not just B2C which is often the only focus if research in this area) . In addition, the ability of the innovator to now offer secure document delivery is not just a more convenient storage option (for consumer and merchants) but means that all online payment related documents like credit card statements and payment confirmations and notices can all go online and be delivered at a fraction of their current cost. Last but not least, all of this technology is available in the mobile sphere too, meaning that merchants can render electronic bills on a smart phone or tablet computer anywhere they have a connection and consumers can pay them on the same devices wherever they are (any place and at any time).
In conclusion, the world of bill presentment and payment has changed little for more than 50 years. The innovators are going to change this world dramatically and the time for this to happen is now.