Recently I was introduced to Aria, which provides a billing and subscription management system in the cloud. Its target customer is any company that offers subscription- and/or usage-based services. Its core module allows users to set up a product catalogue that consists of plans (such as subscription charges or recurring use charges) and inventory items. Usage-based charges can be based on a scale; for example, the first 10 occurrences are charged at one rate, the next 10 at another rate and so on. Users can create a plan by modifying an existing plan or by picking items from a list. Plans are hierarchical, making it easy for companies to update and manage plans built on lower-level plans; for example, a platinum service plan can be made up of a combination of lower-level services such as bronze or silver. Users can also create dependencies – for example, specifying that a plan must include software support or cannot include 7-by-24 calls. Inventory items are one-offs – for example, a modem that allows connection to hosted disc storage – and each of these can have its own charging structure. This may seem complicated, but a demonstration showed that the process consists mainly of ticking boxes or dragging and dropping prebuilt items.
Other main modules allow users to create and edit accounts of customers, calculate usage charges and produce bills according to the account billing plan. Users can also access a number of prebuilt reports and analyses, or build their own. Aria also provides what it calls a storefront, which allows customers to maintain their own account information. This is a comprehensive set of capabilities such as you would expect to find in any billing application but, on the evidence I saw, easier to use and maintain than most.
Aria has three distinguishing features that set it apart from other billing systems I know about. Firstly, it can bill for any recurring, subscription-based services, such as an item with a fixed fee that is billed monthly, recurring fees billed on multiple timeframes (monthly, quarterly and annually), bundled services that include one-off charges and usage-based fees, items with or without discounts, items that are billed on usage that includes hierarchical usage charges, and any combination of these options.
Secondly, the system was built to work with other enterprise systems such as CRM and ERP. Our research on customer information management shows that customer data is likely to exist in different systems, including billing, CRM, ERP, spreadsheets and more. Our benchmark research into customer analytics shows that one of the biggest issues for organizations is gaining access to the systems that contain the data they are interested in. And our research into the use of technology in contact centers shows that two of the top three systems that contact center agents need to access are CRM and billing, and so any discrepancies between these is likely to impact the customer experience. Also, as my colleague Robert Kugel will attest, creating customer accounts for invoicing purposes is a sensitive process because of its potential for financial fraud. Many companies choose to use their ERP system for this task to ensure that the proper controls are applied, while having Aria handle some or perhaps all of the other data fields and processes. Having flexibility to define the specific financial system of record for each item is therefore a key capability.
Aria has a unique way of dealing with all these issues. Its event identification module enables users to define when and how data is exported from and imported into the system. For example, payments can be recorded directly in the Aria system and then exported to ERP, or bills can be exported to an ERP system of record, or payments recorded in the ERP system and then imported to the Aria system. In this way users can define the system of record for different items, and data is kept synchronized between systems. The same mechanism can be used to alert other systems of a required action; for example, the Aria system can produce printed bills or send them attached to email messages, but it can also alert a CRM system to send customers a text message that a bill is on its way.
The third distinguishing feature is that Aria’s service is available in the cloud. This makes it easy to implement and takes away operational issues. Users can therefore run a trial of a new subscription service, learn about customer expectations and then customize the service to meet customer and business needs.
Before I joined Ventana Research, one of my roles was business manager for a customer care and billing product targeted at communications companies. The system was cumbersome to use and didn’t integrate well with the other systems used by these companies, such as CRM and ERP. The Aria system has come a long way from that; it makes the billing and customer care process easier, while taking into account the need for billing to integrate with other systems.
Have you thought about how your organization could benefit from creating a subscription-based service? If so, tell us more and collaborate with me and provide me your perspective.
Richard Snow – VP & Research Director