Online payments fit the bill for Austereo

For nationwide radio broadcaster Austereo, the sheer effort involved in preparing and delivering thousands of monthly invoices -- each so voluminous they're sent in boxes rather than envelopes -- proved cumbersome enough that a better solution was all but a necessity.

Your typical household bill might only have two or three pages, but in the commercial world things quickly get a lot more complicated. For nationwide radio broadcaster Austereo, the sheer effort involved in preparing and delivering thousands of monthly invoices -- each so voluminous they're sent in boxes rather than envelopes -- proved cumbersome enough that a better solution was all but a necessity.

Snapshot on Austereo

Source: Austereo

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The size of Austereo's invoices comes from the fact that the broadcaster, which manages 12 FM radio stations in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Perth, must report on each specific time when its customers' advertisements run. With multiple stations running 24x7, multiplier effects soon kick in, leaving the company with a massive job of bill printing, distribution, reconciliation and the eventual payment handling.

Austereo contracted an external mailhouse in 2001 to offload the burden of physical billing logistics, but could not find an appropriate solution to fulfil its long-term vision of improving the efficiency of the billing process. It was only in the past couple of years that the technology caught up with Austereo's needs, allowing it to plan a multi-pronged effort to move much of its commercial business relationships online.

"Because our terms are monthly, if you're getting invoices to clients by paper and snail mail, you're not going to get them out by the end of 10 working days [after month's end]," says Kym Rawnsley, Austereo's receivables group manager.

"The mail isn't what it used to be, and even when data is sent to the mailing house by the end of the first working day many of the larger invoices don't go until the third or fourth working day. We're looking at some really tricky reconciliation processes with clients, and if there are any disputes we would rather know about it now than in three to four weeks' time [when the payment is due]. With electronic delivery, this can happen within 24 hours."

Rating well online
During 2006, Austereo successfully implemented the first stage of its move online: a purpose-built system to allow customers to complete and lodge every part of a 30-day commercial credit account online. Using previous manual approval processes, these applications could take days to assess; online, approval can be given in minutes.

That capability proved to be an instant hit: fully 99 percent of new applicants now use the online site for credit applications rather than contacting Austereo directly. Already, says Rawnsley, employees are finding that the reduction in manual paperwork has allowed them to focus their efforts on adding value to their jobs in other ways.

"We've changed the type of person we've got," he explains. "The team [of three people] just co-ordinates rather than doing everything. We now have senior, customer focused type people than back-end process type people. It's a different focus altogether."

For Rawnsley, the strong customer response to the online application process reinforced the proposition that Austereo's customers -- 80 percent of which is generated by large advertising agencies equally keen to optimise their media buying activities -- were keen to deal with the company online.

This lent further impetus to the business case for implementing electronic bill presentment and payment (EBPP) software, for which Austereo eventually chose CommSecure's BillSecure payment management system, PaySecure secure payment gateway, and DDRSecure direct debit management and payment solution.

A better bill
Working together, CommSecure and Austereo were able to develop a complete customer-facing front-end that allows Austereo to present customer invoices online by the day after the billing period ends. Having gone live in pilot form on July 1, the system provides bills as either PDF files or XML data feeds, and provides basic payment capabilities.

Initial feedback has been good, Rawnsley says. By September, these capabilities will be expanded to provide a full online self-service portal, with capabilities such as lodging and tracking payment queries online, and running live queries to pull down historical billing information.

Judging by the success of the online credit system, Rawnsley is confident the full EBPP system will deliver even larger returns for the company. One mooted plan will be to completely automate the invoice reconciliation process, which right now "is all done absolutely manually by people sitting in little offices with piles of paper," he says. "Developing a process whereby we can automatically reconcile them will be a big leap."

Even without such big steps, the system is expected to pay off significantly for Austereo by reducing its costs in accounts receivable administration and strengthening its cash flow. The system will also provide easier analysis of customer buying data, helping it target new opportunities in the future.

"I don't believe in having people do stuff that machines can do a lot better," Rawnsley explains. "The systems are consistent and allow us to rely on the criteria we put in -- and you trust them."

"Because overheads are lower, it allows us to take a few extra risks that maximise our opportunities in the marketplace. Once we get there and people start using the system, there will be a whole lot of new things we'll want to get it out of it. This is just a quantum leap for us as a business."