Wed 10 Sep 2014
Tags: finance, billing, web
You'd think that 20 years into the Web we'd have billing all sorted out.
(I've got in view here primarily bill/invoice delivery, rather than
payments, and consumer-focussed billing, rather than B2B invoicing).
We don't. Our bills are probably as likely to still come on paper as in
digital versions, and the current "e-billing" options all come with
significant limitations (at least here in Australia - I'd love to hear
about awesome implementations elsewhere!)
Here, for example, are a representative set of my current vendors, and
their billing delivery options (I'm not picking on anyone here, just
grounding the discussion in some specific examples).
So that all looks pretty reasonable, you might say. All your vendors have
some kind of e-billing option. What's the problem?
The current e-billing options
Here's how I'd rate the various options available:
email: email is IMO the best current option for bill delivery - it's
decentralised, lightweight, push-rather-than-pull, and relatively easy
to integrate/automate. Unfortunately, not everyone offers it, and sometimes
(e.g. Citibank) they insist on putting passwords on the documents they send
out via email on the grounds of 'security'. (On the other hand, emails
are notoriously easy to fake, so faking a bill email is a straightforward
attack vector if you can figure out customer-vendor relationships.)
(Note too that most of the non-email e-billing options still use email
for sending alerts about a new bill, they just don't also send the bill
through as an attachment.)
web (i.e. a company portal of some kind which you log into and can
then download your bill): this is efficient for the vendor, but pretty
inefficient for the customer - it requires going to the particular
website, logging in, and navigating to the correct location before you
can view or download your bill. So it's an inefficient, pull-based
solution, requiring yet another username/password, and with few
integration/automation options (and security issues if you try).
/ Australia Post Digital Mailbox:
for non-Australians, these are free (for consumers) solutions for
storing and paying bills offered by a consortium of banks
(BillPayView) and Australia Post (Digital Mailbox) respectively.
These provide a pretty decent user experience in that your bills are
centralised, and they can often parse the bill payment options and
make the payment process easy and less error-prone. On the other
hand, centralisation is a two-edged sword, as it makes it harder to
change providers (can you get your data out of these providers?);
it narrows your choices in terms of bill payment (or at least makes
certain kinds of payment options easier than others); and it's
basically still a web-based solution, requiring login and navigation,
and very difficult to automate or integrate elsewhere. I'm also
suspicious of 'free' services from corporates - clearly there is value
in driving you through their preferred payment solutions and/or in the
transaction data itself, or they wouldn't be offering it to you.
Also, why are there limited providers at all? There should be a
standard in place so that vendors don't have to integrate separately
with each provider, and so that customers have maximum choice in whom
they wish to deal with. Wins all-round.
And then there's the issue of formats. I'm not aware of any Australian
vendors that bill customers in any format except PDF - are there any?
PDFs are reasonable for human consumption, but billing should really be
done (instead of, or as well as) in a format meant for computer consumption,
so they can be parsed and processed reliably. This presumably means billing
in a standardised XML or JSON format of some kind (XBRL?).
How billing should work
Here's a strawman workflow for how I think billing should work:
the customer's profile with the vendor includes a billing delivery
URL, which is a vendor-specific location supplied by the customer to
which their bills are to be HTTP POST-ed. It should be an HTTPS URL to
secure the content during transmission, and the URL should be treated
by the vendor as sensitive, since its possession would allow someone
to post fake invoices to the customer
if the vendor supports more than one bill/invoice format, the customer
should be able to select the format they'd like
the vendor posts invoices to the customer's URL and gets back a URL
referencing the customer's record of that invoice. (The vendor might,
for instance, be able to query that record for status information, or
they might supply a webhook of their own to have status updates on the
invoice pushed back to them.)
the customer's billing system should check that the posted invoice has
the correct customer details (at least, for instance, the vendor/customer
account number), and ideally should also check the bill payment methods
against an authoritative set maintained by the vendor (this provides
protection against someone injecting a fake invoice into the system with
bogus bill payment details)
the customer's billing system is then responsible for facilitating the
bill payment manually or automatically at or before the due date, using
the customer's preferred payment method. This might involve billing
calendar feeds, global or per-vendor preferred payment methods, automatic
checks on invoice size against vendor history, etc.
all billing data (ideally fully parsed, categorised, and tagged) is then
available for further automation / integration e.g. personal financial
analytics, custom graphing, etc.
This kind of solution would give the customer full control over their
billing data, the ability to choose a billing provider that's separate from
(and more agile than) their vendors and banks, as well as significant
flexibility to integrate and automate further. It should also be pretty
straightforward on the vendor side - it just requires a standard HTTP POST
and provides immediate feedback to the vendor on success or failure.
Why doesn't this exist already - it doesn't seem hard?
Thu 29 May 2008
Tags: banking, finance, web
Heard via @chieftech on twitter that the
Banking Technology 2008
conference is on today. It's great to see the financial world engaging with
developments online and thinking about new technologies and the Web 2.0 space, but
the agenda strikes me as somewhat weird, perhaps driven mainly by the vendors they
could get willing to spruik their wares?
How, for instance, can you have a "Banking Technology" conference and not have
at least one session on 'online banking'? Isn't this the place where your
technology interfaces with your customers? Weird.
My impression of the state of online banking in Australia is pretty
underwhelming. As a geek who'd love to see some real technology innovation
impact our online banking experiences, here are some wishlist items dedicated
to the participants of Banking Technology 2008. I'd love to see the following:
Multiple logins to an account e.g. a readonly account for downloading
things, a bill-paying account that can make payments to existing vendors,
but not configure new ones, etc. This kind of differentiation would allow
automation (scripts/services) using 'safe' accounts, without having to
put your master online banking details at risk.
API access to certain functions e.g. balance checking, transaction
downloads, bill payment to existing vendors, internal transfers, etc.
Presumably dependent upon having multiple logins (previous), to help
mitigate security issues.
Tagging functionality - the ability to interactively tag transactions (e.g.
'utilities', 'groceries', 'leisure', etc.), and to get those tags included
in transaction reporting and/or downloading. Further, allow autotagging of
transactions via descriptions/type/other party details etc.
Alert conditions - the ability to setup various kinds of alerts on
various conditions, like low or negative balances, large withdrawals,
payroll deposit, etc. I'm not so much thinking of plugging into particular
alert channels here (email, SMS, IM, etc), just the ability to set 'flags'
RSS support - the ability to configure various kinds of RSS feeds of
'interesting' data. Authenticated, of course. Examples: per-account
transaction feeds, an alert condition feed (low balance, transaction
bouncing/reversal, etc.), bill payment feed, etc. Supplying RSS feeds
also means that such things can be plugged into other channels like email,
IM, twitter, SMS, etc.
Web-friendly interfaces - as Eric Schmidt of Google says, "Don't fight the
internet". In the online banking context, this means DON'T use technologies
that work against the goodness of the web (e.g. frames, graphic-heavy design,
Flash, RIA silos, etc.), and DO focus on simplicity, functionality, mobile
clients, and web standards (HTML, CSS, REST, etc.).
Web 2.0 goodness - on the nice-to-have front (and with the proviso that it
ajax goodness allowing more friendly and usable interfaces and faster
Other things I've missed? Are there banks out there already offering any of
Wed 05 Mar 2008
Tags: billing, finance, web
Was thinking in the weekend about places where I waste time, areas of
inefficiency in my extremely well-ordered life (cough splutter).
One of the more obvious was bill handling. I receive paper bills during
the month from the likes of Energy Australia, Sydney Water, David Jones,
our local council for rates, etc. These all go into a pending file in the
filing cabinet, in date order, and I then periodically check that file
during the month and pay any bills that are coming due. If I get busy or
forgetful I may miss a due date and pay a bill late. If a bill gets lost
in the post I may not pay it at all. And the process is all dependent on
me polling my billing file at some reasonable frequency.
There are variants to this process too. Some of my friends do all their
bills once a month, and just queue the payments in their bank accounts
for future payment on or near the due date. That's a lower workload
system than mine, but for some (mostly illogical) reason I find myself
not really trusting future-dated bill payments in the same way as
There's also a free (for users) service available in Australia called
which allows you to receive your bills electronically directly into your
internet banking account, and pay them from there. This is nice in that
it removes the paper and data entry pieces of the problem, but it's
still a pull model - I still have to remember to check the BPay View
page periodically - and it's limited to vendors that have signed up for
As I see it, there are two main areas of friction in this process:
using a pull model i.e. the process all being dependent on me
remembering to check my bill status periodically and pay those that
are coming due. My mental world is quite cluttered enough without
having to remember administrivia like bills.
the automation friction around paper-based or PDF-based bills,
and the consequent data entry requirements, the scope for user
BPay View mostly solves the second of these, but it's a solution that's
closely coupled with your Internet Banking provider. This has security
benefits, but it also limits you to your Internet Banking platform. For
me, the first of these is a bigger issue, so I'd probably prefer a
solution that was decoupled from my internet banking, and accept a few
more issues with #2.
So here's what I want:
a billing service that receives bills from vendors on my behalf
and enters them into its system. Ideally this is via email (or even
a web service) and an XML bill attachment; in the real world it
probably still involves paper bills and data entry for the short to
a flexible notification system that pushes alerts to me when bills
are due based on per-vendor criteria I configure. This should
include at least options like email, IM, SMS, twitter, etc.
Notifications could be fire-once or fire-until-acknowledged, as the
for bonus points, an easy method of transferring bills into my
internet banking. The dumb solution is probably just a per-bill
view from which I can cut and paste fields; smarter solutions
would be great, but are probably dependent on the internet
banking side. Or maybe we do some kind of per-vendor pay online
magic, if it's possible to figure out the security side of not
storing credit card info. Hmmm.
That sounds pretty tractable. Anyone know anything like this?