South African companies that have introduced electronic billing (e-billing) solutions to their customer bases should look to towards linking these online bills with electronic payments as a means of improving customer satisfaction and back-office efficiency.

John Ziniades, CEO of self-service specialist Consology, says that linking electronic payments to electronic bills brings a wide range of benefits to companies and their customers. He believes that the time is ripe for companies to introduce e-payment services because their customers have become comfortable with receiving online bills and performing online banking tasks, and are now ready to use the Internet for payments as well.

E-payments allow companies to streamline their back-office billing and reconciliation processes as well as improve debt management by encouraging customers to settle their bills more quickly. An electronic payment process can also help to streamline the resolution of billing disputes between customer and biller.

Ziniades says: "Most South African companies that have introduced electronic bill presentment and payment solutions (EBPP) initially focused on the presentment of bills. Such companies are already enjoying benefits such as reducing billing-related calls to their contact centres, and lowering paper and postage costs.

"Once the loop between presentment and payment is closed, billers and their customers unlock even more value from online billing. Online payments introduce a whole new level of convenience for consumers by allowing them to view and settle the bill at a central point."

By adding e-payment to an e-billing portal, companies can offer their clients a choice of payment mechanisms such as electronic funds transfer (EFT) or credit card payments. The client can easily make the payment without needing to leave the Web site to go to an online banking portal, write out a cheques or have a direct debit settle the account.

Ziniades believes the main reason that companies should be interested in electronic payments is that they can help reduce the payment cycle of the average customer dramatically since fewer cheques and bills will get lost in the post and many customers will pay the bill while they're viewing it.

Electronic payments can also be easily reconciled with bill reference numbers, improving back-office efficiency.

Moving to an electronic process also cuts out the paper and telephone calls usually involved in a bill dispute. The customer could pay (and be invoiced for) the amount he or she believes to be outstanding while the bill dispute is settled, notes Ziniades. If the customer has been billed incorrectly, the mistake can be fixed quickly and payment can be made soon afterwards.

"By giving customers the control and convenience of paying their bills at any time of the day and at any place where they can access the Internet, companies can also improve customer loyalty and satisfaction," he adds.

"Customers enjoy being able to view and pay their bills electronically seven days a week, wherever they are. No longer do they need to stand in long queues to make payments or worry about cheques going astray in the mail."

In addition, customers can easily view their balance and payment histories online, which give them better visibility into the status of their accounts.

Ziniades believes that e-payment will really come into its own once an e-bill consolidation portal goes live in South Africa. Such a portal allows consumers to view and pay bills from a host of suppliers and service providers at a central hub such as an online banking site.