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The recent increase in sophistication of equipment, training, systems and processes afforded wireless Internet service providers (WISP) an enhanced ability to deliver quality service. Industry growth bears this out. However, even now WISPs typically do everything from scratch. These companies design their own systems and operational processes. They build customized business procedures from scratch too. Billing is usually still done in the traditional way: by manual data entry and monthly billing.
However, with increased technical sophistication, WISPs have found that significant cost savings are possible. New hardware and better training reduces costs and improved service. Customers are happier. No wonder then, that WISPs are starting to look at improved business process products to improve customer service, reduce costs, run leaner staffs and improve customer contentment. Here we review one of them, the Aria Systems complete Web-based billing system geared for both large and small WISPs.
- Extremely well thought out.
- Simple interface
- Powerful policy rights engine
- Highly customizable
- Personalized support
- Very affordable
- Requires initial set-up by Aria
- Significant complex functionality (while available) is not apparent
- System customization must be done through Aria (Security reasons)
Edward Sullivan, formerly founder and president of Laserlink, a virtual-ISP company later sold to Covad, founded Aria Systems with many of his old team. Laserlink provided v-ISP services to companies such as American Express, Gateway Computers, Univision and Amway. It was one of the largest v-ISPs in America. This heavy background in ISP back-office services informs the flexibility in implementation that Aria's product boasts. This is important, as much of what the Aria product can do is not readily apparent. The company is in beta launch now. As of this writing even its Web site is not yet complete. In fact, this is the first public review of this billing system.
Setting Things Up
Aria explained in conversations that it includes a set-up stage with each client to assess the client's business process and pricing system. The Aria staff looks closely at the business process to define pricing options and optional add-ons. Aria also addresses the policy permission categories that each WISP will need for its staff. Typical wireless service provisioning and billing takes place at different times. Hardware may be billed up front. Installation generally will be billed upon installation signoff. Finally, service will normally begin at the same time as installation and may be pro-rated. It can get complicated quick. The set-phase is where the complex business elements are defined and arranged to provide a simple final interface. This final product consists of three different Web screens.
The Aria suite contains three elements: The customer registration screen provides end-users the ability to self-provision wireless and additional services. This is normally the only screen end-users ever see. The main CompoSeR screen provides the WISPs customer service rep (CSR) information and (to some extent) control of the customer's file. This suite includes administrative controls that enable the WISP to assign policy or activity rights to its staff based on pre-set criteria.
The third site is the user self-service (USS) screen, which addresses the WISPs account information with Aria. It allows the WISP to change billing and contact information, to view its invoice history and to see its usage histories.
The registration screen is extremely simple. It allows the end-user to sign-up for service without assistance. The user can choose among service plans desired, access billing and payment information and any customized elements for a particular WISP. The site walks customers through a straightforward 9-part provision process. Customers can change or modify some elements of their chosen plan later.
The CompoSeR screen is the heart of this product for the WISP. The WISP can search for customers with any of 12 pre-configured search tools ranging from phone numbers to service plans. Once a customer is selected, the CSR accesses each of the tabs needed for that customer, whether it be the contact tabs, service plan, and payment/billing/usage history or service credits. An administrator panel provides control of the WISP staff permissions. The administrator can review the audit trail of its business here, such as tracking refunds, credits and activity of each CSR or by date. The administrator may alter activity permissions by CSR.
Lastly, the USS screen manages the WISP's account details with Aria including all details of its billing, credits and usage.
In everyday use the Aria Systems product family is deceptively simple. It possesses heavy complexity that is managed almost totally in the background. It works extremely well. Still, one-question remains: Is it expensive?
Aria was very forthcoming about its pricing system, which is flexible. The company wants to be able to provision large firms successfully and still leverage service to smaller operators.
Aria charges up front for the initial set-up phase, which includes professional service advice and setup. Pricing varies depending on the necessary work. If the WISP can cover this cost in a single lump sum the monthly charge to manage its customer can be less than $1 dollar per user. If smaller firms cannot afford to cover all of the initial set-up costs, Aria can defray some of this expense by charging a smaller set-up fee and a monthly service fee ranging from $2 to $5 per customer. Certainly this is affordably for almost any size firm.
Clearly the Aria Systems family of products is a welcome new addition to the tool kit of the WISP operator. Aria's extensive ISP background bodes well for its ability to understand and fulfill the real challenges of CRM and billing for wireless operators.
It is a product well worth looking at.
Tim Sanders is founder of The Final Mile, a fixed wireless consulting group. His experience was gained running a multi-state fixed wireless ISP. He can be reached at www.thefinalmile.net.