Even in these times of digitisation, bills or invoices are required for securing payments for services provided or products sold. For most of us billing is purely an accounting function, right? Yet, there are opportunities for marketers in billing and even the big businesses should take cognisance of this opportunity.
Why should it be of interest to marketing is what most marketers wonder. They happily ignore this potential. We marketers get the business, sales close the deal, let the bean counters collect the money and earn their salaries is what the general thinking. Little do they internalise that sales or marketing activity does not end until the money is realised.
Most SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises) – especially those in services business such as chartered accountants, management consultants, pest control, lawyers and tax consultants – regard billing as a mere accounting function. This often spells missed opportunities. Professional services such as law and accounting are prime losers. Bills typically read something like, “for professional services rendered – Rs 500,000”. At best, a bill might specify a little more such as “income tax preparation”. Meanwhile, some clients are unpleasantly surprised by the amount requested, ignorant of the effort expended. Recently I was surprised at the high rate a chartered accountant had charged us for registering our non-profit company under Section 25 when I thought all he had to do was file the various forms I and other directors filled up for him. Perhaps the chartered accountant should consider detailing the efforts he had put in to make the memorandum and articles of association, digital uploads, and so on.
I advocate expanded bills: statements that provide solid details about the work done. For example, “income tax preparation” might be divided into “meet to discuss tax position, evaluate documentation provided, research applicable new tax laws, complete forms 1, 2 and 3, compute tax liability, and meet to present filing package.” Because this description suggests the accountant exerted some serious sweat, the client is more likely to perceive value for the accounting rupees.
Another effective technique, particularly for consultants, is stating the results obtained for the client. But, I bet very few would be willing to do this one especially since most of them offer armchair consulting! For example, a public relations consultant might indicate the number of column inches secured during the billing period. A risk management consultant might point out the amount of insurance premiums saved via a coverage audit.
Another often-overlooked opportunity is stating the extent of gratis services rendered during the billing period. All too often I have heard complaints about a lost customer, like “they didn’t even appreciate all our extra work!” This is true even for big companies. Odds are the departing client was totally unaware. A further point: the key contact at the client company should receive a copy of the expanded statement, even when the original has to be sent to the accounts department. Sure, accounting will pay pre-authorised bills, but it does not call the shots on contract renewals. Sometimes more than one person within the organisation should routinely be made aware of the value of services you provide, albeit subtly. Ensure however that you avoid confusion by marking duplicate bills clearly as “Copy: FYI only. Original sent to Accounts.”
Decision-makers who receive duplicate or original bills also respond to amenities. It does not take much effort to type a personalised comment on a client’s bill, like, “We’re honoured that you selected us to design your new facilities. Here’s to increased success!” This beats such trite automated rhetoric as, “We appreciate this opportunity to serve you.” Just try this next time, and see the response.
In the area of sales promotion, many firms have yet to use the power of statement stuffers. Banks, credit card companies and cellular service providers have all used this for years, but the possibilities are endless. Companies providing security guards to businesses can promote employee background checks. Accountants can insert leaflets on personal financial planning, and dentists can get patients salivating over cosmetic procedures through smiling photos. In fact state electricity boards should start using this idea to make them more profitable.
Billing also offers the opportunity to conduct informal surveys. I recommend a few brief questions on a post-paid postcard or a link if your bill is digitised. You may use free services such as Survey Monkey for this. Such surveys can provide real insights for future developments. For an SME that cannot afford high cost market research, this is a good enough. Stuffers and inserts also can be used to solicit client referrals and cross-promote with firms in related fields.
For example, an equipment leasing company might team up with an ally providing electronic security systems.
In conclusion, when it comes to billing, do not be inbred. Question everything about your current bills, not only in terms of the above suggestions but also on the basics. Do not dismiss billing as a mere housekeeping activity. Make it easy for the customer to pay-- and to justify a continued relationship.
The writer spearheads execution and innovation for clients@CustomerLab