e-billing Still Sucks

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).

Vendor Billing Delivery Options
Citibank email, paper, web
iinet email, paper?, web
Kuringai Council BPayView, paper
Origin Energy email, paper
Sydney Water Australia Post Digital Mailbox, BPayView, paper

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).

  • BillPayView / 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?

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