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Looking Back, Looking Forward
Managing the coexistence of paper and electronic documents

By Kemal Carr

 
 

We can all agree that enough time and resources have been spent on the electronic delivery of documents that if it were going to take off as the next big thing, it would have happened by now. Even with the biological and chemical terrorism concerns regarding USPS paper-based mail, it remains the obvious method of choice for most bill payers and document consumers.

Looking Back Starting in the late 1990s, many leading research firms predicted significant gains in consumer adoption and biller cost reduction. Hardcopy document rendering was considered "old economy,” not progressive enough to demand lavish budgets within document creating organizations, nor strategic enough to warrant future technology enhancements or upgrades. For some, the paper paradigm was finished; the only question remaining was how long would it be necessary to support the hardcopy applications before everyone shifted to electronic delivery.

Madison Advisors' research supports its continued stance that until more value is provided to consumers, electronic adoption rates will remain disappointing. In recent interviews, major document producers have indicated that they are experiencing negative adoption of electronic delivery. This means that more people who initially signed up to turn paper delivery off are calling to turn the paper delivery back on than new electronic delivery customers. While we continue to believe that electronic document delivery has the potential to deliver value that consumers cannot resist, the systems to deliver this value remain elusive.

Current Situation There are numerous obstacles that are thwarting mass adoption of pure electronic delivery of documents, either bills or statements. Specifically:

Technology — While technology has freed us from most daily chores, it continues to hinder us in other areas. New technology, Wireless Access Protocol, the Internet, Personal Digital Assistants have freed us from our desks, but we become slaves to the technology. Interfaces remain cumbersome, access is slow and inconsistent and standards and protocols are dynamic. Compounding this are the legacy systems that actually do the processing, which are very linear and inflexible.

Viewing Availability Limitations — The Internet, Wireless, DSL and high-speed cable modems continue to improve; however, consumers with high-speed cable, DSL or wireless access at home remain a small minority. While home computer ownership has reached majority status in US homes, slow dial-up service continues to be the norm. While these numbers are rising as the service improves and prices drop, most consumers do not have access to the technology required to view statements or pay bills from home.

The Hassle Factor — Currently, writing paper checks and opening a brokerage statement envelope remains simpler than powering up a PC and viewing documents online. Hopefully this process will become easier, but billers and document providers have been slow to provide additional value to the user or consumer.

Document Cycles — While most statements arrive at the beginning of the month, most bill payers receive bills sporadically throughout the month, so consumers must log-on several times to pay them. While systems are in place to allow autopay of reoccurring bills, most payers are reluctant of this process. In addition, there is no correlation between when bills are due and when consumers receive their paychecks. Reviewing statements and paying bills electronically would be simpler and more convenient if consumers could coordinate their statements and bill due dates with their paychecks and log-on only once or twice a month to review and pay all of their bills.

Going Forward While it is difficult to predict the future, it is painfully apparent that hardcopy and electronic coexistence will remain slow to evolve. Why is this? Several hurdles previously identified remain valid obstacles for widespread consumer adoption of electronic delivery. In addition, the adoption and exploitation of newer technologies, such as XML and PPML, will create middle ground that will support the coexistence.

We know from history that electronic billing vendors could not support a separate, unique industry and subsequently folded into existing business processes that made sense, such as customer service or core billing applications. For example, Checkfree's acquisition of BlueGill, docSense's acquisition of Alysis, Metavante's acquisition of both Derivion and CyberBills and Group 1's purchase of Trisense demonstrate the reduced role electronic delivery has accepted. Within corporate structures, where a captive audience exists, companies have been able to mandate paperless environments and drive their constituents to the intranet. Corporate America lacks the authority to mandate customer delivery, where clients quickly switch when offered limited or inconvenient delivery choices.

What is clear is that customers will choose which delivery method works best for their situations, and organizations that attempt to drive cost reduction and paper elimination projects on their clients will face unpleasant results. People like choices. Starbucks serves coffee, yet there are dozens of items on its menu, and countless more not listed, all for coffee. Madison Advisors recommends that organizations provide both electronic and paper-based delivery to customers and allow information consumers to decide which format works best for their needs. It undoubtedly costs more, but chances are, organizations are required to support both formats regardless. When customers are ready, when the value is there, they'll switch on their timetables, not the organizations'. After all, they're all just delivery options, and organizations didn't attempt to discontinue paper when fax distribution became a delivery alternative.

 

Kemal Carr is president of Madison Advisors, a research and consulting firm that helps advance customer communications strategies associated with high-volume transaction print services and electronic content delivery. For more information or to contact Kemal, please visit www.madison-advisors.com.

 
       
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