TASbiller is the billing and profitability analysis software for the telemessaging industry written by Randy Ripkey, owner of Accurate Messages in Augusta, Georgia. TASbiller is the latest entrant among the teleservices billing software vendors, but it is quickly gaining in popularity.
The Beginning: In December of 1995, Ripkey was approached to help rescue a failing telemessaging service with 90 accounts and a two position Axon 8000. One year later, Ripkey bought out his partners. Since then, he has since grown Accurate Messages into a profitable 400-account teleservice business. He is currently in the process of installing a 10 position Amtelco Infinity system. Here is how he did it and why TASbiller was created.
On that day in December of 1995, “It was like walking back in time,” Ripkey says of his first visit to the business. Coming from his office full of state-of-the-art computers and software, he was surprised by what he saw. The agents at what was then Accurate Information Services were working at Wyse dumb terminals, a main computer that used software loaded into EPROM chips, and serial dot-matrix printers (printing on 15″ paper no less). The few PC’s in the room were running DOS software programs with monochrome monitors. The surprising part for Ripkey was when the former owner told him that all of the equipment was “brand new.” They had just bought it earlier in the year.
Telemessaging 101: Ripkey started to learn about the industry by attending regional meetings of the Southern Telemessaging Association (STA) and networking with the people he met. He learned about the various pricing methods used by other services and how the owners would calculate profitability, typically using manual methods or spreadsheet programs.
In the beginning, Accurate Information Services was billing everyone by the number of messages taken, regardless of how long that message might be or how many attempts it took to deliver it. Ripkey knew that was part of the company’s problem. After Ripkey’s acquisition, the company was renamed Accurate Messages.
At an STA meeting, Ripkey met Scott Molitor, who had a large successful teleservices business in Cocoa, Florida. He told Ripkey about analyzing accounts by revenue per minute and that every so often he would take invoices, compare the billed amount to the time used by the account from another report, and manually calculate the revenue per minute. Molitor would then manually adjust the customer’s rate.
Shouldn’t Billing Software Be Able To Do That?: The previous owners of Accurate Messages had purchased the best of everything available at the time, including a popular DOS-based billing program. Having an extensive background in computer programming, Ripkey knew all of the data to do these calculations were already being captured by the billing program, but he didn’t know if it allowed him to see a simple calculation of revenue per minute. He discovered that the answer was no.
Knowing that a computerized method of pricing accounts would help make Accurate Messages profitable, Ripkey began to modify an accounts receivable program he originally developed for an orange juice company in Florida. He wanted his program to be able to load billing data from his call processing system, instantly calculate revenue per minute, call, or message, be able to change a customer’s rate plan and then have the program recalculate profitability immediately. He also wanted to print his own invoices on plain paper that would fit into window envelopes available from the local office supply store, instead of the expensive pre-printed ones the old billing software used.
While discussing billing programs at a regional meeting one year, a well-known hardware salesperson interjected, “I know a great billing program and its only $5000!” To his disappointment, Ripkey learned that for five thousand dollars, the software still didn’t do the simple math that he wanted. Ripkey forged ahead with his plan to develop his own software to meet his needs as a telemessaging service provider.
TASbiller is Born: The idea of marketing his billing program stayed in the back of his mind. After a few years when his telemessaging business was stable and profitable (thanks to the program he wrote), Ripkey presented his billing program at a meeting of the STA in Atlanta during the Spring of 2001. It was very well received and he even sold a few of the DOS versions to the company that later became TASbiller, but everyone was asking for a Windows version.
The development of a Windows product would require a great deal of Ripkey’s time for at least a year and he knew he would need help with marketing. Luckily, Ripkey met Chris Twigg who was promoting TASbill.com, an invoice printing and mailing service. He was impressed with Twigg’s presentation and personality, so he approached Twigg about the possibility of teaming up to sell his billing program.
Ripkey and Twigg formalized an agreement between their two companies wherein Twigg would provide marketing and installation support while Ripkey handled development. Twigg actually came up with the name TASbiller, as a play off of his company’s TASbill.com name since the two products worked so well together.
Windows Version: Development of the current Windows product began in January of 2002 with a planned introduction at the annual ATSI meeting in Denver that June. Microsoft’s Visual Basic was chosen as the programming language due to its power and availability of resources. Microsoft’s Access database was chosen for the same reasons and its networking features. With millions of users, both products are certain to be supported for the foreseeable future.
Learning a new programming language is almost like learning a foreign language and Ripkey wanted a faster pace of development. Researching online, he found a freelance programmer, Warren Sirota, with great credentials. Sirota proved himself invaluable right from the start. Once Ripkey was comfortable that he would be able to help with all of the unique features he wanted in TASbiller, Sirota was given portions of the project to develop. Sirota continues to make important contributions to TASbiller’s development to this day.
Ripkey and Twigg shared a booth at the 2002 ATSI meeting in Denver and TASbiller was the talk of the show. Although still in the early stages of development, the attendees were impressed and liked what they saw. In less than six months, Ripkey had taken TASbiller from the drawing board to the marketplace and the sales started rolling in.
State-of-the-Art Online Support: Great customer support is extremely important toRipkey. TASbiller utilizes an online service that supplies a “pcAnywhere-style” application that can be used to assist customers with program installation or troubleshooting. The product allows Ripkey to share control of a customer’s computer, upload or download files, draw on the customer’s screen to assist with training, and many other support related features.
One customer recently lost their billing person due to a serious illness that required hospitalization. She was the only person in the organization who knew how to use TASbiller. Ripkey was able to connect online and do his customer’s billing while training the owner and another employee. The invoices got out on time. “I’ve had tremendous positive feedback from our customers who have used this feature,” Ripkey stated.
TASbiller today: With development under control and wanting to maintain consistent support quality, Ripkey moved all support functions back to Augusta late last year and is in the process of training a member of his staff to handle routine TASbiller calls. Marketing was also brought back in-house when Twigg sold his TASbill.com business. Although Twigg still sells TASbiller, there is no longer an exclusive marketing agreement. TASbill.com’s new owner, Dixon Johnston, is also interested in marketing TASbiller and Ripkey will be sharing a booth with him at the next ATSI meeting in Vancouver.
New features: New features are constantly being developed and introduced. For example, user customizable invoice formats was a high-demand feature requested by TASbiller customers and introduced earlier this year. TASbiller customers can now use either the software’s built-in word processor or Microsoft Word to change the layout and appearance of their invoices, inserting graphics (logos), and adding or changing any text in the invoice they want. The changes immediately flow through to all invoice formats including fax or email.
TASbiller’s business philosophy: When a customer purchases TASbiller software and maintains a $200 per year support fee, they receive everything that is subsequently developed, at no cost. Early TASbiller customers who bought-in during the startup days enjoy the same features as those who purchase today. This philosophy keeps customers happy and support for Ripkey easy. “I don’t like being nickeled and dimed every time I turn around and I don’t want to do it to my customers either,” said Ripkey.
Another part of Ripkey’s philosophy with TASbiller is to offer a complete package that doesn’t require any third party products for his customers to purchase and/or maintain. For example, TASbiller has its own built-in fax drivers so TASbiller customers can just click one button to instantly fax an invoice to a customer via any standard fax/modem. TASbiller is able to save invoices in either a Microsoft Word document (.doc) format or Adobe Acrobat (.PDF) format for easy attaching of invoices to an email.
TASbiller Complete: TASbiller customers have submitted many requests for enhancements and new features and Ripkey has had quite a few ideas of his own. Over the last two years TASbiller has grown to include full pager inventory control and billing, voice mailbox billing, a built-in word processor for custom letters to customers, and a reminder/contact management system. This is all in addition to the enhancements to TASbiller’s basic telemessaging billing and analysis functionality. Along with all of these features, TASbiller’s price has also grown to $2,995.
TASbiller Lite: With an introductory price of $995 ($1,495 after June 30), the Lite product is expected to be very popular. It will include all of the analysis features of TASbiller Complete including the ability to print, fax, or email invoices, or use TASbill.com. “I want a billing product that everyone can afford,” concluded Ripkey.
[From Connection Magazine – May 2004]