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When Fairfax NZ Ltd purchased INL in 2003 they bought more than one business. Into the bargain they got 12 mastheads, 12 different MIS and account receivables systems and 12 different cultures.For most corporates the task of integrating a new billing system across a geographically dispersed customer base is significant in itself. But when the underlying businesses are as deeply rooted in local ways as newspapers, the challenge is all the greater – especially when no two publications shared exactly the same operating policies and processes.Fairfax was taking customers’ direct contact with their local paper out of local communities, and at the same time introducing the unfamiliar name Fairfax to boot. "Even though papers are all about ‘local’, we needed to make the customer contact and point of engagement national. This needed to be handled carefully, both externally and internally,” Fairfax group finance manager Tony DeGregorio said.The humble invoiceIn addition to instituting a single circulation system (Matrix), advertising system (Genera) and accounts receivable (SAP), Fairfax wanted a platform to support both traditional mail and email invoicing. They also wanted a data management system that put customers in control, helped slash the amount of physical (and costly) intervention by staff and allowed the introduction of a range of segmentation-based customer benefits.In essence this meant turning a series of vertically integrated businesses into a single horizontally integrated whole.At the heart of this mini revolution was the humble invoice."It (the invoice) is a strong communications and marketing tool because it’s the basis for a range of variable communications,” DeGregorio says. "More fundamentally, invoicing drives cash flow, leaving no room for project slippage or failure.”The first step was to integrate SAP and Matrix or Genera, thereby effectively removing all accounts receivable ‘silos’. This included integration into one organisation to process and deliver invoices to customers, consolidation of data and the output of invoices by mail and email via their mail house Marketing Impact Ltd’s processing engine. The benefits were immediate in terms of savings on postage and administration, absolute visibility of document construction, production and lodgement workflows and improved cash flows through tighter control of the timing of invoice dispatch. Tracing accountsFairfax then introduced miArchives, the browser-based service developed by Marketing Impact, to allow organisations to archive documents and enable customer payments through the archive. Initially this was for internal use only, enabling Fairfax to respond centrally to any customer query or request relating to any invoice.The next step involves allowing customers to do the same - accessing the new system directly to ‘track and trace’ their account details and pay their invoices without tying up staff resource.In July 2011 Fairfax direct marketed 106,000 of its 260,000 customers to invite them to be invoiced by email, the first step in involving them in the self help-based possibilities of miArchives.Putting customers firstThe email system reflected the ‘customer first’ rationale of the entire change management process. This included having links to the archived information imbedded in the emails – rather than being attached – making it possible for all email users to securely access their documents on line.Marketing Impact’s email engine ExactTarget has over 40,000 customers worldwide including Microsoft and Bank of America.From September 2011, the first Fairfax customers will be able to view their archived invoice online and then pay their invoice. DeGregorio says this step opens up a range of new possibilities, including allowing customers to organise their own holds, stops and starts; ask questions or lodge complaints; subscribe to additional or alternative mastheads; check bills, and even book advertising but some of these features are still being designed. He describes it as "creating an electronic world” for our customers."Matrix, Genera and SAP are simply functional building blocks – the key is to build on the foundation they provide."This means taking the view that statement mail can – and should – be core to a great customer experience. By doing this we can reciprocate the loyalty our customers have shown to our mastheads by using segmentation, newsletters, loyalty benefits and so forth – all built on the humble invoice.”He says the cost savings are likely to be just as appealing to Fairfax as the benefits will be to customers. "We were committed heavily to reactive communications - our call centres busy with queries on anything from missing payments, making a payment and missing credits.”Add to that the cost of an email invoice at around 3 cents compared with typically much higher rates for traditional mail, and the financial ramifications, DeGregorio says, should not be under-estimated.