Your Next AT&T Phone Bill May Come via Video

SundaySky generates individualized, up-to-the-minute billing videos
Illustration by 731

Even people who spend their days making complex business decisions are often stymied by their monthly phone bill. Fees, taxes, and that fearsome beast, proration, have sent countless intelligent people running to customer-service numbers for clarity and hand-holding. But some AT&T customers have broken free of this cycle of dependency, thanks to what the company calls a video bill.

Instead of getting their monthly statement in an e-mailed PDF, customers click on a link and watch an animated, narrated, personalized presentation of what they owe that month. There are no dancing paper clips or other annoying characters, just a walk-through of the bill with a synthesized voice explaining charges and highlighting figures. “Our research had shown that our customers wanted a better understanding of their bills,” says Michael Armstrong, head of AT&T’s video-bill team.

The technology behind AT&T’s video bill comes from SundaySky, a company with offices in the U.S. and Israel that creates modular video templates. Its software inserts data from customer files into those templates to personalize each video bill. SundaySky-powered videos are created on demand, which means they don’t exist until a customer clicks on a link to watch one. “Our software makes a call to AT&T’s data center to get the customer information, then the software makes decisions about what kind of video you need to see,” says SundaySky President Jim Dicso. Videos are created only when needed, so the technology is easily scalable, says Dicso. “We’re not storing millions of videos, and because the video is generated in real time, it’s always up-to-date.”

While most viewers close online videos less than halfway through, Dicso says, AT&T customers are watching about 80 percent of their bill videos. AT&T started showing them to a small group of its U-verse broadband customers more than a year ago and has since expanded them to all customers of U-verse and AT&T Wireless. The company says fewer calls are being placed to its customer-service line, which helps cut costs. “We’ve seen an impact,” says Armstrong, though he declined to cite figures. SundaySky’s other corporate clients include Time Warner Cable, Lenovo Group, and furniture retailer West Elm.

The most likely recipients of AT&T’s video bills are new customers, who are often confused by the first statement they receive. They make up a large portion of billing-department calls and are most likely to switch carriers, Dicso says. The video bill does much of the explaining that a caller to customer service would get, likely after waiting on hold and getting more aggravated. “By proactively addressing bill shock, there’s a chance to stabilize the customer relationship,” Dicso says.

That said, some consumers may view the video bill as yet another obstacle to speaking with a living, breathing person. Like the cheery automated agents that have become a call center’s first line of defense on the Web, the video bill takes the battle to the customer’s in-box. And a satisfactory viewing experience depends on a steady and reasonably robust Internet connection. “If the bandwidth becomes a challenge, then poor customer experiences could occur,” Gartner Research analyst Johan Jacobs wrote in a recent report.

Still, what makes the video bill effective is that it sits in the darkest portion of a Venn diagram of different explanatory techniques. Pure text lacks the visual efficiency of a chart or table, but charts and tables can lack the exposition of text. You can call someone on the phone, but then you lack the visual and textual information. And, Armstrong points out, “there are plenty of how-to videos on the Internet, but none of them greet you by name.”

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