AT&T Purchase of BellSouth Close, but Not in Clear Yet

Despite the Justice Department’s blessing of AT&T’s US$79 billion buyout of BellSouth — the largest in a wave of mergers to alter the telecom industry over the past two years — the deal may yet face a political battle.

In the wake of the deal’s approval on antitrust grounds Wednesday, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) delayed a planned vote on the deal from Thursday to Friday, apparently to give supporters on the commission time to line up more votes to clear the deal.

Democrats on the commission are seeking concessions from AT&T and criticized the Justice Department’s approval of the deal without conditions. Such large-scale mergers often are approved only if the parties agree to divest themselves of some assets, for instance by selling off some regional holdings to better balance competitive scales.

The FCC has been lobbied heavily by consumer groups and others calling for some restrictions on the mega-merger, which would create a massive telecom company that deals in everything from business services to local calling, long distance to Internet access and before long, television services.

The AT&T/BellSouth merger — valued at $67 billion when first announced but now worth closer to $79 billion due to stock valuation increases — is the largest of several to hit the telecom industry as it adjusts to new market realities, including slow growth in landline sales and long distance due to the rise of VoIP.

Focus on FCC

The combined company would provide services to 70 million local phone customers in 22 states — with heavy concentrations in the South, Midwest and West — and provide high-speed Internet access to 10 million customers. It will also have a significant business customer base.

Since the deal was announced, consumer groups have been calling for close scrutiny of the merger and concessions to account for reduced competition. However, both the BellSouth buy and last year’s merger between Verizon Communications and MCI were approved with no major conditions by antitrust regulators.

Assistant Attorney General Thomas Barnett said after “thoroughly investigating AT&T’s proposed acquisition of BellSouth,” the Justice Department “determined that the proposed transaction is not likely to reduce competition substantially.”

“The presence of other competitors, changing regulatory requirements and the emergence of new technologies in markets for residential local and long distance service indicate that this transaction is not likely to harm consumer welfare,” Barnett added.

“The government has been deceived before by promises that somehow more concentration would produce more choices and competition, when the result has been just the opposite,” said Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal and international affairs for Consumers Union, which has joined with several other groups to oppose the merger.

Those groups have expressed particular concern about the fact that the combined AT&T will also own Cingular Wireless and have called for at least some of those wireless assets to be divested.

More to Come?

Regulators recognize that competition for telecommunications services come from a variety of sources now, with Web services firms, VoIP startups, cable companies and others all providing the same services that were once restricted just to telecom companies, Telecom analyst Jeff Kagan said.

“The competitive landscape is completely different today,” Kagan added. “Consumers have far more choices than they did just a few years ago.”

The imminent clearance for the deal — shareholders from both companies have already approved the merger and any delays at the FCC are likely to be resolved in a matter of weeks since AT&T said Thursday it was prepared to offer some concessions to make the deal go through — is seen as positive news for AT&T itself, with the company able to move on cost-savings and to leverage its new reach.

“Much of the good performance in the industry lately is about cost cutting after combining the merged companies,” Kagan told the E-Commerce Times. With BellSouth coming on board, AT&T — which had previously been acquired by SBC — will have even more savings to reap.

The consolidation trend may not be over yet. Many point to the smallest of the national carriers — Qwest — as a likely candidate for acquisition. One possible scenario is for the company to be split based on geography, with both AT&T and Verizon picking up some of the company’s wire-line assets.

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E-commerce Times Channels

Back-Office Finance Automation: The Foundation of a Solid E-Commerce Enterprise

accountant using e-invoice software

E-commerce retailers and direct-to-consumer businesses of all sizes are dealing with a ripple effect of business challenges. These include continued inflation increasing the cost of goods and squeezing customers’ disposable income, global supply chain shortages, increased out-of-stocks, and more demanding customer expectations.

Add to that, the Great Resignation has led to a mass exodus of vital frontline and back-office workers, leaving retailers understaffed and hard-pressed to provide the service that customers want.

Fortunately, new digital technologies continue to help e-commerce businesses innovate by expanding online shopping options, improving forecasting and inventory management with AI-powered analytics, upgrading customer service with RPA customer-service bots, enabling last-mile optimization systems for omnichannel experiences, and increasing customer buying power at the point-of-sale with services like buy now, pay later.

These are all incredibly important capabilities supporting the front end of the business. But there are also technologies that work behind the scenes. like AP automation, that can deliver important value and quick ROI by helping e-tailers and direct-to-consumer businesses streamline cumbersome finance workflows, improve controls and security, reduce costs, empower remote employees, and help offset staff shortages.

FAQ
What are the benefits to e-commerce companies of automating AP processes?

Automating accounts payable processes provides several advantages:

  • Faster, more efficient finance processes and workflows
  • Fewer errors and less manual effort required to correct them
  • More satisfied and productive staff
  • Reduced full-time equivalent (FTE) requirements and operational costs
  • Increased cash-back rebates from suppliers
  • Happier vendors better positioned to support supply needs
  • Better cash flow management
  • Reduced risk of fraud

Manual Processes Create Inefficiency and Hinder Growth

Businesses still receive a surprisingly high number (25%) of paper invoices, and 47% are not using any type of invoice workflow automation solution. E-commerce is no exception. In my experience working with e-tailers and direct-to-consumer businesses, many are still making more than 50% of their supplier payments via check.

AP staff at these businesses are wasting valuable time and effort opening paper invoices, capturing and entering data, emailing or calling approvers, printing and mailing checks, and responding to questions from suppliers.

It’s a problem in any industry, but it becomes even more complicated in e-commerce where finance teams tend to manage many supplier invoices. In addition, as supply chain disruptions continue, it’s important for e-commerce businesses to do everything they can to maintain reliable inventory sources. This includes getting key vendors paid on time.

The Power of AP Automation

Modern accounts payable solutions can automate the entire invoice-to-pay process by providing a single workflow to capture invoices, automatically sync data in ERP and finance systems, simplify approvals, and send payments however suppliers prefer to receive them, whether that’s check, ACH, virtual card, or even cross-border.

These solutions can address much of what an e-commerce business needs including vendor onboarding, invoice capture, coding, approvals, and supplier management — as well as payment authorization, execution, and reconciliation.

The benefits to accounting and finance teams are obvious, but they also provide important advantages for many other parts of e-tail and direct-to-consumer businesses. Here are six examples:

1. Streamlined Invoice Workflows

Many finance teams spend the bulk of their time on manual, paper-based invoice processes. Full invoice-to-pay automation captures and codes invoices with far fewer errors than manual data entry and significantly reduces time spent processing invoices.

2. Improved Visibility and Control

Intuitive tools and centralized reporting provide users with detailed views of days payables outstanding (DPOs), pending or past-due invoices, and other category reports. In addition, specific employees can be granted access to the same level of reporting to gain real-time insights into invoice processing.

These capabilities help e-commerce businesses make the right decisions related to payment timing to maximize working capital and take advantage of early-pay discounts.

3. Reduced Costs and Generation of New Revenues

AP automation delivers where it matters for e-commerce businesses: top-line revenue growth and a stronger bottom line. Eliminating paper-based processes and manual data entry and using e-payments can reduce costs per invoice by up to 430%. In addition, rebates from virtual card payments can generate significant new revenues delivering a complete ROI while funding other parts of the business.

4. Increased Staff Productivity

The time employees spend on manual payment processes could be spent on higher-value initiatives such as optimizing receivables, providing proactive support to suppliers, or developing new internal processes.

For managers forced to multitask, it means less time in the back office and more time focused on customers. When hiring back-office help is tough, AP automation helps e-commerce businesses grow without adding headcount.

5. Empower Remote Work

AP automation allows finance staff to review and approve invoices or pay suppliers from anywhere, using any device. Similarly, month-end closing and AP audit data can be accessed remotely, further minimizing the need for staff to be in an office or store.

6. Stronger Vendor Relationships

Brands, wholesalers, and other suppliers are the lifeblood of any e-commerce business. The industry is already suffering from inventory issues; the prospect of late or missed payments adds additional risk of disruption.

Improving the ability to pay on time builds better relationships, adds leverage to negotiate discounts, and minimizes the chance of additional supply chain issues.

The Right Strategy

E-commerce is built on digital customer experiences and processes. That same thinking needs to be applied to the financial back office. Automating foundational processes like accounts payable can provide e-commerce operations with proven methods to overcome key supply-side challenges and deliver far-ranging benefits that help all facets of the business.

Matt Friend is VP, product and program management, at MineralTree, a provider of accounts payable and payment automation solutions.

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VENDOR PROFILE

Robotic Letter Writing Lends a Hand to Personalized Marketing, CRM

Image Credit: Handwrytten

The art of automating business communication extends to resurrecting handwritten letters to customers and maximizing the appearance with a robot labor force to produce the correspondence.

The Handwrytten app is part of an automated CRM tool that lets businesses — and individuals with an entrepreneurial passion — integrate computerized automation with personalized handwritten notes to customers. The result is a novel approach to updating one of marketing’s best-known strategies — the personal letter.

Retailers today have all but destroyed the effectiveness of thank you notes and personalized business letters. Delivered electronically in plain vanilla typed emails and SMS messages, people have learned to reach for the delete button or send-to-spam response for most of the retail-related correspondence arriving in inboxes.

The Handwrytten web-based service uses robots to finesses marketing messages into handwritten polished prose. It helps marketing teams reintroduce and automate what was once a fine art of letter writing. The Handwrytten app and computer interface let you create professionally designed handwritten notes that are delivered to customers and clients’ postal mailboxes.

Consumers expect to get emails, text messages, and bulk mailers from companies. They rarely read or pay attention to them on a regular basis. Handwrytten is an effective way for businesses to help their sales and marketing teams to better engage potential and existing customers.

“People understand the power of the personal note, but nobody has the time to sit down and actually pick up a pen and write one. This is why we built a platform to automate the process from end to end,” said David Wachs, founder and CEO of Handwrytten.

Leveraging cutting-edge robotic technology automates what is seemingly impossible to automate. These notes have been proven to drive incredible and lasting results for our clients, he added.

Fine Art Revisited

Founded in 2014, Wachs had a vision of bringing back handwritten communication to business. He wanted to fill an unmet need: making handwritten notes as easy to send as an email.

To solve this problem, he invested heavily in robotics to build a machine unmatched in handwriting quality and scalability. His 175+ patented Handwrytten robots each autonomously writes nearly 500 notes a day.

Handwrytten factory

Image Credit: Handwrytten


The company now builds its own handwriting robots to produce more realistic penmanship. Each robot machine monitors its ink levels and communicates with tenders via Slack if it jams or runs out of ink.

To scale, the company continues to build more machines to meet demand. Wachs plans to double machine capacity this year.

This 2016 video shows how the company first used off-the-shelf, third-party machines to fulfill orders.

Machine Maintains Humanlike Mannerism

The handwriting is indistinguishable from real human handwriting. The robotic hands can produce 23 handwriting styles.

Alternatively, users can upload their own handwriting and signature for a truly personalized style. That option comes with a one-time fee.

Either way, users can select from more than 100 card designs or design their own online. Deliveries can include business cards or gift cards to over 20 popular brands, including Starbucks, Home Depot, Amazon, and Visa can further foster relationships with customers.

Handwrytten bulk order production

For bulk letter orders, each copy is originally copied, not photocopied from the robot-printed initial letter. (Image Credit: Handwrytten)


“Handwrytten is the largest and longest running service of its kind. We allow people to go to our website, or use our app integration, and choose a card or design their own. They also choose a handwriting style and type a message. We then convert the message into the handwriting style,” Wachs told CRM Buyer.

Keeping It Real

The company is tweaking several improvements into the robot hands to make the writing look even more real. A new version of the web app will deliver better usability and more features.

Some of the “tricks” built into the robot mechanism to defy creation by mechanical hands include:

  • Using up to 10 copies of each letter in both upper and lowercase form randomly put in the note to ensure enough variation;
  • Capturing the unique ligature combinations of a handwriting style (or font), such as two O’s next to each other, two T’s, or connecting T and H or O and F;
  • Varying the spacing between lines and randomizing this interline spacing subtly, along with varying the left margin and ensuring that each line starts at a different spot, creates more organic-looking writing.

The company is working on fixing its main remaining complaint: straightness by bending words. Its updated handwriting engine now bends each line of text to create an even more organic effect.

Behind the Scenes

When I first discovered the Handwrytten service, I planned to check it out further as a possible business product review. That approach gave way to a more detailed discussion with the company’s driving force, David Wachs.

The product reviewer part of me wanted to know more about how the robotic handwriting process transforms the customer’s initial typed correspondence into an “Is it real?” finished product.

Wachs declined to reveal specifics about the transformation process. He confided that they build, program, and maintain their robotic machinery in a large facility in Phoenix to write out notes and mail them.

Primarily a tool for businesses, Handwrytten’s client base ranges from Fortune 500 corporations to small retailers and consumers. It currently has over 85,000 customers using the platform, according to Wachs.

The company has options for any budget. Pricing starts at $3.25 to send one Handwrytten note, with discounts for bulk orders and subscriptions.

All of its cards are available without a contract. The company also offers subscription plans, bulk discounts, and prepay options.

Wachs also disclosed that some limitations exist with the Handwrytten app (available for Android and iOS). The apps do not allow the user to bulk upload lists of contacts. Nor do they currently support signatures. But those features are forthcoming.

“The apps also do not allow the new prospecting tool, which allows the user to target a demographic or geographic area and blanket the area with Handwrytten notes,” he said. “The rest of the functionality is the same, however.”

Orders are stamped with First Class postage and mailed from the factory. The U.S. Postal Service delivers all mail to the continental U.S. in three-to-four days. The company also delivers to Canada, the U.K., and 190 other countries.

Marketing Tool Advantages

As a marketing tool, Handwrytten notes offer benefits over using in-office CRM software and in-house or commercial printing services. Perhaps the most significant is Handwritten notes have a 300% higher open rate than print pieces, according to Wachs.

Additionally, Handwritten notes have a very high likelihood of being considered surprising while having a low risk of being regarded as annoying, he noted.

When consumers do not feel appreciated by a brand, Handwritten notes have a statistically significant ability to improve brand perception and get consumers to come back and buy more, Wachs concluded.

Jack M. Germain has been an ECT News Network reporter since 2003. His main areas of focus are enterprise IT, Linux and open-source technologies. He is an esteemed reviewer of Linux distros and other open-source software. In addition, Jack extensively covers business technology and privacy issues, as well as developments in e-commerce and consumer electronics. Email Jack.

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