I don't know about you, but I'm anticipating 2009 with a complex mix of trepidation and hopeful expectation. Just about everyone I know thinks that we'll be in a global recession throughout this year. I talk to a lot of major billers, and most are absolutely fixated on finding a way to ensure reliable, consistent customer payments at a time when wallets are shrinking along with payrolls. Many are trying to figure out how to do more with fewer people, particularly in the customer service area. This all sounds pretty bleak, but in these challenging times there's a real opportunity for billers to adopt technologies that will improve customer communications and back-office efficiencies, as well as save money. In this economy, accelerating or even maintaining the cash cycle is critical. One of our customers discovered that clearing checks more quickly through Image Cash Letter had the unexpected result of reducing NSF payments. Why? Because the sooner the payment is processed, the greater the probability that the customer still has money left in his or her bank account. This anecdote also creates a compelling argument to establish recurring payments or electronic delivery with the hopes of receiving an electronic payment whenever or wherever you can.

One of the important lessons we've all learned from the mortgage mess is the importance of knowing your customer and staying in touch. Back in the old days of down payments and PMI, consumers had enduring relationships with their lenders and were able to work with them to avoid foreclosures. The rampant abandonment and vandalizing of foreclosed homes reflects the schism that developed between consumer and lender as mortgages were sold off, repackaged and equitized. Many consumers that would like to find a way to stay in their homes have no one to talk to. The FDIC is trying to fix part of this problem with the loans they're restructuring at IndyMac, but to date, they're a drop in the bucket. We should all be looking at how we can use transactional documents to maintain good customer relationships.

There's been a lot of discussion about the use of personalized messaging on print and electronic transaction documents for marketing and up-selling to a biller's existing customer base, but the value of variable messaging for establishing a rapport and sustaining loyalty should not be underestimated. Communications that are frequent, appropriate and personalized can go a long way toward securing brand loyalty. I've always believed that emotion is an important factor in consumer payment behavior. It's probably true that emotion doesn't dictate who gets paid first, but it likely factors into who gets paid last or not at all. I think that billers would be well-served to foster their customer relationships through messaging to avoid potential delinquencies and defaults.

I believe that relationship building should be key in your 2009 strategy. In these trying times, your customers are your company's best friends. You can convey how valuable they are to you through compelling, consistent communications. Your invoices and statements garner more attention from your customers than any other communication, and you should make the most of them. I believe that you'll get paid more quickly as a result and maintain a customer base that is loyal to your company and your brand.

Tracy Dalton [tracy.dalton@regulusgroup.com], is manager of product development and management for Regulus Group, a transaction processing solution outsourcer provider. Ms. Dalton is responsible for new products and services that meet the strategic direction of Regulus and their clients.