Harder than you think

June 9, 2006

Had an interesting discussion at the recent meeting of the SITS:Vision Award Ceremonies and Certificate Printing Special Interest Group (ACCEPT SIG for short). Several institutions are now processing replies to ceremony invitations online, but none are yet allowing payments online.

[For the uninitiated it works like this in most places: sometime before your final exams you are invited to attend an awards ceremony; you reply saying yea or nay and paying for any chargeable items such as guest seats, reception costs, whatever; when you pass, your place is confirmed; if you fail, your invitation is withdrawn and money refunded; if you are in debt, you probably get smacked around a bit and if you pay you're allowed to attend (presuming you passed of course).]

Now, on the face of it, this is a fairly straightforward online payment implementation. Student logs in to portal, finds reply task and follows it through page by page, costs are accumulated, call made to payment provider, reply recieved from provider, complete task, bish, bash, bosh.

The difficulty is that in most online payment transactions, the person doing the buying is the person doing the paying, but in our case as often as not it isn't the student themselves but a parent or other sponsor that pays, so online payment immediately must become optional. Once the link between goods/services and payment is broken, there arises a reconciliation nightmare: we move from a paper-based cash-with-order system to a scenario where "orders" are received online without payment confirmation. Such confirmation may come later or not at all, or in many forms including cheques, independent online payments, cash etc and must be matched with the "order". Very messy.

Imagine if Amazon had a option at the checkout of "my dad will pay later". Do they dispatch the goods on trust? Probably not. But how does dad subsequently pay, especially if he has no Amazon account of his own (and no, he can't log on using his daughter's credentials, that's naughty; anyway he's a technophobe with no credit card – he wants to send a cheque). Big problem for Amazon, which is why they don't do it.

It all turns a relatively straightforward transaction into a bit of a quagmire, with potentially lots of work in the back office trying to match things up.

Answers on a postcard by Monday please. I've got a meeting with the software developers at 2.00pm and at present I don't really have a crystal clear vision of how we make a nice manageable process out of this.

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