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Aria Systems provides companies with software for managing subscription or recurring revenue business models. A recurring revenue business models includes three types of selling and billing structures: a one-time transaction plus a periodic service charge; subscription-based services involving periodic charges; or a contractual relationship that charges periodically for goods and services. Aria’s cloud-based software addresses key requirements of users in the marketing, sales, operations and accounting functions in this type of business.
Recurring revenue, first popularized in the telecommunications industry, is increasingly common in others. It is well suited to companies accessing software and hardware technology as a service through cloud computing. For example, has a strong impact in the entertainment business, as customers subscribe to rent movies, music and other creative digital products instead of owning them. In general recurring revenue is attractive to providers of services or products because it establishes a regular, predictable income stream as long as they retain the customer. In using it it’s essential to handle interactions smoothly and completely in order to sustain customer engagement and maximize each customer’s lifetime value. Software is an essential element to successfully doing so.
Aria’s software is designed to help companies maximize customer lifetime value in three main ways. First, it is designed to help create a positive customer experience with every interaction. In our benchmark research on recurring revenue,maintaining customer engagement is the most frequently cited challenge in businesses that use it, cited by 55 percent of participants. Having repeated positive interactions can be an important determinant of renewal rates. Renewals in turn are a key driver of profitability in these businesses because of the relatively high cost of adding a customer. Along those lines, 39 percent of participants cited customer retention as an impediment. Moreover, since a company’s costs related to its recurring revenue business are relatively fixed in the short term, almost all the impact of lost revenue drops to the bottom line, depressing profits.
Rather than treating billing as a purely functional accounting event, Aria’s software enables a company to automatically incorporate personalized usage tips or customized thank-you messages in anticipation of an approaching anniversary (and renewal) date. It also can automate up-sell and cross-sell messages tailored to each customer. Nearly half (46%) or organizations said cross-selling and up-selling are difficult. This may be because they can’t engage effectively with existing customers. Multiple internal factors may affect this, such as a poorly designed marketing program for existing customers, a lack of skilled agents for performing ongoing interactions or technology limitations that prevent a company from creating or executing an effective customer nurturing program. Using software to craft an automated process for deepening customer interactions can be a way to enhance engagement. Companies that find it difficult to up-sell or cross-sell also may discover that for some customers its primary service is of limited importance. This may be because they don’t want to consider a more expensive, deluxe version or add-ons. Understanding which customers fall into this category is important so that up-sell and cross-sell efforts are focused only on those who likely to be receptive. Aria’s software enables business people to manage these aspects of the billing process without involving IT professionals.
Second, to support positive customer interactions, the software offers flexibility to quickly create and modify customer offers in a controlled fashion. Aria has a centrally administered catalog that defines the products, services and bundles on offer as well as their pricing, terms and conditions. In addition the software can handle a range of things that a company can bill for, including types of content, service levels, usage metering based on physical quantities, time or distance or some combination of factors. Companies can define and manage offers based, for example, on the sales channel, geographic location or currency, and it can do that without requiring expensive and time-consuming customizations; thus a company can introduce innovations rapidly or react quickly to changes in its market. The control provided by such a catalog enables sales people to configure a set of terms and conditions that best match a current or prospective customer’s needs within established parameters. These limits ensure that the offerings balance flexibility and complexity. They enable administrators to limit the available pricing and terms to offers are that are profitable (or at least not loss-making) for the company.
The third factor is that, by managing the billing process in a continuous fashion, Aria’s software ensures complete accuracy. For anything more than a simple subscription invoicing can be a chore because customers often add or remove services to and from their contracts or negotiate a new billing method to suit their needs. It’s easy for those outside of finance and accounting departments to overlook the impacts on the department of not having a controlled end-to-end process, which can be addressed by using a dedicated application designed to support the billing process in a recurring revenue business. In our research only 29 percent of participants with finance and accounting titles said they are satisfied with their company’s invoicing system, compared to nearly half (47%) of those who work in other parts of their company. Managing the billing process from contract to cash in a single system provides a control mechanism that makes sure that the customer is not overcharged and that the company doesn’t suffer revenue leakage. Another benefit of the software is that by managing the process from end to end it ensures the integrity of the data used in the billing process and eliminates the need for time-consuming checks and reconciliations that are necessary when, for example, the same data must be entered into multiple systems or when companies use spreadsheets at any point in the process to move data from one system to another or to handle adjustments or allocations. A well-designed billing system also facilitates the revenue recognition process.
Some companies sell directly to customers either through sales people (assisted selling) or a commerce website (unassisted selling), and some do both. Where subscription-like services are concerned, using a centralized catalog as the authoritative source for controlling offers ensures that the offers are valid and consistent with policies. For directed selling, Aria’s offers integration with the salesforce.com CRM system to ensure data in the two systems is synchronized. The software can be integrated with a company’s e-commerce site and enable offers and promotions tailored to specific buyers based on their relationship with the company, their location, past buying history or other factors. For both types of selling, the software facilitates testing of plans, promotions and services to determine the best approach to use. Users can apply effective dating to turn promotions on or off automatically at set times.
Aria’s built-in analytics addresses the needs of various roles in managing the recurring revenue business. Analytics is necessary to measure and monitor the health of a business. Having up-to-the-minute data digested and displayed for specific roles and responsibilities supports faster, more coordinated responses to market developments. Confirming its importance, most (82%) of the participantsin our research chose analytics as an important new technology necessary to support their recurring revenue business.
Not every company needs a dedicated application to manage its recurring revenue business. Those with simple offerings that rarely change over the term of the subscription are likely to find that their ERP system will serve their needs. However, companies that have even moderately complex offerings, that serve a diverse set of customers or that need to be nimble in managing offers and promotions will find that a recurring revenue application improves their performance. Our research finds that users of dedicated third-party software said they are satisfied with its performance more often than those using any other method: 86 percent said they are satisfied or somewhat satisfied with it, compared to 70 percent of those that use their ERP system and just 40 percent that use spreadsheets. I recommend that companies that have recurring revenue businesses assess whether dedicated software can help their performance and, if they so decide, they should consider Aria’s offering.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
The steady march of technology’s ability to handle ever more complicated tasks has been a constant since the beginning of the information age in the 1950s. Initially, computers in business were used to automate simple clerical functions, but as systems have become more capable, information technology has been able to substitute for increasingly higher levels of human skill and experience. A turning point of sorts was reached in the 1990s when ERP, business intelligence and business process automation software reduced the need for middle managers. Increasingly, organizations used software to coordinate activities as well as communicate results and requirements up and down the organizational chart. Both were once the exclusive role of the middle manager. Consequently, almost every for-profit organization eliminated management layers so that today corporate structures are flatter than they once were. Technology automation also eliminated the need for administrative staff to perform routine reporting and analysis. Meanwhile, over the course of the 1990s, the cost of running the finance department measured as a percentage of sales was cut almost in half as a result of eliminating staff and because automation enabled companies to scale without adding headcount. During the last recession, companies in North America and Europe once again made deep reductions to their administrative staffs, relying on information technology to pick up the slack.
Given this history, the best career choice that an individual can make today is to stay ahead of the trend. Information technologies, especially cognitive computing, will continue to eliminate relatively high-paying white-collar jobs in corporate life, especially in the finance and accounting function. Executives and others working in tax departments in particular should recognize that a major shift is under way in their field. Automation will transform their work over the next five years, driving a fundamental change in what they do. To succeed (or even survive), they will have to embrace automation.
Spreadsheets are a major impediment to making the tax function more strategic for a company and more remunerative for those working in the department, as I have noted. Our Office of Finance benchmark research finds that half (52%) of tax departments use spreadsheets only for tax provisioning and another 38 percent mainly use spreadsheets; just one in 10 utilize a third-party tax application. One well-known issue with spreadsheets is that they are error-prone – not a risk that tax professionals can be comfortable with. To be certain that the tax provision and other tax-related calculations are correct, individuals must double- and even triple-check the numbers. This overlaps with a second major issue with spreadsheets: They are time-consuming. Our spreadsheet research finds that those working heavily with spreadsheets on average spend 18 hours a month (equivalent to more than two full workdays) just maintaining their most important spreadsheet. Spreadsheets as so time-consuming that they prevent individuals from doing more valuable work, in this case tax analysis and planning.
Another related issue is that using spreadsheets for the tax function diminishes visibility into a company’s tax provision in at least two respects. First, using them takes so long that executives get to the numbers late in the financial close process. This matters because of the impact that tax expense has on a company’s profits. Second, spreadsheets are black boxes: That is, they are difficult to control, and it’s difficult for anyone other than the spreadsheet’s owner to understand their construction. Often, assumptions are buried in formulas and therefore hard to uncover. If these formulas are inconsistent or wrong, it’s not easy to spot them. (This was an important factor behind J.P. Morgan’s multibillion dollar trading loss, which I discussed.) When a spreadsheet is constructed with a given formula repeated in multiple cells, each of these must be updated when circumstances change, and it’s difficult to be certain that all of the changes have been made. Even with advanced techniques designed to make updates consistent, it’s hard to be sure that some cell wasn’t overwritten with another number.
Some people who work intensively with spreadsheets still view them as a form of job security because of their opacity. They think they’re indispensable because they are the only one who understands how their spreadsheet works. This is one of several reasons why their use persists in functions where they constitute more of a problem than a solution. However, these spreadsheet jockeys should recognize that their tools’ inherent inefficiency, lack of visibility and proneness to error make them vulnerable to being replaced by better technology. The real value of tax professionals is not their ability to overcome spreadsheet limitations. It’s in their training in understanding income taxes. Once freed from the drudgery of performing computations, massaging data and checking (two or three times) for errors, tax professionals can turn their attention to performing analytical work aimed at optimizing a company’s tax spend – and thus ensuring their value as employees.
Midsize and larger organizations, especially those that operate in multiple direct (income) tax jurisdictions and that have an even moderately complex legal entity structure, must use dedicated software to automate their income tax provision and analysis functions. They must manage their tax-sensitized data using what I call a tax data warehouse of record. Tax departments must be able to tightly control the end-to-end process of taking numbers from source systems, constructing tax financial statements, calculating taxes owed and keeping track of cumulative amounts and other balance sheet items related to taxes. Transparency is the natural result of a having controlled process that uses a unified set of all relevant tax data. An authoritative data set makes tax department operations more efficient. As noted, reducing the time and effort to execute the tax department’s core functions frees up the time of tax professionals for more useful analysis. Having tax data and tax calculations that are immediately traceable, reproducible and permanently accessible provides company executives with greater certainty and reduces the risk of noncompliance and the attendant costs and reputation issues. Having an accurate and consistent tax data warehouse of record enables corporations and their tax departments to better execute tax planning, provisioning and compliance. Using dedicated software today rather than relying on spreadsheets helps the tax department, and those working in it, increase their strategic value today so they won’t be obsolete tomorrow.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research