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As I noted in a recent analyst perspective note the recurring revenue business model is gaining increasing use worldwide. Our recently completed recurring revenue benchmark research shows that companies are using this business approach because they find that it can convey a strategic advantage in creating additional sales opportunities, making future revenues more predictable, enhancing their customers’ experience  and increasing customer loyalty. However, recurring revenue businesses have unique challenges, especially in finance VentanaResearch_RR_BenchmarkResearchand accounting departments because most ERP systems (the ones that handle the accounting function) are not designed to manage the specific requirements of a recurring revenue businesses.

One of the root causes of the problems finance and accounting departments encounter with managing the invoicing and billing of recurring revenue is that the order-to-cash process often is fragmented, with each part of the business doing its own thing and managing its activities. Our research on information optimization confirms that this is a common issue. A choppy process leads to fragmentation of data as it is entered multiple times in multiple systems. And because of such multiple entries, inconsistencies and errors are almost inevitable. For example, last-minute changes in a contract or a purchase order may not be entered everywhere or at the same time. After a couple of months customers may add or subtract services, and these changes may not be reflected accurately in every system at the same time. Creating new services or products thus can generate complexities that take time to implement. All these complexities and changes can create billing errors.

Finance departments wind up bearing the brunt of data fragmentation, a fact that is rarely appreciated by the rest of the company. Since they can’t take for granted that the billing data is utterly reliable, they construct monster spreadsheets to vr_Recurring_Revenue_06_finance_less_satisfied_with_invoicingreconcile the information about the customers’ services, pricing, the contract terms, usage and other factors that are stored in each of the systems. It takes time to work through the reconciliation spreadsheets, and this job requires experience. The more variations in the services and products offered, the more complicated and time-consuming the reconciliation process becomes. Therefore, it shouldn’t be a surprise that our research reveals that those working in finance and accounting organizations are far less happy with their company’s invoicing process than everyone else: only 29 percent of them are satisfied with invoicing, compared to nearly half (47%) of people vr_Recurring_Revenue_07_dedicated_system_users_are_more_satisfiedworking in other parts of a company. One way of dealing with such complexities is to put tight controls on what sales people can offer and what product managers can introduce. But this isn’t a good solution. It might save time spent by the accounting department but can make the company less competitive. Moreover, it’s unnecessary.

Dedicated billing systems that are designed for companies that offer recurring or subscription services enable finance and accounting departments to get what they need to perform their jobs well without diminishing the company’s ability to introduce new products or features quickly, and without severely limiting sales teams’ flexibility in negotiating pricing, terms and conditions. These dedicated billing systems provide finance and accounting groups with controlled, accurate and up-to-date billing information so that invoicing becomes easier and more reliable. They can substantially reduce or even eliminate errors (which can speed up collections), and they enable companies to handle customer billing inquiries quickly. Automating the process means reducing the need for administrative or operational overhead, thereby cutting costs. This probably accounts for the finding from our recurring revenue research that almost all (86%) users of dedicated billing systems are satisfied or somewhat satisfied, far more so than those that use spreadsheets to support their process and those that rely on their ERP system.

A well-designed recurring revenue billing system usually will automate the revenue recognition process to make it completely reliable and easier to audit. Companies that try to manage revenue recognition in desktop spreadsheets almost certainly will find that keeping track of even slightly complex services is difficult and time-consuming. It’s all the more difficult because in many recurring revenue businesses, customers frequently modify or change their contracted services or products. Using spreadsheets to track what revenue can be recognized and when is even more difficult when customers decide to add or drop features, bring on new users or respond to a new marketing offer.

The business case for investing in a dedicated billing system often can be made simply on the time (measured in full-time equivalent employees) saved in bringing on new customers, modifying their contracted services and preparing and checking invoices. It’s also important to be able to quickly add or modify a company’s offerings and to give sales people the ability to adjust the terms and conditions of contracts (within reason, of course) as needed to close a sale. I recommend that CFOs, controllers and heads of accounting in a business with a subscription or any other type of recurring revenue business model that are not using a dedicated billing system investigate this software; they should admit that most ERP systems are not designed to handle the specific requirements of these types of business. These dedicated systems usually are available as a cloud-based service, so they are relatively easy to deploy, and most vendors have experience integrating their offerings with ERP systems.

Regards,

Robert Kugel – SVP Research

In our benchmark research at least half of participants that use spreadsheets to support a business process routinely say that these tools make it difficult for them to do their job. Yet spreadsheets continue to dominate in a range of business functions and processes. For example, our recent next-generation business planning research finds that this is the most common software used for performing 11 of the most common types of planning. At the heart of the problem is a disconnect between what spreadsheets vr_NGBP_09_spreadsheets_dominant_in_planning_softwarewere originally designed to do and how they are actually used today in corporations. Desktop spreadsheets were intended to be a personal productivity tool used, for example, for prototyping models, creating ad hoc reports and performing one-off analyses using simple models and storing small amounts of data. They were not built for collaborative, repetitive enterprise-wide tasks, and this is the root cause of most of the issues that organizations encounter when they use them in such business processes. Software vendors and IT departments have been trying – mainly in vain – to get users to switch from spreadsheets to a variety of dedicated applications. They’ve failed to make much of a dent because, although these applications have substantial advantages over spreadsheets when used in repetitive collaborative enterprise tasks, these advantages are mainly realized after the model, process or report is put to use in the “production” phase (to borrow an IT term). To date most dedicated applications have been far more difficult than spreadsheets for the average business user to use in the design and test phases. To convince people to switch to their dedicated application, a vendor must offer an alternative that lets users model, create reports, collect data and create dedicated data stores as easily as they can do it in a desktop spreadsheet. Spreadsheets are seductive for most business users because, even with a minimum amount of training and experience, it’s possible to create a useful model, do analysis and create reports. Individuals can immediately translate what they know about their business or how to present their ideas into a form and format that makes sense to them. They can update and modify it whenever they wish, and the change will occur instantly. For these business users ease of use and control trump putting up with the issues that routinely occur when spreadsheets are used in collaborative enterprise processes. Moreover, it’s hard to persuade “spreadsheet jockeys” who have strong command of spreadsheet features and functions that they should start over and learn how to use a new application. Those who have spent their careers working with spreadsheets often find it difficult to work with formal applications because those applications work in ways that aren’t intuitive. Personally these diehards may resist because not having control over analyses and data would diminish their standing in the organization. Nevertheless, there are compelling reasons for vendors to keep trying to devise dedicated software that an average vr_ss21_spreadsheet_maintenance_is_a_burdenbusiness user would find as easy and intuitive as a desktop spreadsheet in the design, test and update phases. Such an application would eliminate the single most important obstacle that keeps organizations from switching. The disadvantages of using spreadsheets are clear and measurable. One of the most significant is that spreadsheets can waste large amounts of time when used inappropriately. After more than a few people become involved and a file is used and reused, issues begin to mount such as errors in data or formulas, broken links and inconsistencies. Changes to even moderately complex models are time-consuming. Soon, much of the time spent with the file is devoted to finding the sources of errors and discrepancies and fixing the mistakes. Our research confirms this. When it comes to important spreadsheets that people use over and over again to collaborate with colleagues, on average people spend about 12 hours per month consolidating, modifying and correcting the spreadsheets. That’s about a day and a half per month – or five to 10 percent of their time – just maintaining these spreadsheets. Business applications vendors started to address business users’ reluctance to use their software more than a decade ago when they began to use Microsoft Excel as the user interface (UI). This provides a familiar environment for those who mainly need to enter data or want to do some “sandbox” modeling and analysis. Since the software behind the UI is a program that uses some sort of database, companies avoid the issues that almost arise when spreadsheets are used in enterprise applications. There also are products that address some of the inherent issues with such as the difficulty of consolidating data from multiple individual spreadsheets as well as keeping data consistent. Visualization software, a relatively new category, greatly simplifies the process of collecting data from one or more enterprise data sources and creating reports and dashboards. As the enterprise software applications business evolves to meet the needs of a new generation of users, as I mentioned recently, it’s imperative that vendors find a way to provide users with software that is a real alternative to desktop spreadsheets. By this I mean enterprise software that provides business users with the same ability to model, create reports and work with data the way they do in a desktop spreadsheet as well as update and modify these by themselves without any IT resources. At the same time, this software has to eliminate all of the problems that are inevitable when spreadsheets are used. Only at that point will a dedicated application become a real alternative to using a spreadsheet for a key business process. Regards, Robert Kugel – SVP Research

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