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Revenue recognition standards for companies that use contracts are in the process of changing, as I covered in an earlier perspective. As part of managing their transition to these standards, CFOs and controllers should initiate a full-scale review of their order-to-cash cycle. This should include examination of their company’s sales contracts and their contracting process. They also should examine how well their contracting processes are integrated with invoicing and billing and any other elements of their order-to-cash cycle, especially as these relate to revenue recognition. They must recognize that how their company structures, writes and modifies these contracts and handles the full order-to-cash cycle will have a direct impact on workloads in the finance and accounting department as well as on external audit costs. Companies that will be affected by the new standards also should investigate whether they can benefit from using software to automate contract management or in some cases an application that supports their configure, price and quote (CPQ) function by facilitating standardization and automation of their contracting processes.
The soon-to-be-implemented revenue recognition standards (called ASC 606 or “Topic 606” in the U.S. and IFRS 15 in most other developed countries) will fundamentally change how companies that use contracts in business account for revenue from them. They will not affect those that rarely if ever use formal or implied contracts in the normal course of business. And almost all corporations that use standard contracts that cover a straightforward transaction (such as a one-time sale of some good or service) where the terms are satisfied within a relatively short period of time are likely to find little change to their accounting treatments and processes. However, corporations that don’t fall into these categories will benefit from a thorough re-examination of the structure and wording of their sales contracts and the processes they use for creating, negotiating and reviewing sales contracts.
To minimize the impact of the new revenue recognition standards on finance department workloads, companies ought to standardize sales contracts and automate as much of the order-to-cash cycle as possible. Although strictly speaking the new revenue recognition process requires companies to manage contracts one-by-one, companies can treat sets of similar contracts or similar performance obligations that are part of a contract in the same way if the overall impact on its financial statements will not be materially different from applying the same approach to the individual contracts or individual performance obligations. In other words, the specific wording of the sales contract is irrelevant if the substance of the contract or individual performance obligations that are part of that contract are substantially the same. Thus the objective of reviewing a company’s sales contracts is to find ways to achieve the highest possible degree of standardization (that is, making contracts, parts of contracts and performance obligations under those contracts identical) or commonality (achieving sufficient similarity to apply the identical accounting treatment). At the end of the review, controllers should be able to implement a process that can map all contract elements to a set of accounting treatments that are at least plausible under the new principles. (Compared to current U.S. accounting standards, the new approach to revenue recognition is more principles-based and far less prescriptive.) Such standardization is extremely helpful in a principles-based accounting approach because it will ensure consistency in how the company treats specific types of contracts and their specific elements. Doing so will facilitate internal reviews and external audits. It will also lay the groundwork for automating the classification of contracts and contract elements, which can reduce finance department workloads as well.
Up to now, a major concern in drafting sales contracts has been covering all the legal bases. Typically, how to organize a contract has been at best an afterthought. This will need to change. CFOs and controllers should insist that all of their sales contracts (or contract templates) be structured in a fashion to make it easy to account for them. By analogy, in the manufacturing world, engineers often constrain their designs to make a product easier or less expensive to produce (for instance, by using similar components across multiple products or relaxing tolerances) or cheaper to maintain (by making replaceable components easier to access). With the advent of the new revenue recognition standards, legal departments or outside counsel must now pay attention to the structure and wording of contracts to facilitate accounting and auditing processes. In negotiating the wording of a sales contract, company representatives must be trained to be sensitive to changes that can have a material impact on revenue recognition from the standard and also to understand when such changes will not make a difference. In the new revenue recognition regime, “sloppy drafting” now includes needless complexity or lack of standardization in a sales contract, not just ambiguities and omissions. Moreover, as much as possible, the wording of the contract should include language that clarifies the accounting treatment by the seller. For example, explicitly stating whether intellectual property that is part of a performance obligation is either symbolic or functional simplifies accounting and auditing by eliminating a potential ambiguity. Making the distinction explicit is useful because that characteristic determines whether revenue from that intellectual property must be recognized over the term of the contract (if it’s symbolic) or at a point in time (if it’s functional). It’s important for finance executives to work with their legal department or outside counsel to appreciate the importance of having sales contracts that minimize workloads for their department. Our benchmark research on recurring revenue suggests that it’s common for people working in one part of a business to be unaware of issues their colleagues in other parts face. For example, when it comes to invoicing the research finds a major disconnect between the finance department and the rest of the company. Nearly half (47%) of participants working outside of finance and accounting said they are satisfied with their company’s ability to produce invoices for their recurring charges, compared to only 29 percent of those in accounting roles. The gulf between the two reflects the reality that when parts of a business process are performed without regard to their impact on finance department operations, invoicing becomes a highly labor-intensive effort. Indeed, of those not satisfied with their invoicing, four out of five (79%) said it requires too much work, two-thirds (68%) said it involves too many resources, and more than half (54%) said it takes too long.
To be sure, standardization is either difficulipt or impractical for very large or complex transactions. And, in some cases, customers will insist (successfully) on writing the sales contract “on their paper.” (That is, the buyer’s side provides the contract that forms the basis of the negotiated result in order to better control the negotiating process and minimize the risk of the buyer being subjected to unfavorable terms and conditions.) However, unless these instances are common and unavoidable, they amount to exceptions that do not affect the need for consistency and commonality in a company’s sales contracts. Even in the case of exceptions, corporations should define and document a standardized framework and process for determining how to handle the accounting in the five-step revenue recognition framework laid out in the standards as easily and consistently as possible.
Invoicing and billing are a part of the order-to-cash process that benefits from automation. This process is relatively straightforward for companies that exclusively or mainly have contracts for stand-alone transactions where the performance obligations to the customer are met over a relatively short period of time (no more than a month or two). Generally, ERP or corporate financial management systems will be able to automate the process and related accounting.
However, companies that engage in subscription or recurring revenue relationships with customers, or those that have contracts covering longer-lived transactions (such as projects), will find it useful to have dedicated software to automate their invoicing and billing and serve as an authoritative source system that drives revenue recognition. Subscription and recurring revenue relationships often involve frequent changes to deliverables, which complicate invoicing and billing as well as the revenue recognition process under the new standards. In our research more than twice as many (86%) companies that use a third-party dedicated billing system said they are satisfied or somewhat satisfied with the software they use for invoicing as those that use spreadsheets (40%).
Finance executives in companies that will be subject to the new revenue recognition standards should not overlook the impact that the structure of their sales contracts and contracting process can have on their accounting department. I recommend that they scrutinize their contracts and contracting processes to determine how their design can be used to minimize finance department workloads under the new standards. They should examine how well their contracting processes are integrated with invoicing and billing and any other elements of their order-to-cash cycle, especially as these relate to revenue recognition.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research
For most of the past decade businesses that decided not to pay attention to proposed changes in revenue recognition rules have saved themselves time and frustration as the proponents’ timetables have slipped and roadmaps have changed. The new rules are the result of a convergence of US-GAAP (Generally Accepted Accounting Principles – the accounting standard used by U.S.-based companies) and IFRS (International Financial Reporting Standards – the system used in much of the rest of the world). Now, however, it’s time for everyone to pay close attention. Last year the U.S.-based Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB, which manages US-GAAP) and the Brussels-based International Accounting Standards Board (IASB, which manages IFRS) issued “Topic 606” and “IFRS 15,” respectively, which express their harmonized approach to governing revenue recognition. A major objective of the new standards is to provide investors and other stakeholders with more accurate and consistent depictions of companies’ revenue across multiple types of business as well as make the standard consistent between the major accounting regimes.
The impact of the new standards will vary greatly depending on the nature of the business. The rules cover companies that enter into contracts with their customers to transfer goods or services or enter into contracts for the transfer of nonfinancial assets – unless those contracts are within the scope of other standards (for example, insurance or lease contracts). Their scope includes most industrial and business services as well as many that have direct-to-consumer relationships. Specifically, aerospace and defense, automotive, communications, engineering and construction, entertainment, media, pharmaceuticals and technology industries are likely to feel the greatest impact. Investment management companies that receive performance-based incentive fees will also be affected. However, it’s likely that some “contracts” covered by the new standards are informal. For instance, there is an implied contract when the seller of a video console ships a product with a game that has only half of the levels but promises to provide the remaining levels at a later date.
It has taken years to reach agreement because creating a codified approach to revenue recognition across all industries was a complex undertaking. It has required the standards bodies to go to the conceptual heart of revenue recognition to devise a common, workable approach. Implementation has been delayed to provide the affected corporations additional time to address the often significant process and systems changes they must put in place to adapt to the new standard. As of now, it looks likely that publicly held companies will begin applying them for annual reporting periods beginning after Dec. 15, 2017, and private companies a year later. Software vendors have been preparing for the new revenue recognition rules, some for several years.
Another main objective of the new standards is to simplify preparation of financial statements. That is unlikely to happen as companies affected by the new standards deal with the transition. In the long run, how well a finance and accounting organization uses software to manage contracting, invoicing, billing and the revenue recognition process will have a significant impact on the amount of work involved. Here software can help; it is a natural fit for principles-based accounting standards. In the absence of prescriptive rules, auditors must be able to confirm that a corporation’s accounting treatments were appropriate and applied consistently. Because software codifies these treatments and automates their application, it functions as a high-level control that, in theory, should make governance and auditing of this aspect of a company’s books much easier to enforce. Moreover, while the new standards may be more useful for investors, they may make a company’s statutory accounting numbers less practical for managing the business. To address this issue, software can reduce the workload involved in preparing management accounting. It also can facilitate a planning process that must be able to view the pro-forma numbers for future income statements, balance sheets and cash flow in both statutory and management contexts. We urge organizations to avoid the use of spreadsheets for this and other enterprise purposes. Our benchmark research finds that various types of errors are common even in the most important spreadsheets; errors that relate to revenue are likely to be material.
For those not familiar with the accounting issue being discussed, here is a quick summary of what has been driving the change. Revenue recognition accounting issues have a long history in the U.S. because of the early rise of a market for publicly traded software companies in this country. Rules grew in scope and specificity in response to successive scams and frauds involving inflated sales numbers perpetrated on investors. Many software companies’ revenue recognition policies were extremely aggressive until 1991, when the first rules were put in place. Those first iterations proved too feeble, and further revisions attempted to prevent abuse, but in the process the rules have become highly detailed and unwieldy. From the standpoint of U.S. companies, replacing the increasingly complex and onerous rules became necessary. It’s easy to make mistakes trying to abide by regulations that include more than 100 requirements governing recognition of revenues and gains. The new approach is aimed at reducing this complexity. For its part, IFRS relied more on principles to guide accounting treatment. Although that approach was less complex, it was also less comprehensive and harder to interpret. Dissatisfaction grew because for different reasons, US-GAAP and IFRS each were failing to present a consistent picture of the economic health and performance of companies, which is a core purpose of accounting. And harmonizing revenue recognition rules between the two systems has been a major objective of eliminating differences between US-GAAP and IFRS.
The particulars of the new standards are so detailed that I will highlight only three key points. First, “Topic 606” and “IFRS 15” employ a novel customer-focused framework that represents a fundamental conceptual change in how revenue is measured. Under the new approach, revenue is recognized when the customer gains control of some combination of a good or a service and not necessarily (as has been the case) when the customer acquires title to or takes physical possession of the asset or when a service has been billed. This interjects a considerable amount of opinion into the process. Moreover, sellers are required to parse the sales contract (which may be formal or implied) to identify separate performance obligations (if any) to the customer and allocate the transaction price to these individual performance obligations. Auditors will have to agree that the approach is sound and applied consistently. Complications to the process arise when a contract even implicitly includes multiple performance obligations such as the correct installation of machinery or periodic updates to firmware needed for the machinery to operate properly. To be sure, a good deal of uncertainly will be resolved over the next three years during the phase-in period, but the change is likely to be a major distraction to many companies’ finance and accounting organizations over the next five years.
Second, it will be interesting to see to what extent the new rules improve transparency of financial statements. The new framework hews to an approach that has academic consistency on the revenue line but can bend accounting’s matching principle (matching revenue to related expenses). For example, at this stage in the evolution of the rules, companies that have multiyear contracts will recognize revenues in some ratable fashion over the life of the contract but – in contrast with past practices – will have to recognize some costs related to the contract immediately. Wireless communications vendors, for instance, might find that the handset subsidy they currently provide to customers would have to be expensed at the start of the contract rather than over the life of the contract because the matching principle would no longer apply to the way revenues are classified. In this respect, the new approach is a more accurate reflection of the cash flows of the transaction but not of the economics or the nature of the customer relationship. Professional investors will be able to see through the numbers because they have the training to do so; ordinary individuals will not. To the extent that the new standards create a gulf between reported results and those that are meaningful to running the business, they will proliferate the reporting of non-GAAP results to investors.
Third, while the objectives of the revised revenue recognition standards are laudable and will benefit some investors in some respects, they may complicate corporate financial management in companies materially affected by the new standards. Those that use written contracts or discover they have somewhat contractual relationships with their customers will experience a more complicated revenue recognition process that demands more stringent control of a more complex and detailed record-keeping regime. Importantly, the customer-first framework is divorced from longstanding internal processes, management reporting needs and tax management. So accounting and planning for taxes, commissions, bonus plans and debt covenants may require more attention. Because of this, almost all companies that adopt the new methods of revenue recognition will have to adapt their financial management software and accounting practices to handle the new rules. They will need to review contract wording and related processes as well.
Let me repeat that there is a natural relation between principles-based accounting standards and software. In addition to ensuring consistency in treatment and facilitating governance and control, software also is capable of automating the process of presenting a company’s results from multiple perspectives in a consistent fashion. This is important because many companies will find that their statutory books alone will not provide the right numbers to manage their business. Although public company managements will want to see how their numbers look to Wall Street, they may find that these figures are inconsistent with business practices required to achieve sustainable long-term objectives. Software can systematize the simultaneous translation of events into increasingly divergent financial and management accounting contexts.
Many ERP and financial management software vendors have been preparing for the new revenue recognition rules. I see three main requirements for such companies in preparing to handle the new revenue recognition rules.
- One is process management for the five-step process that determines when revenue can be recognized. That begins with identifying the “contract,” which may be formal or informal. After that it must identify the performance obligations established by the contract, determine the contract price, allocate that price to the individual performance requirements and recognize revenue when that obligation is satisfied.
- An integrated contract management system or tight integration with third-party contract management products (including sales force automation) can ensure that the data regarding the contract can pass back and forth easily between systems. Invoicing and billing software must be elastic enough to capture the full palette of transaction information in order to provide the appropriate treatment of the debits and credits for that specific transaction. And it is necessary to handle any subsequent events related to that transaction such as cancellations, adjustments and modification of contracts. Processes vary across industries, and even companies in similar businesses may have slightly different contracting processes. So accounting software vendors must provide customers with unlimited freedom to define the characteristics they need to capture in the invoice and the specific accounting treatment of all of the components of that record based on those characteristics.
- Finally vendors must have a method for instantly recasting results and plans accurately and consistently to satisfy financial and management accounting revenue requirements as well as cash flow for treasury management and a taxable view for tax management purposes. ERP and other software vendors will take different approaches in making this feasible depending on their software architectures. Thus it’s important for finance executives to understand that the approach a vendor might be touting is simply an adaptation to its existing architecture, rather than the best method for their company’s purposes.
It’s not clear at this point how much disruption the new revenue recognition standards will create in finance and accounting organizations. One reason is that it’s hard to know how external auditors will behave. In the United States, the shift to a principles-based methodology will challenge a generation of auditors who grew up in a rules-heavy environment. The framework is straightforward, but the implementation of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act is a cautionary tale of how unnecessary complications can needlessly disrupt the accounting function.
What should be abundantly clear, though, is that companies should avoid using desktop spreadsheets as much as possible in handling the revenue recognition process. Because of the complexity, it will be a nightmare to try use desktop spreadsheets for all but truly one-off calculations and prototyping work. Our research finds that in many situations spreadsheet maintenance is a burden, and this certainly will be the case here. Revenue recognition will be in a state of flux for years because of the highly predictable spate of rulemaking and “clarifications” of these treatments and maybe even requirements to recast numbers. Automating and controlling the flow of contract information from the negotiating phase all the way to invoicing can preclude the need for multiple adjustment, allocation and reconciliation steps. It can facilitate the process of creating statutory and management accounting statements and analysis of the difference between them as well as planning, budgeting and reviewing.
I recommend that companies that might be affected by the new revenue recognition standards review the adequacy of their ERP and financial management software to handle the new rules, including how it captures contract information in the sales process and passes it to the accounting system. They should examine their vendors’ plans for adapting to the new regulations to determine whether they are adequate for their specific needs. They should recognize that while software companies will be tempted to spread fear, uncertainty and doubt to generate business, some businesses really are in danger of being overwhelmed by the new rules.
Robert Kugel – SVP Research