Accounting professionals who have been involved with revenue for many years can recite the four criteria for revenue recognition as quickly as they can their children’s names—it just becomes second nature. For people less familiar with the process, I have used a mnemonic—it’s like learning your ABC’s but without the AB—you can sort the criteria into Collection, Delivery, Evidence, and Fixed Price (C, D, E, F). Gimmicky, but it works.

Well, we’re all going to need new hints for taking on the new revenue recognition standard when it goes into effect. The adoption date may be a ways off with FASB’s recently announced one-year delay, but finance teams still need to get their heads around the changes. Implementation challenges are ahead, and contingent revenue related to bonuses and penalties will be particularly challenging for some organizations.

The new big “E”: Estimates
While many of the same concepts will still exist, the framework of the standard moves to a five-step process rather than relying on criteria. So while collectability, delivery, evidence of the arrangement, and even some aspects of fixed or determinable pricing still come into play, that last aspect is where I see the biggest challenges.

If I had to create a new term for what we currently view as the “fixed or determinable” part of rev rec, I would call it “fixed or estimable” for the new standard. It requires, in almost all circumstances, entities to estimate the amount of contract consideration that they believe they are entitled to (assuming that recording such revenue would not likely result in a significant reversal of revenue in the future). So, there will be more judgment involved and this will require a change in practice.

Much has been written about how the new standard will require organizations to not only make many more estimates but have systems to support those estimates, provide more disclosures in their filings, and have controls to ensure that the system that supports the estimates is controlled—this isn’t about someone just throwing a dart at a board! This is why now is the time—while we all have it—to take a close look at your systems and processes and decide whether they’ll need to be modified to make room for the flexibility that’s needed when you’re dealing with estimates.

You say tomatO, I say tomAto: A bonus and penalty can be the same thing!
How is this different than current practice? Consider this pretty straightforward example of how a contract with a bonus (or penalty) provision would be treated today versus the new standard. Keep in mind this deal (from an economic perspective) can be structured using either a bonus or a penalty.

Assume Customer A purchased a single hardware element that qualified for separate accounting (i.e., it is not a multi-element arrangement). The vendor structures the deal at a fixed price of $10K for Customer A with the understanding if the product meets certain performance parameters after 60 days (i.e., uptime), the vendor gets a bonus of $2K. Then consider a deal that same vendor makes for Customer B: It charges the organization $12K with the understanding it would have to give back $2K if those same parameters are not met.

Current U.S. GAAP treats both these contracts the same—it is a classic “substance over form” example and the reality is that both customers negotiated the same deal. But there’s that $2K unknown; since it does not meet the fixed or determinable criterion, the vendor cannot count the $2K contingent amount as revenue until that 60-day contingency passes (at which point both the vendor and the customer will know if the uptime spec was met). It’s the same scenario even if the vendor can show that 100% of the time it has achieved the specs it’s promising.

Now, fast-forward to the new standard—this contingent revenue will have to be estimated and recorded up-front. The result is binary—either the vendor records the $2K payment or not. This time, if the vendor has a strong history of meeting its performance specs, it would book the $2K. Or it could estimate a weighted-average probability amount if the amount it expects to receive falls within a range of possible outcomes. This would be more appropriate if the contract bonus depended on a percentage of spec achieved (i.e., a different example).

The bottom line
In almost all companies, a purchase order is a big factor for determining the ceiling for revenue recognition. Using our super-simple example above (if only all rev rec determinations were that easy!), the vendor may receive a PO of $10K from Customer A but $12K from Customer B. But let’s say Customer A ends up following up with a second PO for $2K when the performance bonus was earned—just as the vendor predicted. Under the new rule, the vendor would have already recorded $12K for that contract even though the PO said something else—this discrepancy could create challenges for many companies from a systems perspective.

Also important to understand is that the first step of the new standard—determining the contract—contains the old collectability criterion in it. Put another way, you can’t have a contract if you don’t have a contractual right to payment with a credit-worthy customer. In our example, the contract value is “potentially” $12K regardless of the amount and timing of POs received.

Ultimately, companies need to have a process in place and should look at how their ERP system may handle situations like this. Manual, off-line, Excel-based tracking may seem like a reasonable solution, but in my experience, it introduces too many risks for errors and inefficiencies.

In addition to the accounting considerations, the new standard could let sales organizations give customers more contracting options. Often, the finance or accounting organization has had to “hold back” certain deal structures to ensure revenue rules were met. Given the focus on the big “E”—estimates—in the new standard, many organizations will find that they can create contracts with more value for their customers and alter contractual language, win more business and, in turn, increase profits—although that is just my estimate!

Looking for more insight on the new revenue recognition standard? RoseRyan and teamed up for a new report that gives companies a starting point for planning for the changes, explaining who should be involved, what areas of the company should be impacted and how to move forward. Click here to download the report: Quick guide to revenue recognition.

John Cook is a member of the RoseRyan dream team. He is a CPA with over 25 years of experience working in finance and accounting organizations in Silicon Valley with a focus on operational finance and technical accounting.