Comparing Different Revenue Recognition Methods: Which is Best for Your Company?

November 10, 2023

At the heart of accounting principles lies the concept of revenue recognition, a fundamental framework that dictates when a business can officially record a sale as earned revenue. In other words, it’s about when revenue can be “recognized” on their financial statements. Revenue typically gets the green light to be recognized when a crucial event occurs, like the successful delivery of a product or service to a customer is completed. At this point, the company can confidently recognize the dollar amount it’s earned.

Let’s dive into the nitty-gritty to grasp this concept better. Consider a SaaS (Software as a Service) company operating on a subscription-based model. Per ASC 606, they should only book revenue once they’ve provided the service to the customer. Any prepayments by customers before this point are considered liabilities because there’s always the chance they might cancel their subscription and request a refund. Hence, a SaaS business can’t treat a subscription payment as actual revenue until they’ve earned it through transferring ownership of the product or service to the customer per the terms of the contract with the customer.

In the United States, revenue recognition follows standardized guidelines known as ASC 606, providing a consistent framework for recognizing revenue from customer contracts.

In theory, revenue recognition seems straightforward, but the real world of business adds layers of complexity. Common practices like tiered pricing, prorated charges, bundling of products or services, and various payment options can muddle the waters of revenue recognition. Here, we’ll demystify why revenue recognition is vital, explore the diverse methods businesses employ for accurate revenue reporting, and introduce how RightRev’s built-in revenue recognition solution simplifies the process.

ASC 606: The Universal Blueprint for Revenue Recognition

ASC 606, or Accounting Standards Codification 606, is the bedrock of revenue recognition rules and practices that businesses worldwide must follow. It’s not just another rulebook; it’s the rulebook in the United States. The International Accounting Standards Board (IASB) and the Financial Accounting Standards Board (FASB) jointly issued ASC 606 in 2014, and it’s now universally acknowledged and adopted across industries.

For businesses, it’s imperative to operate within the specific guidelines and regulations laid out by ASC 606 when calculating and reporting their revenue. This complete framework offers a five-step approach for recognizing revenue and simplifying financial statement preparation. Let’s break it down the five-step process:

  1. Identify the Customer Contract: Here, we set the criteria for forming customer contracts to supply goods or services.
  1. Specify Performance Obligations: This step outlines how a business plans to fulfill the performance obligations defined in the contract.
  1. Set the Transaction Price: It details the factors considered when determining the transaction price, which represents the amount expected in return for delivering goods or services.

  2. Allocate the Transaction Price: This guides how to distribute the transaction price across the distinct performance obligations in your contract.

  3. Recognize Revenue: Finally, this step spells out when and how revenue is recognized as the business fulfills its distinct performance obligations.

In essence, revenue recognition is the linchpin that keeps financial reporting and accounting practices in check, ensuring a clear and standardized path for businesses to follow.

So, what does ASC 606 propose?

  1. Revenue Recognition Timing: Revenue should be recognized when it’s earned and when the performance obligation is satisfied (transferring the promised goods or services to the customer, irrespective of when payment is received.
  1. Assurance of Revenue Receipt: There should be reasonable assurance that the earned revenue will indeed be received.
  1. Reporting in the Current Period: Both revenue and related costs should be reported in the current accounting period.

Note: Understanding the nuances of revenue recognition methods is crucial for your financial clarity and decision-making.

Why Does Revenue Recognition Matter?

The heartbeat of business success is sales revenue. Thus, structuring accounting practices to depict the most favorable revenue scenario might seem tempting. However, this can sometimes lead to misleading financial reports, which, in turn, have implications for shareholders and customers. Even if a business isn’t deliberately misleading, flawed accounting practices can muddy the waters, making fiscal reports deceptive and less informative for decision-makers.

Therefore, adhering to standardized policies and guidelines in revenue recognition is crucial. These standards ensure consistent financial benchmarks across industries and provide historical financial data, allowing us to understand trends and inconsistencies. These accounting principles serve as a shared language for the broader business and investment community, facilitating a complete and accurate examination of financial statements.

Choosing the Right Revenue Recognition Method

Revenue recognition isn’t a one-size-fits-all affair. Different methods exist and should be determined based on your needs. Your industry, business model, and contractual obligations all play a role in determining the right method for your business. Your choice should accurately represent your business’s financial reality.

Let’s explore some revenue recognition methods and the types of companies that use them:

  1. Sales-Basis:
    • Example: Think about a popular clothing store like Old Navy or your favorite taco stand. These companies often use the sales-basis method. When you buy that trendy shirt or the latest gadget, they recognize the revenue right away, regardless of when you actually pay.
  1. Percentage of Completion:
    • Example: For a construction example, consider big players like Bechtel. They use the percentage of completion method. As they hit pre-determined percentages of project completion in massive projects, they acknowledge the money they’ve earned. Consulting firms like McKinsey may also use this method, recognizing revenue as they complete different stages of a project.
  1. Completed Contract:
    • Example: Picture a small event planning company like Party Perfect or a graphic design firm like 99designs. These businesses often use the completed contract method. They wait until the entire project – the party or the logo design – is finished before counting the money they’ve made.
  1. Cost Recovery:
    • Example: Imagine a startup getting custom software from a developer. If the developer is unsure about payment, they might use the cost-recovery method. In this scenario, it’s like saying a small software development company is waiting to count the money they made until they’ve covered all the costs. An example could be a local developer working with a startup company.
  1. Installment:
    • Example: Consider a real estate developer like D.R. Horton, selling houses through installment plans. When the home buyer chooses not to take out a mortgage, but rather, pay in installments to the home seller or builder. High-end machinery manufacturers like Caterpillar might also use the installment method, especially when dealing with large industrial equipment. These companies recognize revenue as customers make payments over time.

Streamlining revenue recognition doesn’t need to be complex. Solutions like RightRev are designed to automate revenue reporting and ensure compliance with ASC 606. They simplify dealing with accounting intricacies and empower you to prepare accurate financial statements for a complete understanding of your business’s financial landscape. RightRev can automate revenue recognition for any method and business model. Check out a demo to see your method(s) automated in action!

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Andrew Trompeter

Andrew Trompeter

Solutions Consultant

Andrew is an experienced revenue recognition consultant. Well-versed in ASC 606 revenue recognition rules and requirements. He has over a decade of GL accounting experience with a heavy focus on revenue recognition.

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