Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Is Billing Aggregation the Nirvana in the Cloud?

If you want to buy Salesforce.com the most common way is to work out what you need in seats and the types of user, then work out the monthly total charge, multiply it by 12 to get the annual fee then add any project management work to go in and you have your first bill. Eh? You mean that despite the advertised monthly fee you actually pay annually up front?

Actually as a residue of the world of SaaS this is exactly how Salesforce.com operates. As did my company, PlaceWare. Even with a minuscule discount for cash offered, most companies paid the annual charge up front rather than pay monthly.

Here's the even dafter thing, companies buying the Salesforce.com actually accrued the charge monthly to the profit and loss account despite paying annually. Meanwhile, Salesforce.com themselves smoothed the revenue recognition equally over the 12 months for the seats while recognising any project management fee up front.

So why this difference in the cash and P&L? The old way of buying software was on the capital account - pay up front but depreciate the 'asset' over 36 months. Salesforce.com offered to not use the capital account but to pay for the software through overheads as a service while saving the cash account the extra two years. So to some extent, paying annually up front represented a positive on the cash-flow versus the old way. And it stuck.

Until now there hasn't been that many mainstream successful Cloud software offerings with the exception of Salesforce.com, and maybe NetSuite, Taleo, Workday and a few others. SaaS has kept its little notion of paying 12 months up front as a peculiar thing to software. You even get it to some extent in buying storage space as Dropbox, Box.net and others all advertise monthly costs but charge annually.

The next wave of the Cloud, where many more software packages will migrate to the Cloud, is reckoned to be offered a different way. Gone will be the days of up front annual charges but monthly invoices will be payable for all the software licences consumed by companies. Currently, firms average less then 2 or 3 Cloud based software services each in the US and that's considered relatively high adoption. Most SaaS is offered directly from the vendor and so there is no middle man reseller involved in the main. So it is easy to provision and charge in a certain way.

But the next wave could be very different. For one, it's likely to use channels to a much greater extent. Why? Because most of the new entrants into Cloud based software will be traditional software vendors migrating their offerings as a web alternative. They will most likely leverage the channels they already use to service customers and so resellers may be selling multiple SaaS offerings from varieties of vendors to lots of end users. Pretty soon, keeping track of all those licences in play will become a pretty intensive task.

But if the end users are only buying 2 or 3 SaaS offerings, why would they be worried by over complexity of bills? Might they still be happy to buy the service paying annually but smoothing the charge over the P&L monthly? In the case of larger companies that may be the case - they have deeper pockets and can negotiate harder. But SMEs will be different. For one, they are greater credit risk to resellers and vendors and secondly they have less inclination to pay up front for 12 months, is the theory. But secondly, one of the great advantages of the Cloud to SMEs is that they can smooth costs for IT as they scale rather than having pump, cash-intensive periods of investment - each incremental user is a simple additional monthly cost.

So the aggregation of bills on a consumptive basis is seen as the way forward. Companies offering billing platforms which will take all that sold licence information, storing the history and producing one monthly bill based on the amalgamation of all that information per end user is important.

Well, not actually as important as it will be for the resellers who will have to produce bills for all their customers. It's actually the layer in between which has the greater need. End users may be happy to consolidate bills as usual - after all they have multiple bills coming in from multiple suppliers already with enough staff in accounts to deal with it. SMEs may appreciate an amalgamation service but realistically isn't that what their credit cards are for?

If an SME buys its SaaS on a monthly credit card account, all the bills will be in one place with an average 30 days credit.

Resellers, meanwhile, will have tons of data to deal with and those distributors who offer an aggregated billing service will be adding significant value in the supply chain. The question is - how much will that service be worth? 

Today, if you want to pay for Salesforce.com monthly, you can get it with a finance charge through a select band of resellers or you can play really hardball with the vendor themselves and they will cave in if the deal is big enough. But will all vendors operate the same way?

What if the aggregators offered monthly billing to resellers but the resellers charged up front for 12 months? What if the aggregators bought all licences with 12 months in advance but billed monthly with a finance and service charge added? In general it means that software bought via aggregators will inherently be more expensive as the cost of the service and any finance will have to be added. This reduces the reseller margins. Some high end resellers will possibly be able to afford their own aggregation billing platform and make more money in the long run.

Most companies have not considered the transformation of billing services required to support the Cloud. Things are going to get complicated and most current billing systems do not perform well on monthly recurring billings and the burden on cash collections is heavier. Meanwhile, if cash collected is only one twelfth of the annual fee then cash-flow is hit a little harder for the reseller making that hyper jump to the Cloud all that much harder.

The end result is that there is a lot yet to play out in the world of Cloud software billing. Services like cohosting already have moved to monthly billing and cash but software has not. Will it really change or will the original SaaS vendors' models of annual collections up front pervade?

Will aggregators provide enough value to charge for their service to resellers and possibly end users? Will this new billing model negate some of the cost benefits and ROI that Cloud purports to offer over on-premise solutions? All this has yet to really play out.

However, if you run the numbers on Microsoft Office 365 over on premise Exchange or even Hosted Server Exchange, there is little or no cost benefit of moving to the Cloud. The only saving could be monthly billing and payments. Surprise, surprise - Microsoft's most popular payment method is 12 months in advance.

Either the end users are a strange lot or some assumptions about the monthly billing models are wrong. The answer has yet to be clarified.

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