SAP and IBM were prepared, responding rapidly, but are still waiting for COVID-19’s peak impact

The 1Q20 earnings releases of IBM and SAP offered the first glimpse into how COVID-19 is impacting IT vendors financially and into the strategies being used to respond. The two vendors are a positive litmus test for the rest of the IT industry, given their breadth of businesses and customer bases across geographies and vertical industries. From their performances and commentary, it is clear that 1Q20 was a tale of two halves. Before mid-February, business was progressing as normal, while after that point, customer priorities shifted and many deals stalled. In the latter half of the quarter, IBM’s and SAP’s priorities also shifted, including both vendors citing 95% of their workforces have been moved to working remotely. Revenue was slightly impacted during the quarter, but more significantly, the two vendors noted their reactions to the many facets of the virus.

Transactional businesses suffer the first negative impacts

Early results show the COVID-19 pandemic is having the most profound impact on transactional businesses. In broad terms, IT business models fall into two categories: transactional and annuity. Transactional businesses are those where an immediate one-time event results in revenue for the vendor and access to a product for the customer. For IT vendors, examples of transactional businesses are software licensing hardware sales and fixed-price services.

Both IBM (NYSE: IBM) and SAP (NYSE: SAP) cited the stalling of their software licensing businesses as the biggest weakness experienced during 1Q20. The quarter was progressing fairly normally until roughly mid-February, at which point customer priorities shifted dramatically and many sales engagements came to a halt. That behavior is understandable, as at first the uncertainty surrounding the virus caused customers to pause, and then attention shifted to direct COVID-19 responses, primarily the shift of most employees to working remotely. The impact during 1Q20 was amplified by the seasonal dynamics of the software license sales business, which relies on most deals closing just before quarter’s end. By the end of March, the impacts of COVID-19 were in full effect, as most customers dealt with huge disruption to normal operations.

There is both good and bad news for software licensing throughout the remainder of 2020. The bad news is that the first quarter is the lightest seasonal quarter for software licensing and hardware sales — both IBM and SAP expect to experience a bigger impact in the second quarter. The potential good news is that there is still a possibility some of the impacts caused by COVID-19 could fade before 2H20, when the majority of software licensing activity typically occurs. In this respect, the timing of reopening and resuming business as usual will have deep implications for any vendor with a transactional software business like that of SAP and IBM.

Annuity businesses are immune, at least for now

Annuity business recognize revenue from long-term contracts over time, which is an asset in the current environment. For IBM, SAP and Oracle (NYSE: ORCL), annuity businesses are primarily cloud subscriptions and software maintenance, and those businesses have so far remained resilient. Especially for these vendors, the resiliency of annuity businesses reinforces the benefit of shifting to a cloud subscription model, even though it was disruptive to the traditional software licensing model. There has been a marked shift to cloud for IBM, SAP and Oracle over the past 10 years, which increased the mix of their revenue from annuity businesses, of which IBM boasts more than 60%, Oracle 71% and SAP 70%.

For more insight on how COVID-19 is changing IT sales strategies, read Senior Strategy Consultant Geoff Woollacott’s blog COVID-19: Shifting customer loyalties and selling motions.

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