Business Planning (3)

Is your accounting software living up to the hype?

Accounting software typically sells itself as much more than simple spreadsheet or ledger. The products tend to pride themselves on being comprehensive accounting information systems — depending on the price point, of course.

So, is your accounting software living up to the hype? If not, there are a couple of relatively simple steps you can take to improve matters.

Train and retrain

Many businesses grow frustrated with their accounting software packages because they haven’t invested enough time to learn their full functionality. When your personnel are truly up to speed, it’s much easier for them to standardize reports to meet your company’s needs without modification. Doing so not only reduces input errors, but also provides helpful financial information at any point during the year — not just at month end.

Along the same lines, your company should be able to perform standard journal entries and payroll allocations automatically within your accounting software. Many systems can recall transactions and automate, for example, payroll allocations to various programs or vacation accrual reports. If you’re struggling to extract and use these types of financial information, you might be underusing your accounting software (or it might be time for an upgrade).

Ideally, a champion on your staff may be able to step up and share his or her knowledge with others to get them up to speed. Otherwise, you could explore the cost of engaging an external consultant to review your software’s functionality and retrain staff on its basic features, as well as the many shortcuts and advanced features available.

Commit to continuous improvement

Accounting systems that aren’t monitored can become inefficient over time. Encourage employees to be on the lookout for labor-intensive steps that could be better automated, along with processes that don’t add value and might be eliminated. Also, note any unusual activity and look for transactions being improperly reported — remember the old technological adage, “garbage in, garbage out.”

Leadership plays an important role, too. Ownership and management are ultimately responsible for your company’s overall financial oversight. Periodically review critical documents such as monthly bank statements, financial statements and accounting entries. Look for vague items, errors or anomalies and then determine whether misuse of your accounting system may be to blame.

Take the time

Many businesses don’t even realize they have a problem with their accounting software until they take the time to evaluate and improve it. And only then does the system finally deliver on the hype — sometimes. Our firm can help you review your accounting software and ensure it’s delivering the information you need to make good business decisions.

© 2019

Odd word, cool concept: Gamification for businesses

“Gamification.” It’s perhaps an odd word, but it’s a cool concept that’s become popular among many types of businesses. In its most general sense, the term refers to integrating characteristics of game-playing into business-related tasks to excite and engage the people involved.

Might it have a place in your company?

Internal focus

Sometimes gamification refers to customer interactions. For example, a retailer might award customers points for purchases that they can collect and use toward discounts. Or a company might offer product-related games or contests on its website to generate traffic and visitor engagement.

But, these days, many businesses are also using gamification internally. That is, they’re using it to:

  • Engage employees in training processes,

  • Promote friendly competition and camaraderie among employees, and

  • Ease the recognition and measurement of progress toward shared goals.

It’s not hard to see how creating positive experiences in these areas might improve the morale and productivity of any workplace. As a training tool, games can help employees learn more quickly and easily. Moreover, with the rise of social media, many workers are comfortable sharing with others in a competitive setting. And, from the employer’s perspective, gamification opens all kinds of data-gathering possibilities to track training initiatives and measure employee performance.

Specific applications

In most businesses, employee training is a big opportunity to reap the benefits of gamification. As many industries look to attract Generation Z — the next big demographic to enter the workforce — game-based learning makes perfect sense for individuals who grew up both competing in various electronic ways on their mobile devices and interacting on social media.

For example, safety and sensitivity training are areas that demand constant reinforcement. But it’s also common for workers to tune out these topics. Framing reminders, updates and exercises within game scenarios, in which participants might win or lose ground by following proper or improper work practices, is one way to liven up the process.

Game-style simulations can also help prepare employees for management or leadership roles. Online training simulations, set up as games, can test participants’ decision-making and problem-solving skills — and allow them to see the potential consequences of various actions before granting them such responsibilities in the real-word situations. You might also consider rewards-based games for managers or project leaders based on meeting schedules, staying within budgets, or preventing accidents or other costly mistakes.

Intended effects

Naturally, gamification has its risks. You don’t want to “force fun” or frustrate employees with unreasonably difficult games. Doing so could lower morale, waste time and money, and undercut training effectiveness.

To mitigate the downsides, involve management and employees in gamification initiatives to ensure you’re on the right track. Also consider involving a professional consultant to implement established and tested “gamified” exercises, tasks and contests. We can help you identify and assess the potential costs involved and keep those costs in line.

© 2019

Grading the performance of your company’s retirement plan

Imagine giving your company’s retirement plan a report card. Would it earn straight A’s in preparing your participants for their golden years? Or is it more of a C student who could really use some extra help after school? Benchmarking can tell you.

Mind the basics

More than likely, you already use certain criteria to benchmark your plan’s performance using traditional measures such as:

  • Fund investment performance relative to a peer group,

  • Breadth of fund options,

  • Benchmarked fees, and

  • Participation rates and average deferral rates (including matching contributions).

These measures are all critical, but they’re only the beginning of the story. Add to that list helpful administrative features and functionality — including auto-enrollment and auto-escalation provisions, investment education, retirement planning, and forecasting tools. In general, the more, the better.

Don’t overlook useful data

A sometimes-overlooked plan metric is average account balance size. This matters for two reasons. First, it provides a first-pass look at whether participants are accumulating meaningful sums in their accounts. Naturally, you’ll need to look at that number in light of the age of your workforce and how long your plan has been in existence. Second, it affects recordkeeping fees — higher average account values generally translate into lower per-participant fees.

Knowing your plan asset growth rate is also helpful. Unless you have an older workforce and participants are retiring and rolling their fund balances into IRAs, look for a healthy overall asset growth rate, which incorporates both contribution rates and investment returns.

What’s a healthy rate? That’s a subjective assessment. You’ll need to examine it within the context of current financial markets. A plan with assets that shrank during the financial crisis about a decade ago could hardly be blamed for that pattern. Overall, however, you might hope to see annual asset growth of roughly 10%.

Keep participants on track

Ultimately, however, the success of a retirement plan isn’t measured by any one element, but by aggregating multiple data points to derive an “on track to retire” score. That is, how many of your plan participants have account values whose size and growth rate are sufficient to result in a realistic preretirement income replacement ratio, such as 85% or more?

It might not be possible to determine that number with precision. Such calculations at the participant level, sometimes performed by recordkeepers, involve sophisticated guesswork with respect to participants’ retirement ages and savings outside the retirement plan, as well as their income growth rates and the long-term rates of return on their investment accounts.

Ask for help

Given the importance of strong retirement benefits in hiring and retaining the best employees, it’s worth your while to regularly benchmark your plan’s performance. For better or worse, doing so isn’t as simple as 2+2. Our firm can help you choose the relevant measures, gather the data, perform the calculations and, most important, determine whether your retirement plan is really making the grade.

© 2019

Put a number on your midyear performance with the right KPIs

We’ve reached the middle of the calendar year. So how are things going for your business? Conversationally you might say, “Pretty good.” But, analytically, can you put a number on how well you’re doing — or several numbers for that matter? You can if you choose and calculate the right key performance indicators (KPIs).

4 common indicators

There are a wide variety of KPIs to choose from. Here are four that can give you a solid snapshot of your midyear position:

1. Gross profit. This figure will tell you how much money you made after your manufacturing and selling costs were paid. It’s calculated by subtracting the cost of goods sold from your total revenue.

2. Current ratio. This ratio will help you gauge the strength of your cash flow. It’s calculated by dividing your current assets by your current liabilities.

3. Inventory turnover ratio. This ratio will warn you ahead of time if certain items are moving more slowly than they have in the past. It also will tell you how often these items are turned over. The ratio is calculated by dividing your cost of goods sold by your average inventory for the period.

4. Debt-to-equity ratio. This ratio will measure your company’s leverage, or how much debt is being used to finance your assets. It’s calculated by dividing your total liabilities by shareholder’s equity.

Customized KPIs

KPIs aren’t limited to widely used ratios. You can make up your own and apply them to any area of your business.

For example, let’s say the company’s goal is to improve its response time to customer complaints. Its KPI might be to provide an initial response to complaints within 24 hours, and to eventually resolve at least 80% of complaints to the customer’s satisfaction. You can track response times and document resolutions and eventually calculate this KPI.

As another example, say your business wants to improve its closing rate on sales leads. Its KPI could be to convert 50% of all qualified leads into customers over the next six months with the goal of raising this percentage to 60% next year.

Notice that these KPIs are both specific and measurable. Just saying that your company wants to “provide better customer service” or “close more sales” won’t produce a sound KPI.

Good decisions

Midyear is the perfect time to stop, take a breath and objectively assess your company’s performance. This way, if things are really going well, you can determine precisely why and keep that momentum going. And if they’re not, you can figure out how you’re ailing and adjust your budget and objectives accordingly. Our firm can help you choose the KPIs that will provide the information you need, as well as help you apply that data to good business decisions.

© 2019

Could you unearth hidden profits in your company?

Can your business become more profitable without venturing out of its comfort zone? Of course! However, adding new products or services may not be the best way for your business — or any company — to boost profits. Bottom-line potential may lie undiscovered in your existing operations. How can you find these “hidden” profits? Dig into every facet of your organization.

Develop a profit plan

You’ve probably written and perhaps even recently revised a business plan. And you’ve no doubt developed sales and marketing plans to present to investors and bankers. But have you taken the extra step of developing a profit plan?

A profit plan outlines your company’s profit potential and sets objectives for realizing those bottom-line improvements. Following traditional profit projections based on a previous quarter’s or previous year’s performance can limit you. Why? Because when your company reaches its budgeted sales goals or exceeds them, you may feel inclined to ease up for the rest of the year. Don’t just coast past your sales goals — roar past them and keep going.

Uncover hidden profit potential by developing a profit plan that includes a continuous incentive to improve. Set your sales goals high. Even if you don’t reach them, you’ll have the incentive to continue pushing for more sales right through year end.

Ask the right questions

Among the most effective techniques for creating such a plan is to consider three critical questions. Answer them with, if necessary, brutal honesty to increase your chances of success. And pose the questions to your employees for their input, too. Their answers may reveal options you never considered. Here are the questions:

1. What does our company do best? Involve top management and brainstorm to answer this question. Identifying your core competencies should result in strategies that boost operations and uncover hidden profits.

2. What products or services should we eliminate? Nearly everyone in management has an answer to this question, but usually no one asks for it. When you lay out the tough answers on the table, you can often eliminate unprofitable activities and improve profits by adding or improving profitable ones.

3. Exactly who are our customers? You may be wasting time and money on marketing that doesn’t reach your most profitable customers. Analyzing your customers and prospects to better focus your marketing activities is a powerful way to cut waste and increase profits.

Get that shovel ready

Every business owner wishes his or her company could be more profitable, but how many undertake a concerted effort to uncover hidden profits? By pulling out that figurative shovel and digging into every aspect of your company, you may very well unearth profit opportunities your competitors are missing. We can help you conduct this self-examination, gather the data and crunch the resulting numbers.

© 2019

Your succession plan may benefit from a separation of business and real estate

Like most businesses, yours probably has a variety of physical assets, such as production equipment, office furnishings, and a plethora of technological devices. But the largest physical asset in your portfolio may be your real estate holdings — that is, the building and the land it sits on.

Under such circumstances, many business owners choose to separate ownership of the real estate from the company itself. A typical purpose of this strategy is to shield these assets from claims by creditors if the business ever files for bankruptcy (assuming the property isn’t pledged as loan collateral). In addition, the property is better protected against claims that may arise if a customer is injured on the property and sues the business.

But there’s another reason to consider separating your business interests from your real estate holdings: to benefit your succession plan.

Ownership transition

A common and generally effective way to separate the ownership of real estate from a company is to form a distinct entity, such as a limited liability company (LLC) or a limited liability partnership (LLP), to hold legal title to the property. Your business will then rent the property from the entity in a tenant-landlord relationship.

Using this strategy can help you transition ownership of your company to one or more chosen successors, or to reward employees for strong performance. By holding real estate in a separate entity, you can sell shares in the company to the successors or employees without transferring ownership of the real estate.

In addition, retaining title to the property will allow you to collect rent from the new owners. Doing so can be a valuable source of cash flow during retirement.

You could also realize estate planning benefits. When real estate is held in a separate legal entity, you can gift business interests to your heirs without giving up interest in the property.

Complex strategy

The details involved in separating the title to your real estate from your business can be complex. Our firm can help you determine whether this strategy would suit your company and succession plan, including a close examination of the potential tax benefits or risks.

© 2019

Targeting and converting your company’s sales prospects

Companies tend to spend considerable time and resources training and upskilling their sales staff on how to handle existing customers. And this is, no doubt, a critical task. But don’t overlook the vast pool of individuals or entities that want to buy from you but just don’t know it yet. We’re talking about prospects.

Identifying and winning over a steady flow of new buyers can safeguard your business against sudden sales drops or, better yet, push its profitability to new heights. Here are some ideas for better targeting and converting your company’s sales prospects:

Continually improve lead generation. Does your marketing department help you generate leads by doing things such as creating customer profiles for your products or services? If not, it’s probably time to create a database of prospects who may benefit from your products or services. Customer relationship management software can be of great help. When salespeople have a clear picture of a likely buyer, they’ll be able to better focus their efforts.

Use qualifications to avoid wasted sales calls. The most valuable nonrecurring asset that any company possesses is time. Effective salespeople spend their time with prospects who are the most likely to buy from them. Four aspects of a worthy prospect include having:

 *   Clearly discernible and fulfillable needs,
 *   A readily available decision maker,
 *   Definitively assured creditworthiness, and
 *   A timely desire to buy.

Apply these qualifications, and perhaps others that you develop, to any person or entity with whom you’re considering doing business. If a sale appears highly unlikely, move on.

Develop effective questions. When talking with prospects, your sales staff must know what draws buyers to your company. Sales staffers who make great presentations but don’t ask effective questions to find out about prospects’ needs are doomed to mediocrity.

They say the most effective salespeople spend 20% of their time talking and 80% listening. Whether these percentages are completely accurate is hard to say but, after making their initial pitch, good salespeople use their talking time to ask intelligent, insightful questions based on solid research into the prospect. Otherwise, they listen.

Devise solutions. It may seem next to impossible to solve the challenges of someone you’ve never met. But that’s the ultimate challenge of targeting and winning over prospects. Your sales staff needs the ability to know — going in — how your product or service can solve a prospect’s problem or help him, her or that organization accomplish a goal. Without a clear offer of a solution, what motivation does a prospect have to spend money?

Customers are important — and it would be foolish to suggest they’re not. But remember, at one time, every one of your customers was a prospect that you won over. You’ve got to keep that up. Contact us for help quantifying your sales process so you can get a better idea of how to improve it.

© 2019

Build long-term relationships with CRM software

Few businesses today can afford to let potential buyers slip through the cracks. Customer relationship management (CRM) software can help you build long-term relationships with those most likely to buy your products or services. But to maximize your return on investment in one of these solutions, you and your employees must have a realistic grasp on its purpose and functionality.

Putting it all together

CRM software is designed to:

  • Gather every bit and byte of data related to your customers,

  • Organize that information in a clear, meaningful format, and

  • Integrate itself with other systems and platforms (including social media).

Every time a customer contacts your company — or you follow up with that customer — the CRM system can record that interaction. This input enables business owners to track leads, forecast and record sales, assess the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, and evaluate other important data. It also helps companies retain valuable customer contact information, preventing confusion following staff turnover or if someone happens to be out of the office.

Furthermore, most CRM systems can remind salespeople when to make follow-up calls and prompt other employees to contact customers. For instance, an industrial cleaning company could set up its system to automatically transmit customer reminders regarding upcoming service dates.

Categorizing your contacts

Customers can be categorized by purchase history, future product or service interests, desired methods of contact, and other data points. This helps businesses reach out to customers at a good time, in the right way. When companies flood customers with too many impersonal calls, direct mail pieces or e-mails, their messaging is much more likely to be ignored.

Naturally, an important part of maintaining any CRM system is keeping customers’ contact data up to date. So, you’ll need to instruct sales or customer service staff to gently touch base on this issue at least once a year. To avoid appearing pushy, some businesses ask customers to fill out contact info cards (or request business cards) that are then entered into a drawing for a free product or service — or even just a free lunch!

Encouraging buy-in

A properly implemented CRM system can improve sales, lower marketing costs and build customer loyalty. But, as mentioned, you’ll need to train employees how to use the software to get these benefits. And buy-in must occur throughout the organization — a “silo approach” to CRM that focuses only on one business area won’t optimize results.

Establish thorough use of the system as an annual performance objective for sales, marketing and customer service employees. Some business owners even offer monthly prizes or bonuses to employees who consistently enter data into their CRM systems.

Making the right choice

There are many CRM solutions available today at a wide variety of price points. We can help you conduct a cost-benefit analysis of this type of software — based on your company’s size, needs and budget — to assist you in choosing whether to buy a product or, if you already have one, how best to upgrade it.

© 2019


The simple truth about annual performance reviews

There are many ways for employers to conduct annual performance reviews. So many, in fact, that owners of small to midsize businesses may find the prospect of implementing a state-of-the-art review process overwhelming.

The simple truth is that smaller companies may not need to exert a lot of effort on a complex approach. Sometimes a simple conversation between supervisor and employee — or even owner and employee — can do the job, as long as mutual understanding is achieved and clear objectives are set.

Remember why it matters

If your commitment to this often-stressful ritual ever starts to falter, remind yourself of why it matters. A well-designed performance review process is valuable because it can:

  • Provide feedback and counseling to employees about how the company perceives their respective job performances,

  • Set objectives for the upcoming year and assist in determining any developmental needs, and

  • Create a written record of performance and assist in allocating rewards and opportunities, as well as justifying disciplinary actions or termination.

Conversely, giving annual reviews short shrift by only orally praising or reprimanding an employee leaves a big gap in that worker’s written history. The most secure companies, legally speaking, document employees’ shortcomings — and achievements — as they occur. They fully discuss performance at least once annually.

Don’t do this!

To ensure your company’s annual reviews are as productive as possible, make sure your supervisors aren’t:

Winging it. Establish clear standards and procedures for annual reviews. For example, supervisors should prepare for the meetings by filling out the same documentation for every employee.

Failing to consult others. If a team member works regularly with other departments or outside vendors, his or her supervisor should contact individuals in those other areas for feedback before the review. You can learn some surprising things this way, both good and bad.

Keeping employees in the dark. Nothing in a performance review should come as a major surprise to an employee. Be sure supervisors are communicating with workers about their performance throughout the year. An employee should know in advance what will be discussed, how much time to set aside for the meeting and how to prepare for it.

Failing to follow through. Make sure supervisors identify key objectives for each employee for the coming year. It’s also a good idea to establish checkpoints in the months ahead to assess the employee’s progress toward the goals in question.

Put something in place

As a business grows, it may very well need to upgrade and expand its performance evaluation process. But the bottom line is that every company needs to have something in place, no matter how basic, to evaluate and document how well employees are performing. Our firm can help determine how your employees’ performance is affecting profitability and suggest ways to cost-effectively improve productivity.

© 2019

Buy vs. lease: Business equipment edition

Life presents us with many choices: paper or plastic, chocolate or vanilla, regular or decaf. For businesses, a common conundrum is buy or lease. You’ve probably faced this decision when considering office space or a location for your company’s production facilities. But the buy vs. lease quandary also comes into play with equipment.

Pride of ownership

Some business owners approach buying equipment like purchasing a car: “It’s mine; I’m committed to it and I’m going to do everything I can to familiarize myself with this asset and keep it in tip-top shape.” Yes, pride of ownership is still a thing.

If this is your philosophy, work to pass along that pride to employees. When you get staff members to buy in to the idea that this is your equipment and the success of the company depends on using and maintaining each asset properly, the business can obtain a great deal of long-term value from assets that are bought and paid for.

Of course, no “buy vs. lease” discussion is complete without mentioning taxes. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically enhanced Section 179 expensing and first-year bonus depreciation for asset purchases. In fact, many businesses may be able to write off the full cost of most equipment in the year it’s purchased. On the downside, you’ll take a cash flow hit when buying an asset, and the tax benefits may be mitigated somewhat if you finance.

Fine things about flexibility

Many businesses lease their equipment for one simple reason: flexibility. From a cash flow perspective, you’re not laying down a major purchase amount or even a substantial down payment in most cases. And you’re not committed to an asset for an indefinite period — if you don’t like it, at least there’s an end date in sight.

Leasing also may be the better option if your company uses technologically advanced equipment that will get outdated relatively quickly. Think about the future of your business, too. If you’re planning to explore an expansion, merger or business transformation, you may be better off leasing equipment so you’ll have the flexibility to adapt it to your changing circumstances.

Last, leasing does have some tax breaks. Lease payments generally are tax deductible as “ordinary and necessary” business expenses, though annual deduction limits may apply.

Pros and cons

On a parting note, if you do lease assets this year and your company follows Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP), new accounting rules for leases take effect in 2020 for calendar-year private companies. Contact us for further information, as well as for any assistance you might need in weighing the pros and cons of buying vs. leasing business equipment.

© 2019

Should your health care plan be more future-focused?

The pace of health care cost inflation has remained moderate over the past year or so, and employers are trying to keep it that way. In response, many businesses aren’t seeking immediate cost-cutting measures or asking employees to shoulder more of the burden. Rather, they’re looking to “future-focused” health care plan features to encourage healthful behaviors.

This was a major finding of the 2018 National Survey of Employer-Sponsored Health Plans, an annual study issued by Mercer.

Virtual care

Among the future-focused strategies highlighted by the survey are telemedicine services. Also known as virtual care, the services streamline delivery of health care services by gathering medical data and offering interaction with health care professionals remotely via apps and the phone.

One of the promises of virtual care services is that patients will be more willing to seek medical attention when it can be delivered conveniently, and this inherent efficiency will lead to better health outcomes and reduced costs. But the study found that, though telemedicine services are widely offered, utilization rates remain low.

Specifically, the proportion of large employers (those with at least 500 employees) incorporating telemedicine into their health benefits — 80% — was up substantially from 71% in the previous year’s survey (2017) and just 18% in 2014. But utilization was only 8% of eligible employees in 2018, though that rate is up slightly from 7% the previous year.

Other trending enhancements

Here are some additional future-focused health plan design features and their prevalence among the 2,409 employers that participated in the survey:

  • Targeted support for people with chronic conditions, including diabetes and cancer: 56%.

  • Expert medical opinion services, which allow employees to get an assessment from a highly qualified specialist on a given medical issue: 51%.

  • “Enhanced care management” featuring medical personnel who provide support throughout the entire care episode and help resolve claim issues: 36%.

  • Access to “centers of excellence” for complex surgeries and other medical needs, including transplants (25%), bariatric care (14%) and oncology (10%).

These strategies “may take more time to reduce medical costs than greater employee cost-sharing, but in the process they change how plans manage care, how providers are reimbursed, and even how people behave,” according to the report.

Overall, promoting a “culture of health” was found to be a high priority for many employers. Typical tactics to achieve this goal include providing healthy food choices in cafeterias and meetings, banning smoking on the work campus, and building on-site fitness facilities. They also involve offering resources to support “financial health” and “a range of technology-based resources to engage employees in caring for their health and fitness.”

Improved experience

The design of your company’s health care plan can evolve over time to, as feasible, take advantage of features that will likely improve the experience for everyone. We can help you identify all costs associated with your plan and assess which plan design would best suit your business.

© 2019

Employee vs. independent contractor: How should you handle worker classification?

Many employers prefer to classify workers as independent contractors to lower costs, even if it means having less control over a worker’s day-to-day activities. But the government is on the lookout for businesses that classify workers as independent contractors simply to reduce taxes or avoid their employee benefit obligations.

Why it matters

When your business classifies a worker as an employee, you generally must withhold federal income tax and the employee’s share of Social Security and Medicare taxes from his or her wages. Your business must then pay the employer’s share of these taxes, pay federal unemployment tax, file federal payroll tax returns and follow other burdensome IRS and U.S. Department of Labor rules.

You may also have to pay state and local unemployment and workers’ compensation taxes and comply with more rules. Dealing with all this can cost a bundle each year.

On the other hand, with independent contractor status, you don’t have to worry about employment tax issues. You also don’t have to provide fringe benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and paid vacations. If you pay $600 or more to an independent contractor during the year, you must file a Form 1099-MISC with the IRS and send a copy to the worker to report what you paid. That’s basically the extent of your bureaucratic responsibilities.

But if you incorrectly treat a worker as an independent contractor — and the IRS decides the worker is actually an employee — your business could be assessed unpaid payroll taxes plus interest and penalties. You also could be liable for employee benefits that should have been provided but weren’t, including penalties under federal laws.

Filing an IRS form

To find out if a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, you can file optional IRS Form SS-8, “Determination of Worker Status for Purposes of Federal Employment Taxes and Income Tax Withholding.” Then, the IRS will let you know how to classify a worker. However, be aware that the IRS has a history of classifying workers as employees rather than independent contractors.

Businesses should consult with us before filing Form SS-8 because it may alert the IRS that your business has worker classification issues — and inadvertently trigger an employment tax audit.

It can be better to simply treat independent contractors so the relationships comply with the tax rules. This generally includes not controlling how the workers perform their duties, ensuring that you’re not the workers’ only customer, providing annual Forms 1099 and, basically, not treating the workers like employees.

Workers can also ask for a determination

Workers who want an official determination of their status can also file Form SS-8. Disgruntled independent contractors may do so because they feel entitled to employee benefits and want to eliminate self-employment tax liabilities.

If a worker files Form SS-8, the IRS will send a letter to the business. It identifies the worker and includes a blank Form SS-8. The business is asked to complete and return the form to the IRS, which will render a classification decision.

Defending your position

If your business properly handles independent contractors, don’t panic if a worker files a Form SS-8. Contact us before replying to the IRS. With a proper response, you may be able to continue to classify the worker as a contractor. We also can assist you in setting up independent contractor relationships that stand up to IRS scrutiny.

© 2019

Prepare for the worst with a business turnaround strategy

Many businesses have a life cycle that, as life cycles tend to do, concludes with a period of decline and failure. Often, the demise of a company is driven by internal factors — such as weak financial oversight, lack of management consensus or one-person rule.

External factors typically contribute, as well. These may include disruptive competitors; local, national or global economic changes; or a more restrictive regulatory environment.

But just because bad things happen doesn’t mean they have to happen to your company. To prepare for the worst, identify a business turnaround strategy that you can implement if a severe decline suddenly becomes imminent.

Warning signs

When a company is drifting toward serious trouble, there are usually warning signs. Examples include:

  • Serious deterioration in the accuracy or usage of financial measurements,

  • Poor results of key performance indicators — including working capital to assets, sales and retained earnings to assets, and book value to debt,

  • Adverse trends, such as lower margins, market share or working capital,

  • Rapid increase in debt and employee turnover, and

  • Drastic reduction in assessed business value.

Not every predicament that arises will threaten the very existence of your business. But when missteps and misfortune build up, the only thing that may save the company is a well-planned turnaround strategy.

5 stages of a turnaround

No two turnarounds are exactly alike, but they generally occur in five basic stages:

  1. Rapid assessment of the decline by external advisors,

  2. Re-evaluation of management and staffing,

  3. Emergency intervention to stabilize the business,

  4. Operational restoration to pursue or achieve profitability, and

  5. Full recovery and growth.

Each of these stages calls for a detailed action plan. Identify the advisors or even a dedicated turnaround consultant who can help you assess the damage and execute immediate moves. Prepare for the possibility that you’ll need to replace some managers and even lay off staff to reduce employment costs.

In the emergency intervention stage, a business does whatever is necessary to survive — including consolidating debt, closing locations and selling off assets. Next, restoring operations and pursuing profitability usually means scaling back to only those business segments that have achieved, or can achieve, decent gross margins.

Last, you’ll need to establish a baseline of profitability that equates to full recovery. From there, you can choose reasonable growth strategies that will move the company forward without leading it over another cliff.

In case of emergency

If your business is doing fine, there’s no need to create a minutely detailed turnaround plan. But, as part of your strategic planning efforts, it’s still a good idea to outline a general turnaround strategy to keep on hand in case of emergency. Our firm can help you devise either strategy. We can also assist you in generating financial statements and monitoring key performance indicators that help enable you to avoid crises altogether.

© 2019

Effective social media marketing calls for a measured approach

As companies increase their investments in social media marketing, many are seeking ways to make it simpler and more cost-effective. Here are some ways to take a measured approach.

Pick your battles

Many marketers have realized that their companies don’t need to be on every social media platform. You just need to establish a strong presence on the few that best fit your business.

How do you determine that? For many companies, the answer is clear: Go where your competitors and customers are most active. You may need to pick a few different platforms and use them regularly until one or two emerge as clear favorites.

Maximize your reach

Simply getting a customer to “like” or “follow” your company may not generate sales or brand exposure. For example, whether Facebook posts will reach users’ “friends” is a function of the platform’s proprietary algorithm. And with so much news and other content flooding customers’ feeds, your updates may get lost in the shuffle.

In addition to posting on social media, your business can buy ads. Social media platforms sell ads (called “native ads”) that look like normal posts, not paid advertisements, and may appear at the top of customers’ feeds. Many businesses are buying these ads, but investing heavily in advertising reduces the cost advantages of social media marketing. Also, these ads may annoy some users.

Measure your results

Quantifying the results of social media marketing has historically been problematic. It’s easy to identify, at any given time, how many people follow you on Twitter or Instagram, but how many are likely to buy your products or services?

Software developers have responded by creating analytics programs that identify which platforms generate the most traffic to your website — and even more sophisticated programs that track an individual customer’s behaviors after viewing your posts. But, as with any software purchase, approach this one carefully. Ensure your employees will be able to use all necessary features and that you’ll be able to disseminate the data effectively.

Expand your interactions

When the time is right, you may want to use social media for more than just marketing. The most direct way to link social media to revenue is to allow customers to buy products directly on your social media page or app, rather than requiring them to click through to your website or call a salesperson. Of course, this functionality requires an upfront investment in secure e-commerce technology.

Some companies are also using social media to facilitate customer service. People tend to appreciate the quick response, but some complaints may be too sensitive or complicated to discuss publicly. So, it’s generally best to allow employees to respond to simpler questions online but train them to channel more complex issues to phone calls, emails or private messages.

Don’t get overwhelmed

Social media marketing can be a cost-effective way to build brand awareness and customer loyalty. But it’s also an ever-evolving sphere that can become overwhelming. Contact us for help measuring and managing the financial investment you make in your efforts.

© 2019

Responding to the nightmare of a data breach

It’s every business owner’s nightmare. Should hackers gain access to your customers’ or employees’ sensitive data, the very reputation of your company could be compromised. And lawsuits might soon follow.

No business owner wants to think about such a crisis, yet it’s imperative that you do. Suffering a data breach without an emergency response plan leaves you vulnerable to not only the damage of the attack itself, but also the potential fallout from your own panicked decisions.

5 steps to take

A comprehensive plan generally follows five steps once a data breach occurs:

1. Call your attorney. He or she should be able to advise you on the potential legal ramifications of the incident and what you should do or not do (or say) in response. Involve your attorney in the creation of your response plan, so all this won’t come out of the blue.

2. Engage a digital forensics investigator. Contact us for help identifying a forensic investigator that you can turn to in the event of a data breach. The preliminary goal will be to answer two fundamental questions: How were the systems breached? What data did the hackers access? Once these questions have been answered, experts can evaluate the extent of the damage.

3. Fortify your IT systems. While investigative and response procedures are underway, you need to proactively prevent another breach and strengthen controls. Doing so will obviously involve changing passwords, but you may also need to add firewalls, create deeper layers of user authentication or restrict some employees from certain systems.

4. Communicate strategically. No matter the size of the company, the communications goal following a data breach is essentially the same: Provide accurate information about the incident in a reasonably timely manner that preserves the trust of customers, employees, investors, creditors and other stakeholders.

Note that “in a reasonably timely manner” doesn’t mean “immediately.” Often, it’s best to acknowledge an incident occurred but hold off on a detailed statement until you know precisely what happened and can reassure those affected that you’re taking specific measures to control the damage.

5. Activate or adjust credit and IT monitoring services. You may want to initiate an early warning system against future breaches by setting up a credit monitoring service and engaging an IT consultant to periodically check your systems for unauthorized or suspicious activity. Of course, you don’t have to wait for a breach to do these things, but you could increase their intensity or frequency following an incident.

Inevitable risk

Data breaches are an inevitable risk of running a business in today’s networked, technology-driven world. Should this nightmare become a reality, a well-conceived emergency response plan can preserve your company’s goodwill and minimize the negative impact on profitability. We can help you budget for such a plan and establish internal controls to prevent and detect fraud related to (and not related to) data breaches.

© 2019

Present yet unaccounted for: The problem of presenteeism

Absenteeism has typically been a thorn in the side of many companies. But there’s a flip side to employees failing to show up to work: “presenteeism.” This is when employees come in to work unwell or put in excessive overtime.

Now you probably appreciate and respect workers who are team players and go the extra mile. But employees who come to work when they aren’t operating at full physical or mental capacity may make mistakes, cause accidents, create confusion and ultimately hurt productivity. In other words, presenteeism can slowly and silently erode your bottom line unless you recognize and deal with it.

Address mental health

A common response to presenteeism is, “But we offer paid sick days.” Although paid sick days do generally help resolve incidences of a physical ailment or injury, they may not adequately address struggles with mental illness or extreme personal stress (such as a divorce or financial crisis). Some managers may raise an eyebrow at those taking a “mental health day,” so sufferers end up coming in to work when they really may need the day off.

How can you help? If you sponsor a health care plan, it likely offers coverage for mental health and substance use disorder services, including behavioral health treatment. Be sure employees are aware of this. Also, reinforce with employees that you’ll honor the sick-day provisions spelled out in your employee manual for all types of ailments (physical, mental and psychological). Train supervisors to support employees’ well-being and encourage those who need to take time off to do so if they need it.

Discourage excessive overtime

Another common cause of presenteeism is the perceived notion among many workers that they must work excessive overtime to prove themselves. Many companies still operate under an “old school” culture that says putting in extra overtime will make the boss happy and lead to quicker raises and promotions.

Generally, many managers assume that, if an employee is absent, his or her productivity must be suffering. Conversely, if that same employee is putting in extra time and skipping vacations, he or she must be highly productive. But these assumptions aren’t always true — they must be supported by a thorough, objective and analytical performance evaluation process.

You can prevent this type of presenteeism by strongly encouraging, if not strictly enforcing, vacation time. Communicate to employees your concerns about overworking and remind them to take advantage of the time off that they’ve earned. (Doing so can also deter fraud.)

Find the balance

Having a workforce full of dedicated, hard-working employees is still a goal that every business should strive for. But, at the same time, work-life balance is a concept that benefits both employers and employees. Our firm can help you analyze the numbers related to productivity that can help you make optimal decisions regarding staffing and workflow.

© 2019

Understanding how taxes factor into an M&A transaction

Merger and acquisition activity has been brisk in recent years. If your business is considering merging with or acquiring another business, it’s important to understand how the transaction will be taxed under current law.

Stocks vs. assets

From a tax standpoint, a transaction can basically be structured in two ways:

1. Stock (or ownership interest). A buyer can directly purchase a seller’s ownership interest if the target business is operated as a C or S corporation, a partnership, or a limited liability company (LLC) that’s treated as a partnership for tax purposes.

The now-permanent 21% corporate federal income tax rate under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) makes buying the stock of a C corporation somewhat more attractive. Reasons: The corporation will pay less tax and generate more after-tax income. Plus, any built-in gains from appreciated corporate assets will be taxed at a lower rate when they’re eventually sold.

The TCJA’s reduced individual federal tax rates may also make ownership interests in S corporations, partnerships and LLCs more attractive. Reason: The passed-through income from these entities also will be taxed at lower rates on a buyer’s personal tax return. However, the TCJA’s individual rate cuts are scheduled to expire at the end of 2025, and, depending on future changes in Washington, they could be eliminated earlier or extended.

2. Assets. A buyer can also purchase the assets of a business. This may happen if a buyer only wants specific assets or product lines. And it’s the only option if the target business is a sole proprietorship or a single-member LLC that’s treated as a sole proprietorship for tax purposes.

Note: In some circumstances, a corporate stock purchase can be treated as an asset purchase by making a “Section 338 election.” Ask your tax advisor for details.

Buyer vs. seller preferences

For several reasons, buyers usually prefer to purchase assets rather than ownership interests. Generally, a buyer’s main objective is to generate enough cash flow from an acquired business to pay any acquisition debt and provide an acceptable return on the investment. Therefore, buyers are concerned about limiting exposure to undisclosed and unknown liabilities and minimizing taxes after the deal closes.

A buyer can step up (increase) the tax basis of purchased assets to reflect the purchase price. Stepped-up basis lowers taxable gains when certain assets, such as receivables and inventory, are sold or converted into cash. It also increases depreciation and amortization deductions for qualifying assets.

Meanwhile, sellers generally prefer stock sales for tax and nontax reasons. One of their main objectives is to minimize the tax bill from a sale. That can usually be achieved by selling their ownership interests in a business (corporate stock or partnership or LLC interests) as opposed to selling business assets.

With a sale of stock or other ownership interest, liabilities generally transfer to the buyer and any gain on sale is generally treated as lower-taxed long-term capital gain (assuming the ownership interest has been held for more than one year).

Keep in mind that other issues, such as employee benefits, can also cause unexpected tax issues when merging with, or acquiring, a business.

Professional advice is critical

Buying or selling a business may be the most important transaction you make during your lifetime, so it’s important to seek professional tax advice as you negotiate. After a deal is done, it may be too late to get the best tax results. Contact us for the best way to proceed in your situation.

© 2019

An implementation plan is key to making strategic goals a reality

In the broadest sense, strategic planning comprises two primary tasks: establishing goals and achieving them. Many business owners would probably say the first part, coming up with objectives, is relatively easy. It’s that second part — accomplishing those goals — that can really challenge a company. The key to turning your strategic objectives into a reality is a solid implementation plan.

Start with people

After clearly identifying short- and long-range goals under a viable strategic planning process, you need to establish a formal plan for carrying it out. The most important aspect of this plan is getting the right people involved.

First, appoint an implementation leader and give him or her the authority, responsibility and accountability to communicate and champion your stated objectives. (If yours is a smaller business, you could oversee implementation yourself.)

Next, establish teams of carefully selected employees with specific duties and timelines under which to complete goal-related projects. Choose employees with the experience, will and energy to implement the plan. These teams should deliver regular progress reports to you and the implementation leader.

Watch out for roadblocks

On the surface, these steps may seem logical and foolproof. But let’s delve into what could go wrong with such a clearly defined process.

One typical problem arises when an implementation team is composed of employees wholly or largely from one department. Often, they’ll (inadvertently or intentionally) execute an objective in such a way that mostly benefits their department but ultimately hinders the company from meeting the intended goal.

To avoid this, create teams with a diversity of employees from across various departments. For example, an objective related to expanding your company’s customer base will naturally need to include members of the sales and marketing departments. But also invite administrative, production and IT staff to ensure the team’s actions are operationally practical and sustainable.

Another common roadblock is running into money problems. Ensure your implementation plan is feasible based on your company’s budget, revenue projections, and local and national economic forecasts. Ask teams to include expense reports and financial projections in their regular reports. If you determine that you can’t (or shouldn’t) implement the plan as written, don’t hesitate to revise or eliminate some goals.

Succeed at the important part

Strategic planning may seem to be “all about the ideas,” but implementing the specific goals related to your strategic plan is really the most important part of the process. Of course, it’s also the most difficult and most affected by outside forces. We can help you assess the financial feasibility of your objectives and design an implementation plan with the highest odds of success.

© 2019

Could a long-term deal ease your succession planning woes?

Some business owners — particularly those who founded their companies — may find it hard to give up control to a successor. Maybe you just can’t identify the right person internally to fill your shoes. While retirement isn’t in your immediate future, you know you must eventually step down.

One potential solution is to find an outside buyer for your company and undertake a long-term deal to gradually cede control to them. Going this route can enable a transition to proceed at a more manageable pace.

Time and capital

For privately held businesses, long-term deals typically begin with the business owner selling a minority stake to a potential buyer. This initiates a tryout period to assess the two companies’ compatibility. The parties may sign an agreement in which the minority stakeholder has the option to offer a takeover bid after a specified period.

Beyond clearing a path for your succession plan, the deal also may provide needed capital. You can use the cash infusion from selling a minority stake to fund improvements such as:

Hiring additional staff,Paying down debt,Conducting research and development, orExpanding your facilities.

Any or all of these things can help grow your company’s market share and improve profitability. In turn, you’ll feel more comfortable in retirement knowing your business is doing well and in good hands.

Benefits for the buyer

You may be wondering what’s in it for the buyer. A minority-stake purchase requires less cash than a full acquisition, helping buyers avoid finding outside deal financing. It’s also less risky than a full purchase. Buyers can, for example, push for the company to achieve certain performance objectives before committing to buying it.

Integration may also be easier because buyers have time to coordinate with sellers to implement changes — an advantage when their IT, accounting or other major systems are dissimilar. In addition, in a typical M&A transaction, decisions must be made quickly. But under a long-term deal, the parties can debate and negotiate options, which may improve the arrangement for everyone.

What’s right for you

There are, of course, a wide variety of other strategies for creating and executing a succession plan. But if you’re leaning toward finding a buyer and are in no rush to complete a sale, a long-term deal might be for you. Our firm can provide further information.

© 2018

 

 

Bookings vs. shippings: A sales flash report primer

Do bad sales months often take you by surprise? If so, don’t forget the power of flash reports — that is, snapshots of critical data for quick, timely viewing every day or week.

One specific way to use them is to track bookings vs. shippings. Doing so can help you determine what percentage of volume for certain months should be booked by specific dates. These reports are particularly useful if more than 30 days elapse between these activities.

Get super specific

Here’s how your flash report might work: Every workday, record the new orders taken (bookings) and the orders filled (shippings).

Sort the flash report by order date and subtotal the sales amounts at various points in time before the last day of the month.

Look at how many of the month’s shipped orders are booked 60, 45, 30 and 15 days before the end of the month. If you don’t have this historical data, start recording it for at least three months to establish meaningful trends.

Once you know the timeframes of your bookings and shippings, expand this activity to your sales staff by displaying the totals of bookings and shippings by salesperson on the flash report. Use the percentage of business that ideally should be booked at certain time intervals to establish individual sales goals and compare your progress with these goals.

See the future

Don’t wait until month’s end to discover that your sales weren’t up to your desired results. With flash reports, you can tell in advance that sales performance is lagging and have enough time to take corrective action. What’s more, today’s business dashboard software can enable you to generate this data more quickly than ever. For further information about flash reports, and help developing your own that are specific to your company’s needs, please contact us.

© 2018