Business Planning (3)

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

Ask the right questions about your IT strategy

Most businesses approach technology as an evolving challenge. You don’t want to overspend on bells and whistles you’ll never fully use, but you also don’t want to get left behind as competitors use the latest tech tools to operate more nimbly.

To refine your IT strategy over time, you’ve got to regularly reassess your operations and ask the right questions. Here are a few to consider:

Are we bogged down by outdated tech? More advanced analytical software can eliminate many time-consuming, repeatable tasks. Systems based on paper files and handwritten notes are obviously ripe for an upgrade, but even traditional digital spreadsheets aren’t as powerful as they used to be.

Do we have information silos? Most companies today use multiple applications. But if these solutions can’t “talk” to each other, you may suffer from information silos. This is when different people and teams keep important data to themselves, slowing communication. Determine whether this is occurring and, if so, how to integrate your key systems.

Do we have a digital asset-sharing policy? Businesses tend to generate tremendous amounts of paperwork, but hard copies can get misfiled or lost. Sharing documents electronically can speed distribution and enable real-time collaboration. A digital asset-sharing policy could help define how to grant system access, share documents and track communications.

Do we have a training program? Mandatory training and ongoing refresher sessions ensure that all users are taking full advantage of available technology and following proper protocols. If you don’t feel like you can provide this in-house, you could shop for vendors that provide training and resources matching your needs.

Do we have a security policy? A security policy is the first line of defense against hackers, viruses and other threats. It also helps protect customers’ sensitive data. Every business needs to establish a policy for regularly changing passwords, removing inactive users and providing ongoing security training.

Do we evaluate user feedback? A successful IT strategy is built on user feedback. Talk to your employees who use your technology and find out what works, what doesn’t and why.

Answering questions such as these is a good first step toward crafting a total IT strategy. Doing so can also help you better control expenses by eliminating redundancies and lowering the risk of costly mistakes and data losses. Let us know how we can help.

© 2018

4 ways to encourage innovation in customer service

When business people speak of innovation, the focus is usually on a pioneering product or state-of-the-art service that will “revolutionize the industry.” But innovation can apply to any aspect of your company — including customer service.

Many business owners perceive customer service as a fairly cut-and-dried affair. Customers call, you answer their questions or solve their problems — and life goes on. Yet there are ways to transform this function and, when companies do, word gets around. People want to do business with organizations that are easy to interact with.

Here are four ways to encourage innovation in your customer service department:

1. Welcome failure. Providing world-class customer service involves risk, and inevitably you’ll sometimes fail. For example, many businesses have jumped at the chance to use “big data” to develop automated systems to direct customers to answers and solutions. But the impersonality of these systems can frustrate the buying public until you establish the right balance of machine and human interaction. Remember, every failure opens the door to better strategies for serving your customers.

2. Link compensation to employees’ contributions. Companies that fail to reward innovation aren’t likely to retain their best customers or establish a good reputation. Because customer service employees tend to be paid hourly or relatively nominal salaries, consider a cash bonus program for the “most innovative idea of the year.” Or you could hold semiannual or even quarterly innovation challenges with prizes such as gift cards or additional time off.

3. Praise the groundbreakers. Employees who challenge customer-service tradition may find themselves at odds with management. But don’t be too quick to reprimand those with new ideas or methods. Fresh language and modes of communication enter the public consciousness regularly. Give companywide recognition to those who find ways to adapt — even if their initial efforts bend the rules a bit.

4. Be the customer. Among the most simple and practical ways to innovate your customer service is to simply pretend you’re a customer to get a firsthand view on how your employees treat those who contact your business. Business owners can make these calls themselves or, if your voice is too recognizable, find someone who’s less familiar but capable of taking detailed notes of the interaction.

Finding new ways to improve your company’s customer service isn’t easy. But innovations are always just one bright idea away. If you’d like more information and ideas about building your bottom line, contact our firm.

© 2018

Cost control takes a total team effort

“That’s just the cost of doing business.” You’ve probably heard this expression many times. It’s true that, to invoke another cliché, you’ve got to spend money to make money. But that doesn’t mean you have to take rising operational costs sitting down.

Cost control is a formal management technique through which you evaluate your company’s operations and isolate activities costing you too much money. This isn’t something you can do on your own — you’ll need a total team effort from your managers and advisors. Done properly, however, the results can be well worth it.

Asking tough questions

While performing a systematic review of the operations and resources, cost control will drive you to ask some tough questions. Examples include the following:

  • Is the activity in question operating as efficiently as possible?

  • Are we paying reasonable prices for supplies or materials while maintaining quality?

  • Can we upgrade our technology to minimize labor costs?

A good way to determine whether your company’s expenses are remaining within reason is to compare them to current industry benchmarks.

Working with your team

There’s no way around it — cost-control programs take a lot of hard work. Reducing expenses in a lasting, meaningful way also requires creativity and imagination. It’s one thing to declare, “We must reduce shipping costs by 10%!” Getting it done (and keeping it done) is another matter.

The first thing you’ll need is cooperation from management and staff. Business success is about teamwork; no single owner or manager can do it alone.

In addition, best-in-class companies typically seek help from trusted advisors. An outside expert can analyze your efficiency, including the results of cost-control efforts. This not only brings a new viewpoint to the process, but also provides an objective review of your internal processes.

Sometimes it’s difficult to be impartial when you manage a business every single day. Professional analysts can take a broader view of operations, resulting in improved cost-control strategies.

Staying in the game

An effective, ongoing program to assess and contain expenses can help you prevent both gradual and sudden financial losses while staying competitive in your market. For further information about cost control, and customized help succeeding at it, please contact us.

© 2018

Say, just how competitive is your business anyway?

Every business owner launches his or her company wanting to be successful. But once you get out there, it usually becomes apparent that you’re not alone. To reach any level of success, you’ve got to be competitive with other similar businesses in your market.

When strategic planning, one important question to regularly ask is: Just how competitive are we anyway? Objectively making this determination entails scrutinizing key factors that affect profitability, including:

Industry environment. Determine whether there are any threats facing your industry that could affect your business’s ability to operate. This could be anything from extreme weather to a product or service that customers might use less should the economy sour or buying trends significantly change.

Tangible and intangible resources. Competitiveness can hinge on the resources to which a business has access and how it deploys them to earn a profit. What types of tangible — and intangible — resources does your business have at its disposal? Are you in danger of being cut off or limited from any of them?

For example, do you own state-of-the-art technology that allows you to produce superior products or offer premium services more quickly and cheaply than competitors? Assess how suddenly this technology could become outdated — or whether it already has.

Strength of leadership team. As the owner of the business, you may naturally and rightly assume that its management is in good shape. But be open to an objective examination of its strengths and weaknesses.

For instance, maybe you’ve had some contentious interactions with employees as of late. Ask your managers whether underlying tensions exist and, if so, how you might improve morale going forward. There’s probably no greater danger to competitiveness than a disgruntled workforce.

Relationships with suppliers, customers and regulators. For most businesses to function competitively, they must rely on suppliers and nurture strong relationships with customers. In addition, if your company is subject to regulatory oversight, it has to cooperate with local, state and federal officials.

Discuss with your management team the steps the business is currently taking to measure and manage the state of its relationships with each of these groups. Have you been paying suppliers on time? Are you getting positive customer feedback (directly or online)? Are you in compliance with applicable laws and regulations — and are there any new ones to worry about?

Loss of competitiveness can often sneak up on companies. One minute you’re operating in the same stable market you’ve been in for years, and the next minute a disruptor comes along and upends everything. Contact us for more information and other profit-building ideas.

© 2018

A review of significant TCJA provisions affecting small businesses

Now that small businesses and their owners have filed their 2017 income tax returns (or filed for an extension), it’s a good time to review some of the provisions of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) that may significantly impact their taxes for 2018 and beyond. Generally, the changes apply to tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, and are permanent, unless otherwise noted.

Corporate taxation

  • Replacement of graduated corporate rates ranging from 15% to 35% with a flat corporate rate of 21%

  • Replacement of the flat personal service corporation (PSC) rate of 35% with a flat rate of 21%

  • Repeal of the 20% corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT)

Pass-through taxation

  • Drops of individual income tax rates ranging from 0 to 4 percentage points (depending on the bracket) to 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35% and 37% — through 2025

  • New 20% qualified business income deduction for owners — through 2025

  • Changes to many other tax breaks for individuals — generally through 2025

New or expanded tax breaks

  • Doubling of bonus depreciation to 100% and expansion of qualified assets to include used assets — effective for assets acquired and placed in service after September 27, 2017, and before January 1, 2023

  • Doubling of the Section 179 expensing limit to $1 million and an increase of the expensing phaseout threshold to $2.5 million (these amounts will be indexed for inflation after 2018)

  • New tax credit for employer-paid family and medical leave — through 2019

Reduced or eliminated tax breaks

  • New disallowance of deductions for net interest expense in excess of 30% of the business’s adjusted taxable income (exceptions apply)

  • New limits on net operating loss (NOL) deductions

  • Elimination of the Section 199 deduction, also commonly referred to as the domestic production activities deduction or manufacturers’ deduction — effective for tax years beginning after December 31, 2017, for noncorporate taxpayers and for tax years beginning after December 31, 2018, for C corporation taxpayers

  • New rule limiting like-kind exchanges to real property that is not held primarily for sale (generally no more like-kind exchanges for personal property)

  • New limitations on excessive employee compensation

  • New limitations on deductions for certain employee fringe benefits, such as entertainment and, in certain circumstances, meals and transportation

Don’t wait to start 2018 tax planning

This is only a sampling of some of the most significant TCJA changes that will affect small businesses and their owners beginning this year, and additional rules and limits apply. The combined impact of these changes should inform which tax strategies you and your business implement in 2018, such as how to time income and expenses to your tax advantage. The sooner you begin the tax planning process, the more tax-saving opportunities will be open to you. So don’t wait to start; contact us today.

© 2018

Manage health benefits costs with a multipronged approach

Many companies offer health care benefits to help ensure employee wellness and compete for better job candidates. And the Affordable Care Act has been using both carrots and sticks (depending on employer size) to encourage businesses to offer health coverage.

If you sponsor a health care plan, you know this is no small investment. It may seem next to impossible to control rising plan costs, which are subject to a variety of factors beyond your control. But the truth is, all business owners can control at least a portion of their health care expenses. The trick is taking a multipronged approach — here are some ideas:

Interact with employees to find the best fit. The ideal size and shape of your plan depends on the needs of your workforce. Rather than relying exclusively on vendor-provided materials, actively manage communications with employees regarding health care costs and other topics. Determine which benefits are truly valued and which ones aren’t.

Use metrics. Business owners can apply analytics to just about everything these days, including health care coverage. Measure the financial impacts of gaps between benefits offered and those employees actually use. Then appropriately adjust plan design to close these costly gaps.

Engage an outside consultant. Secure independent (that is, non-vendor-generated) return-on-investment analyses of your existing benefits package, as well as prospective initiatives. This will entail some expense, but an expert external perspective could help you save money in the long run.

Audit medical claims payments and pharmacy benefits management services. Mistakes happen — and fraud is always a possibility. By regularly re-evaluating claims and pharmacy services, you can identify whether you’re losing money to inaccuracies or even wrongdoing.

Renegotiate pharmacy benefits contracts. As the old saying goes, “Everything is negotiable.” The next time your pharmacy benefits contract comes up for renewal, see whether the vendor will do better. In addition, look around the marketplace for other providers and see if one of them can make a more economical offer.

There’s no silver bullet for lowering the expense of health care benefits. To manage these costs, you must understand the specifics of your plan as well as the economic factors that drive expenses up and down. Please contact our firm for assistance and additional information.

© 2018

3 ways to supercharge your supervisors

The attitudes and behaviors of your managers play a critical role in your company’s success. When your managers are putting forth their best effort, the more likely it is that you’ll, in turn, get the best performances out of the rest of your employees. Here are three ways to supercharge your supervisors:

1. Transform them into teachers. Today’s managers must be more than team leaders — they must also be teachers. Attentive managers look for situations that will help subordinates learn how to work smarter and more efficiently.

Typically, learning occurs most readily when rewards are applied as close to the intended behavior’s occurrence as possible. Thus, train managers to look for moments when employees are being successful and to immediately recognize those efforts. Managers should praise them in the presence of others and regularly. Low-cost rewards such as the occasional free lunch or gift card can also be highly motivational.

2. Turbo-boost their reaction times. Be sure managers address problems right away. The operative word there is “address,” and its meaning may vary depending on the nature of the trouble.

For minor difficulties, just leaving a friendly voice mail or carefully worded email may do the trick. But for more serious conflicts or dilemmas, a thorough investigation is important, followed by face-to-face meetings documented in writing. In either case, it’s imperative not to let problems fester.

3. Turn off their micromanagement switch. While managers need to keep an eye out for good and bad behavior, they shouldn’t micromanage. Those who perch atop employees’ shoulders, checking every detail of their work, are as bad for a business as rude customer service or defective products.

Why? Because the more managers micromanage, the more they communicate the wrong message — that they don’t believe employees can get the job done. Micromanaging not only lowers morale, but also hinders efficiency, as the manager is basically spending valuable time doing the employee’s job rather than his or her own.

In the day-to-day grind of keeping a business running, managers can understandably get worn down. If yours need a lift, consider reinforcing the points above in training sessions or during performance evaluations. For further information and other ideas, contact us.

© 2018