Thursday, May 17, 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

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Be aware of the tax consequences before selling your home


In many parts of the country, summer is peak season for selling a home. If you’re planning to put your home on the market soon, you’re probably thinking about things like how quickly it will sell and how much you’ll get for it. But don’t neglect to consider the tax consequences.

Home sale gain exclusion

The U.S. House of Representatives’ original version of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act included a provision tightening the rules for the home sale gain exclusion. Fortunately, that provision didn’t make it into the final version that was signed into law.

As a result, if you’re selling your principal residence, there’s still a good chance you’ll be able to exclude up to $250,000 ($500,000 for joint filers) of gain. Gain that qualifies for exclusion also is excluded from the 3.8% net investment income tax.

To qualify for the exclusion, you must meet certain tests. For example, you generally must own and use the home as your principal residence for at least two years during the five-year period preceding the sale. (Gain allocable to a period of “nonqualified” use generally isn’t excludable.) In addition, you can’t use the exclusion more than once every two years.

More tax considerations

Any gain that doesn’t qualify for the exclusion generally will be taxed at your long-term capital gains rate, as long as you owned the home for at least a year. If you didn’t, the gain will be considered short-term and subject to your ordinary-income rate, which could be more than double your long-term rate.

Here are some additional tax considerations when selling a home:

Tax basis. To support an accurate tax basis, be sure to maintain thorough records, including information on your original cost and subsequent improvements, reduced by any casualty losses and depreciation claimed based on business use.

Losses. A loss on the sale of your principal residence generally isn’t deductible. But if part of your home is rented out or used exclusively for your business, the loss attributable to that portion may be deductible.

Second homes. If you’re selling a second home, be aware that it won’t be eligible for the gain exclusion. But if it qualifies as a rental property, it can be considered a business asset, and you may be able to defer tax on any gains through an installment sale or a Section 1031 exchange. Or you may be able to deduct a loss.

A big investment

Your home is likely one of your biggest investments, so it’s important to consider the tax consequences before selling it. If you’re planning to put your home on the market, we can help you assess the potential tax impact. Contact us to learn more.

© 2018

Can you deduct business travel when it’s combined with a vacation?


At this time of year, a summer vacation is on many people’s minds. If you travel for business, combining a business trip with a vacation to offset some of the cost with a tax deduction can sound appealing. But tread carefully, or you might not be eligible for the deduction you’re expecting.

General rules

Business travel expenses are potentially deductible if the travel is within the United States and the expenses are “ordinary and necessary” and directly related to the business. (Foreign travel expenses may also be deductible, but stricter rules apply than are discussed here.)

Currently, business owners and the self-employed are potentially eligible to deduct business travel expenses. Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer deduct such expenses. The potential deductions discussed below assume that you’re a business owner or self-employed.

Business vs. pleasure

Transportation costs to and from the location of your business activity may be 100% deductible if the primary reason for the trip is business rather than pleasure. But if vacation is the primary reason for your travel, generally none of those costs are deductible.

The number of days spent on business vs. pleasure is the key factor in determining whether the primary reason for domestic travel is business:

  • Your travel days count as business days, as do weekends and holidays — if they fall between days devoted to business and it would be impractical to return home.
  • Standby days (days when your physical presence is required) also count as business days, even if you aren’t called upon to work those days.
  • Any other day principally devoted to business activities during normal business hours also counts as a business day.

You should be able to claim business was the primary reason for a domestic trip if business days exceed personal days.

Deductible expenses

What transportation costs can you deduct? Travel to and from your departure airport, airfare, baggage fees, tips, cabs, etc. Costs for rail travel or driving your personal car are also eligible.

Once at the destination, your out-of-pocket expenses for business days are fully deductible. Examples of these expenses include lodging, meals (subject to the 50% disallowance rule), seminar and convention fees, and cab fare. Expenses for personal days aren’t deductible.

Keep in mind that only expenses for yourself are deductible. You can’t deduct expenses for family members traveling with you — unless they’re employees of your business and traveling for a bona fide business purpose.

Substantiation is critical

Be sure to accumulate proof of the business nature of your trip and keep it with your tax records. For example, if your trip is made to attend client meetings, log everything on your daily planner and copy the pages for your tax file. If you attend a convention or seminar, keep the program and take notes to show you attended the sessions. You also must properly substantiate all of the expenses you’re deducting.

Additional rules and limits apply to the travel expense deduction. Please contact us if you have questions.

© 2018

Thursday, May 10, 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

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Do you need to adjust your withholding?


If you received a large refund after filing your 2017 income tax return, you’re probably enjoying the influx of cash. But a large refund isn’t all positive. It also means you were essentially giving the government an interest-free loan.

That’s why a large refund for the previous tax year would usually indicate that you should consider reducing the amounts you’re having withheld (and/or what estimated tax payments you’re making) for the current year. But 2018 is a little different.

The TCJA and withholding

To reflect changes under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) — such as the increase in the standard deduction, suspension of personal exemptions and changes in tax rates and brackets — the IRS updated the withholding tables that indicate how much employers should hold back from their employees’ paychecks, generally reducing the amount withheld.

The new tables may provide the correct amount of tax withholding for individuals with simple tax situations, but they might cause other taxpayers to not have enough withheld to pay their ultimate tax liabilities under the TCJA. So even if you received a large refund this year, you could end up owing a significant amount of tax when you file your 2018 return next year.

Perils of the new tables

The IRS itself cautions that people with more complex tax situations face the possibility of having their income taxes underwithheld. If, for example, you itemize deductions, have dependents age 17 or older, are in a two-income household or have more than one job, you should review your tax situation and adjust your withholding if appropriate.

The IRS has updated its withholding calculator (available at irs.gov) to assist taxpayers in reviewing their situations. The calculator reflects changes in available itemized deductions, the increased child tax credit, the new dependent credit and repeal of dependent exemptions.

More considerations

Tax law changes aren’t the only reason to check your withholding. Additional reviews during the year are a good idea if:

  • You get married or divorced,
  • You add or lose a dependent,
  • You purchase a home,
  • You start or lose a job, or
  • Your investment income changes significantly.

You can modify your withholding at any time during the year, or even multiple times within a year. To do so, you simply submit a new Form W-4 to your employer. Changes typically will go into effect several weeks after the new Form W-4 is submitted. (For estimated tax payments, you can make adjustments each time quarterly payments are due.)

The TCJA and your tax situation

If you rely solely on the new withholding tables, you could run the risk of significantly underwithholding your federal income taxes. As a result, you might face an unexpectedly high tax bill when you file your 2018 tax return next year. Contact us for help determining whether you should adjust your withholding. We can also answer any questions you have about how the TCJA may affect your particular situation.

© 2018

IRS Audit Techniques Guides provide clues to what may come up if your business is audited


IRS examiners use Audit Techniques Guides (ATGs) to prepare for audits — and so can small business owners. Many ATGs target specific industries, such as construction. Others address issues that frequently arise in audits, such as executive compensation and fringe benefits. These publications can provide valuable insights into issues that might surface if your business is audited.

What do ATGs cover?

The IRS compiles information obtained from past examinations of taxpayers and publishes its findings in ATGs. Typically, these publications explain:

  • The nature of the industry or issue,
  • Accounting methods commonly used in an industry,
  • Relevant audit examination techniques,
  • Common and industry-specific compliance issues,
  • Business practices,
  • Industry terminology, and
  • Sample interview questions.

By using a specific ATG, an examiner may, for example, be able to reconcile discrepancies when reported income or expenses aren’t consistent with what’s normal for the industry or to identify anomalies within the geographic area in which the taxpayer resides.

What do ATGs advise?

ATGs cover the types of documentation IRS examiners should request from taxpayers and what relevant information might be uncovered during a tour of the business premises. These guides are intended in part to help examiners identify potential sources of income that could otherwise slip through the cracks.

Other issues that ATGs might instruct examiners to inquire about include:

  • Internal controls (or lack of controls),
  • The sources of funds used to start the business,
  • A list of suppliers and vendors,
  • The availability of business records,
  • Names of individual(s) responsible for maintaining business records,
  • Nature of business operations (for example, hours and days open),
  • Names and responsibilities of employees,
  • Names of individual(s) with control over inventory, and
  • Personal expenses paid with business funds.

For example, one ATG focuses specifically on cash-intensive businesses, such as auto repair shops, check-cashing operations, gas stations, liquor stores, restaurants and bars, and salons. It highlights the importance of reviewing cash receipts and cash register tapes for these types of businesses.

Cash-intensive businesses may be tempted to underreport their cash receipts, but franchised operations may have internal controls in place to deter such “skimming.” For instance, a franchisee may be required to purchase products or goods from the franchisor, which provides a paper trail that can be used to verify sales records.

Likewise, for gas stations, examiners must check the methods of determining income, rebates and other incentives. Restaurants and bars should be asked about net profits compared to the industry average, spillage, pouring averages and tipping.

Avoiding red flags

Although ATGs were created to enhance IRS examiner proficiency, they also can help small businesses ensure they aren’t engaging in practices that could raise red flags with the IRS. To access the complete list of ATGs, visit the IRS website. And for more information on the IRS red flags that may be relevant to your business, contact us.

© 2018

Thursday, May 3, 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