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 at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

The IRS just released its audit statistics for the 2018 fiscal year, and fewer taxpayers had their returns examined as compared with prior years. However, even though a small percentage of tax returns are being chosen for audit these days, that will be little consolation if yours is one of them.

Latest statistics

Overall, just 0.59% of individual tax returns were audited in 2018, as compared with 0.62% in 2017. This was the lowest percentage of audits conducted since 2002.

However, as in the past, those with very high incomes face greater odds. For example, in 2018, 2.21% of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes (AGIs) of between $1 million and $5 million were audited (down from 3.52% in 2017).

The richest taxpayers, those with AGIs of $10 million and more, experienced a steep decline in audits. In 2018, 6.66% of their returns were audited, compared with 14.52% in 2017.

Surviving an audit 

Even though fewer audits are being performed, the IRS will still examine thousands of returns this year. With proper planning, you should fare well even if you’re one of the unlucky ones.

The easiest way to survive an IRS examination is to prepare in advance. On an ongoing basis, you should systematically maintain documentation — invoices, bills, canceled checks, receipts, or other proof — for all items reported on your tax returns.

Just because a return is selected for audit doesn’t mean that an error was made. Some returns are randomly selected based on statistical formulas. For example, IRS computers compare income and deductions on returns with what other taxpayers report. If an individual deducts a charitable contribution that’s significantly higher than what others with similar incomes report, the IRS may want to know why.

Returns can also be selected when they involve issues or transactions with other taxpayers who were previously selected for audit, such as business partners or investors.

The government generally has three years within which to conduct an audit, and often the exam won’t begin until a year or more after you file your return.

More audit details

The scope of an audit depends on the tax return’s complexity. A return reflecting business or real estate income and expenses is likely to take longer to examine than a return with only salary income.

An audit can be conducted by mail or through an in-person interview and review of records. The interview may be conducted at an IRS office or may be a “field audit” at the taxpayer’s home, business, or accountant’s office.

Important:  Even if your return is audited, an IRS examination may be nothing to lose sleep over. In many cases, the IRS asks for proof of certain items and routinely “closes” the audit after the documentation is presented.

Representation 

It’s advisable to have a tax professional represent you at an audit. A tax pro knows what issues the IRS is likely to scrutinize and can prepare accordingly. In addition, a professional knows that in many instances IRS auditors will take a position (for example, to disallow deduction of a certain expense) even though courts and other guidance have expressed a contrary opinion on the issue. Because pros can point to the proper authority, the IRS may be forced to throw in the towel.

If you receive an IRS audit letter or simply want to improve your recordkeeping, we’re here to assist you. Contact us to discuss this or any other aspect of your taxes at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

One of the governing principles of the employee/employer relationship is that employees have a fiduciary duty to act in their employer’s interests. An employee’s undisclosed conflict of interest can be a serious breach of this duty. In fact, when conflicts of interest exist, companies often suffer financial consequences.

Ignorance isn’t bliss

Here’s a fictional example of a common conflict of interest: Matt is the manager of a manufacturing company’s purchasing department. He’s also part owner of a business that sells supplies to the manufacturer — a fact Matt hasn’t disclosed to his employer. And, in fact, Matt has personally profited from the business’s lucrative long-term contract with his employer.

What makes this scenario a conflict of interest isn’t so much that Matt has profited from his position, but that his employer is ignorant of the relationship. When employers are informed about their workers’ outside business interests, they can act to exclude employees, vendors and customers from participation in certain transactions. Or they can allow parties to continue participating in a transaction — even if it runs contrary to ethical best practices. But it’s the employer’s, not the employee’s, decision to make.

Cut off at the pass

Sometimes employees simply neglect to inform their employers about possible conflicts of interest. In other cases, they go to great lengths to hide conflicts — usually because they’re afraid it will jeopardize their jobs or they’re financially benefiting from them. These latter cases can be difficult to detect, which is why your company might fare better by playing offense.

For example, develop conflict of interest policies and communicate them to all employees. Provide specific examples of conflicts and spell out exactly why you consider the activities depicted to be deceptive, unethical and possibly illegal. Don’t forget to state the consequences of nondisclosure of conflicts, such as immediate termination.

Disclosing all

You might also require workers to complete an annual disclosure statement on which they list the names and addresses of their family members, their family’s employers and business interests, and whether the employees have an interest in those entities (or any others).

To help ensure accurate statements, provide employees with a hotline to call if they:

  • Have general questions or concerns about the policy,
  • Don’t understand how the policy relates to their unique circumstances, or
  • Want to report someone who appears to have a conflict of interest.

Also protect your business from conflicted vendors and customers. Before entering into a new agreement, compare the names and addresses on your employee disclosure statements with ownership information provided by prospective business partners.

Maintain standards

Conflicts of interest aren’t always clear cut because what one employer considers a serious conflict might seem negligible to another. But in general, the best way to promote your business’s success is by holding all stakeholders to the highest ethical standards. Contact us for more at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

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. Contact us today at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

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. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Roth 401(k) accounts have been around for 13 years now. Studies show that more employers are offering them each year. A recent study by the Plan Sponsor Council of America (PSCA) found that Roth 401(k)s are now available at 70% of employer plans, up from 55.6% of plans in 2016.

However, despite the prevalence of employers offering Roth 401(k)s, most employees aren’t choosing to contribute to them. The PSCA found that only 20% of participants who have access to a Roth 401(k) made contributions to one in 2017. Perhaps it’s because they don’t understand them.

If you offer a Roth 401(k) or you’re considering one, educate your employees about the accounts to boost participation.

A 401(k) with a twist

As the name implies, these plans are a hybrid — taking some characteristics from Roth IRAs and some from employer-sponsored 401(k)s.

An employer with a 401(k), 403(b) or governmental 457(b) plan can offer designated Roth 401(k) accounts.

As with traditional 401(k)s, eligible employees can elect to defer part of their salaries to Roth 401(k)s, subject to annual limits. The employer may choose to provide matching contributions. For 2019, a participating employee can contribute up to $19,000 ($25,000 if he or she is age 50 or older) to a Roth 401(k). The most you can contribute to a Roth IRA for 2019 is $6,000 ($7,000 for those age 50 or older).

Note: The ability to contribute to a Roth IRA is phased out for upper-income taxpayers, but there’s no such restriction for a Roth 401(k).

The pros and cons

Unlike with traditional 401(k)s, contributions to employees’ accounts are made with after-tax dollars, instead of pretax dollars. Therefore, employees forfeit a key 401(k) tax benefit. On the plus side, after an initial period of five years, “qualified distributions” are 100% exempt from federal income tax, just like qualified distributions from a Roth IRA. In contrast, regular 401(k) distributions are taxed at ordinary-income rates, which are currently up to 37%.

In general, qualified distributions are those:

  • Made after a participant reaches age 59½, or
  • Made due to death or disability.

Therefore, you can take qualified Roth 401(k) distributions in retirement after age 59½ and pay no tax, as opposed to the hefty tax bill that may be due from traditional 401(k) payouts. And unlike traditional 401(k)s, which currently require retirees to begin taking required minimum distributions after age 70½, Roth 401(k)s have no mandate to take withdrawals.

Not for everyone

A Roth 401(k) is more beneficial than a traditional 401(k) for some participants, but not all. For example, it may be valuable for employees who expect to be in higher federal and state tax brackets in retirement. Contact us if you have questions about adding a Roth 401(k) to your benefits lineup at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

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. 205-345-9898, info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

Job applicants aren’t always honest on their resumés. And if you don’t investigate suspicious claims, you might end up hiring an unqualified and unethical employee — which could lead to financial, productivity and legal liability issues. The resumé fibber might also be more likely to commit occupational fraud.

Here’s how to unearth the three most common resumé falsifications.

1. Deceptive dates

Whether to gloss over a termination, a period of job hopping or time spent out of the workforce, some job seekers “adjust” dates to make their employment history seem more consistent. Look closely at resumés that state employment dates in years, not months. Say an applicant claims she worked at her last job between 2017 and 2018. Her tenure may only have lasted two months — December 2017 until January 2018 — instead of the implied two years.

Confirm an applicant’s precise employment dates with all previous employers. Also make sure that candidates complete your entire job application, informing them that, although a resumé isn’t a legal document, a job application is. Lying on it is cause for immediate dismissal.

2. Fake degrees and shifting majors

Workers applying for a position that requires a specific degree are more likely to lie about their education than other applicants are. If a resumé lists an unfamiliar school, or coursework and years but no degree, dig deeper. A school you’ve never heard of could be a diploma mill. A resumé that simply lists Chemistry, State College, 2002, may indicate that the job seeker completed classes in that subject but didn’t actually receive a degree.

Always check applicants’ educational claims by contacting the degree-granting institution. If you’re suspicious of a school, verify its accreditation with the U.S. Department of Education.

3. Embellished titles, skills and accomplishments

Everyone tries to look their best on a resumé. Some, however, embellish their experience, titles, skill proficiencies or grade point averages with outright lies. There’s no such thing as a perfect job candidate: You may want to flag any resumé that exactly matches all of a position’s qualifications.

You should contact all personal references and speak with previous supervisors or HR staffers, notpeers, to confirm titles and job responsibilities. To elicit the best information, ask open-ended questions, followed by more probing, detailed ones. But be aware that some past employers will give only limited information, such as dates of employment.

Time and money well spent

If you’re quickly checking resumés and conducting interviews, you’re less likely to separate the candidates with real potential from those sporting fake credentials. If time is scarce, outsource this process. It’s money well spent if you can save your company from public embarrassment, legal woes or financial losses due to fraud. Contact us with questions at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

If you read the Internal Revenue Code (and you probably don’t want to!), you may be surprised to find that most business deductions aren’t specifically listed. It doesn’t explicitly state that you can deduct office supplies and certain other expenses.

Some expenses are detailed in the tax code, but the general rule is contained in the first sentence of Section 162, which states you can write off “all the ordinary and necessary expenses paid or incurred during the taxable year in carrying on any trade or business.”

Basic definitions

In general, an expense is ordinary if it’s considered common or customary in the particular trade or business. For example, insurance premiums to protect a store would be an ordinary business expense in the retail industry.

necessary expense is defined as one that’s helpful or appropriate. For example, let’s say a car dealership purchases an automatic defibrillator. It may not be necessary for the operation of the business, but it might be helpful and appropriate if an employee or customer suffers a heart attack.

It’s possible for an ordinary expense to be unnecessary — but, in order to be deductible, an expense must be ordinary and necessary.

In addition, a deductible amount must be reasonable in relation to the benefit expected. For example, if you’re attempting to land a $3,000 deal, a $65 lunch with a potential client should be OK with the IRS. (Keep in mind that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act eliminated most deductions for entertainment expenses but retains the 50% deduction for business meals.)

Examples of not ordinary and unnecessary

Not surprisingly, the IRS and courts don’t always agree with taxpayers about what qualifies as ordinary and necessary expenditures.

In one case, a man engaged in a business with his brother was denied deductions for his private airplane expenses. The U.S. Tax Court noted that the taxpayer had failed to prove the expenses were ordinary and necessary to the business. In addition, only one brother used the plane and the flights were to places that the taxpayer could have driven to or flown to on a commercial airline. And, in any event, the stated expenses including depreciation expenses, weren’t adequately substantiated, the court added. (TC Memo 2018-108)

In another case, the Tax Court ruled that a business owner wasn’t entitled to deduct legal and professional fees he’d incurred in divorce proceedings defending his ex-wife’s claims to his interest in, or portion of, distributions he received from his LLC. The IRS and the court ruled the divorce legal fees were nondeductible personal expenses and weren’t ordinary and necessary. (TC Memo 2018-80)

Proceed with caution

The deductibility of some expenses is clear. But for other expenses, it can get more complicated. Generally, if an expense seems like it’s not normal in your industry — or if it could be considered fun, personal or extravagant in nature — you should proceed with caution. And keep records to substantiate the expenses you’re deducting. Consult with us for guidance at 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA

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. 205-345-9898 and info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA