Among the fastest ways for a business to fail is because of mismanagement or malfeasance by ownership. On the other hand, among the slowest ways is an ineffective or dysfunctional sales department.

Companies suffering from this malady may maintain just enough sales to stay afloat for a while, but eventually they go under because they lose one big customer or a tough new competitor arrives on the scene. To ensure your sales department is contributing to business growth, not just survival, you’ve got to ask some tough questions. Here are four to consider:

1. Does our sales department communicate customers’ needs to the rest of the company? Your sales staff works on the front lines of your industry. They’re typically the first ones to hear of changes in customers’ needs and desires. Make sure your sales people are sharing this information in both meetings and written communications (sales reports, emails and the like).

It’s particularly important for them to share insights with the marketing department. But everyone in your business should be laser-focused on what customers really want.

2. Does the sales department handle customer complaints promptly and satisfactorily? This is related to our first point but critical enough to investigate on its own. Unhappy customers can destroy a business — especially these days, when everyone shares everything on social media.

Your sales staff should have a specific protocol for immediately responding to a customer complaint, gathering as much information as possible and offering a fair resolution. Track complaints carefully and in detail, looking for trends that may indicate deeper problems with your products or services.

3. Do our salespeople create difficulties for employees in other departments? If a sales department is getting the job done, many business owners look the other way when sales staff play by their own rules or don’t treat their co-workers with the utmost professionalism. Confronting a problem like this isn’t easy; you may unearth some tricky issues involving personalities and philosophies.

Nonetheless, your salespeople should interact positively and productively with other departments. For example, do they correctly and timely complete all necessary sales documents? If not, they could be causing major headaches for other departments.

4. Are we taking our sales staff for granted? Salespeople tend to spend much of their time “outside” a company — either literally out on the road making sales calls or on the phone communicating with customers. As such, they may work “out of sight and out of mind.”

Keep a close eye on your sales staff, both so you can congratulate them on jobs well done and fix any problems that may arise. Our firm can help you analyze your sales numbers to help identify ways this department can provide greater value to the company.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

In the past few months, many businesses and employers nationwide have received “no-match” letters from the Social Security Administration (SSA). The purpose of these letters is to alert employers if there’s a discrepancy between the agency’s files and data reported on W-2 forms, which are given to employees and filed with the IRS. Specifically, they point out that an employee’s name and Social Security number (SSN) don’t match the government’s records.

According to the SSA, the purpose of the letters is to “advise employers that corrections are needed in order for us to properly post” employees’ earnings to the correct records. If a person’s earnings are missing, the worker may not qualify for all of the Social Security benefits he or she is entitled to, or the benefit received may be incorrect. The no-match letters began going out in the spring of 2019.

Why discrepancies occur

There are a number of reasons why names and SSNs don’t match. They include typographical errors when inputting numbers and name changes due to marriage or divorce. And, of course, employees could intentionally give the wrong information to employers, as is sometimes the case with undocumented workers.

Some lawmakers, including Democrats on the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee, have expressed opposition to no-match letters. In a letter to the SSA Commissioner, they wrote that, under “the current immigration enforcement climate,” employers might “mistakenly believe that the no-match letter indicates that workers lack immigration status and will fire these workers — even those who can legally work in the United States.”

How to proceed

If you receive a no-match letter telling you that an employee’s name and SSN don’t match IRS records, the SSA gives the following advice:

  • Check to see if your information matches the name and SSN on the employee’s Social Security card. If it doesn’t, ask the employee to provide you with the exact information as it is shown on the card.
  • If the information matches the employee’s card, ask your employee to check with the local Social Security office to resolve the issue.
  • Once resolved, the employee should inform you of any changes.

The SSA notes that the IRS is responsible for any penalties associated with W-2 forms that have incorrect information. If you have questions, contact us or check out these frequently asked questions from the SSA: https://bit.ly/2Yv87M6

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Like most business owners, you’ve probably been urged by industry experts and professional advisors to identify the most important key performance indicators (KPIs) for your company. So, just for the sake of discussion, let’s say you’ve done that. A natural question that often follows is: Now what? You know you’re supposed to keep an eye on these metrics every day but … how?

The right technology has you covered. There’s a specific type of software — commonly referred to as a “business dashboard” — that allows business owners to create customized views of all their chosen KPIs. And these applications don’t just lay out numbers like a spreadsheet. They provide an easy visual experience that allows you to keep your eyes on the prize: a cost-controlled, profitable company.

Cloud-based knowledge

Business dashboards have been around for a decade or two in various forms. But today’s solutions have the advantage of being cloud-based, meaning the data driving them is typically stored on a secure server off-site. And you can access the dashboard from anywhere at any time on an authenticated device. (You can also still run a dashboard from your company’s own servers, if you prefer.)

If you’ve never used a dashboard before, you might wonder what one looks like. The name says it all. Ideally, a dashboard is a single screen of data — like the panel of gauges in your car — that displays various KPIs in the form of pie charts, bar graphs and other graphic elements.

A few must-haves

When shopping for a product, there are a few “must-haves” to insist on. The software should:

  • Support your chosen KPIs,
  • Present itself in a visually pleasing, logical manner that allows you to easily, intuitively follow those KPIs, and
  • Update itself in real time, enabling you to react quickly to sudden swings in your company’s financial performance.

Be wary of vendors that over-promise “otherworldly” knowledge of your industry or try to upsell you on bells and whistles. The simpler the dashboard, the better. There will always be more complex financial issues regarding your business that can’t be put into simple terms on a dashboard.

Also, the rise of artificial intelligence (AI) is causing many to question the long-term viability of business dashboards. AI gathers and shapes data so quickly, and in such massive amounts, that some experts argue that a business owner’s chosen KPIs can rapidly become outmoded.

Nonetheless, dashboard software is still widely used in many industries. Just be prepared to regularly reassess and, if necessary, update your KPIs.

Shop carefully

If you decide to invest in a business dashboard (or upgrade your current one), you’ll need to go about it carefully. We can help you set a budget and compare prices and functionalities to get an optimal return on investment.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Many business owners reach a point where managing the financial side of the enterprise becomes overwhelming. Usually, this is a good thing — the company has grown to a point where simple bookkeeping and basic financial reporting just don’t cut it anymore.

If you can relate to the feeling, it may be time to add a CFO or controller. But you’ve got to first consider whether your payroll can take on this generally high-paying position and exactly what you’d get in return.

The broad role

A CFO or controller looks beyond day-to-day financial management to do more holistic, big-picture planning of financial and operational goals. He or she will take a seat at the executive table and serve as your go-to person for all matters related to your company’s finances and operations.

A CFO or controller goes far beyond merely compiling financial data. He or she provides an interpretation of the data to explain how financial decisions will impact all areas of your business. And this individual can plan capital acquisition strategies, so your company has access to financing, as needed, to meet working capital and operating expenses.

In addition, a CFO or controller will serve as the primary liaison between your company and its bank to ensure your financial statements meet requirements to help negotiate any loans. Analyzing possible merger, acquisition and other expansion opportunities also falls within a CFO’s or controller’s purview.

Specific responsibilities

A CFO or controller typically has a set of core responsibilities that link to the financial oversight of your operation. This includes making sure there are adequate internal controls to help safeguard the business from internal fraud and embezzlement.

The hire also should be able to implement improved cash management practices that will boost your cash flow and improve budgeting and cash forecasting. He or she should be able to perform ratio analysis and compare the financial performance of your business to benchmarks established by similar-size companies in the same geographic area. And a controller or CFO should analyze the tax and cash flow implications of different capital acquisition strategies — for example, leasing vs. buying equipment and real estate.

Major commitment

Make no mistake, hiring a full-time CFO or controller represents a major commitment in both time to the hiring process and dollars to your payroll. These financial executives typically command substantial high salaries and attractive benefits packages.

So, first make sure you have the financial resources to commit to this level of compensation. You may want to outsource the position. No matter which route you choose, our firm can help you assess the financial impact of the idea.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Bitcoin and other forms of virtual currency are gaining popularity. But many businesses, consumers, employees and investors are still confused about how they work and how to report transactions on their federal tax returns. And the IRS just announced that it is targeting virtual currency users in a new “educational letter” campaign.

The nuts and bolts

Unlike cash or credit cards, small businesses generally don’t accept bitcoin payments for routine transactions. However, a growing number of larger retailers — and online businesses — now accept payments. Businesses can also pay employees or independent contractors with virtual currency. The trend is expected to continue, so more small businesses may soon get on board.

Bitcoin has an equivalent value in real currency. It can be digitally traded between users. You can also purchase and exchange bitcoin with real currencies (such as U.S. dollars). The most common ways to obtain bitcoin are through virtual currency ATMs or online exchanges, which typically charge nominal transaction fees.

Once you (or your customers) obtain bitcoin, it can be used to pay for goods or services using “bitcoin wallet” software installed on your computer or mobile device. Some merchants accept bitcoin to avoid transaction fees charged by credit card companies and online payment providers (such as PayPal).

Tax reporting

Virtual currency has triggered many tax-related questions. The IRS has issued limited guidance to address them. In a 2014 guidance, the IRS established that virtual currency should be treated as property, not currency, for federal tax purposes.

As a result, businesses that accept bitcoin payments for goods and services must report gross income based on the fair market value of the virtual currency when it was received. This is measured in equivalent U.S. dollars.

From the buyer’s perspective, purchases made using bitcoin result in a taxable gain if the fair market value of the property received exceeds the buyer’s adjusted basis in the currency exchanged. Conversely, a tax loss is incurred if the fair market value of the property received is less than its adjusted tax basis.

Wages paid using virtual currency are taxable to employees and must be reported by employers on W-2 forms. They’re subject to federal income tax withholding and payroll taxes, based on the fair market value of the virtual currency on the date of receipt.

Virtual currency payments made to independent contractors and other service providers are also taxable. In general, the rules for self-employment tax apply and payers must issue 1099-MISC forms.

IRS campaign

The IRS announced it is sending letters to taxpayers who potentially failed to report income and pay tax on virtual currency transactions or didn’t report them properly. The letters urge taxpayers to review their tax filings and, if appropriate, amend past returns to pay back taxes, interest and penalties.

By the end of August, more than 10,000 taxpayers will receive these letters. The names of the taxpayers were obtained through compliance efforts undertaken by the IRS. The IRS Commissioner warned, “The IRS is expanding our efforts involving virtual currency, including increased use of data analytics.”

Last year, the tax agency also began an audit initiative to address virtual currency noncompliance and has stated that it’s an ongoing focus area for criminal cases.

Implications of going virtual

Contact us if you have questions about the tax considerations of accepting virtual currency or using it to make payments for your business. And if you receive a letter from the IRS about possible noncompliance, consult with us before responding.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When it comes to reducing fraud loss and duration, active detection methods (such as surprise audits or data monitoring) are far more effective than passive methods (such as confessions or notification by police). This was a major finding of the latest Association of Certified Fraud Examiners (ACFE) Report to the Nations: 2018 Global Study on Occupational Fraud and Abuse. Yet many companies fail to use active methods to their full potential.

Active vs. passive detection

The ACFE study found that frauds detected using passive methods tend to last longer and produce larger losses than those detected by such active methods as:

  • IT controls,
  • Data monitoring and analysis,
  • Account reconciliation,
  • Internal audit,
  • Surprise audits,
  • Management review, and
  • Document examination.

These active methods of detection can significantly lower fraud durations and losses. For example, frauds detected by IT controls had a median duration of five months and a median loss of $39,000. By comparison, fraud detected through notification by police had a median duration of 24 months and a median loss of $935,000.

Surprise audits and proactive data monitoring and analysis can be especially effective ways to fight fraud. On average, victim-organizations without these antifraud controls in place reported more than double the fraud losses and their frauds lasted more than twice as long as victim-organizations with these controls in place. Yet only 37% of the organizations in the ACFE study had implemented surprise audits or data monitoring and analysis, however.

Close-up on tips

The ACFE categorized tips — the leading fraud detection method — as “potentially active or passive,” because they may or may not involve proactive efforts designed to identify fraud. Organizations that use hotlines for reporting misconduct detected fraud by tips more often (46% of cases) than those without hotlines (30% of cases).

More than half of tips came from employees, but nearly one-third came from outside parties, such as customers and vendors. To ensure that tips are used as an active detection method, an organization should set up a hotline and promote its use among employees, supply chain partners and others. If possible, users should be able to make anonymous reports.

Don’t wait for fraud to find you

Occupational fraud poses a significant threat to organizations of every type and size. Waiting to react until fraud rears its head can result in serious financial losses. Instead, adopt active detection methods that can be deployed continually. Contact us for help.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When drafting your estate plan, you and your attorney must account for what happens to your children and your assets after you die. But your plan must also spell out your wishes for making financial and medical decisions if you’re unable to make those decisions yourself. A crucial component of this plan is the power of attorney (POA).

ABCs of a POA

A POA appoints a trusted representative to make medical or financial decisions on your behalf in the event an accident or illness renders you unconscious or mentally incapacitated. Without it, your loved ones would have to petition a court for guardianship or conservatorship, a costly process that can delay urgent decisions.

POAs in action

A POA is a document under which you, as “principal,” authorize a representative to be your “agent” or “attorney-in-fact,” to act on your behalf. Typically, separate POAs are executed for health care and finances.

A health care POA authorizes your agent — often, a spouse, child or other family member — to make medical decisions on your behalf or consent to or discontinue medical treatment when you’re unable to do so. Depending on the state you live in, the document may also be known as a medical power of attorney or health care proxy. Be aware that a POA for health care is distinguishable from a “living will.”

A POA for property appoints an agent to manage your investments, pay your bills, file tax returns, continue your practice of making annual charitable and family gifts, and otherwise handle your finances, subject to limitations you establish.

To spring or not to spring

Generally, POAs come in two forms: nonspringing, or “durable” — that is, effective immediately — and springing; that is, effective on the occurrence of specified conditions. Typically, springing powers take effect when the principal becomes mentally incapacitated, comatose, or otherwise unable to act for himself or herself.

Nonspringing POAs offer several advantages. Because they’re effective immediately, they allow your agent to act on your behalf for your convenience, not just if you become incapacitated. Also, they avoid the need to make a determination that you’ve become incapacitated, which can result in delays, disputes or even litigation.

A potential disadvantage to a nonspringing POA is the concern that your agent may be tempted to abuse his or her authority or commit fraud.

Given the advantages of a nonspringing POA, and the potential delays associated with a springing POA, it’s usually preferable to use the nonspringing type and to make sure the person you name as agent is someone you trust unconditionally.

If you’re still uncomfortable handing over a POA that takes effect immediately, consider signing a nonspringing POA but have your attorney hold it and deliver it to your agent when needed. Contact us with questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Working from home has its perks. Not only can you skip the commute, but you also might be eligible to deduct home office expenses on your tax return. Deductions for these expenses can save you a bundle, if you meet the tax law qualifications.

Under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, employees can no longer claim the home office deduction. If, however, you run a business from your home or are otherwise self-employed and use part of your home for business purposes, the home office deduction may still be available to you.

If you’re a homeowner and use part of your home for business purposes, you may be entitled to deduct a portion of actual expenses such as mortgage, property taxes, utilities, repairs and insurance, as well as depreciation. Or you might be able to claim the simplified home office deduction of $5 per square foot, up to 300 square feet ($1,500).

Requirements to qualify

To qualify for home office deductions, part of your home must be used “regularly and exclusively” as your principal place of business. This is defined as follows:

1. Regular use. You use a specific area of your home for business on a regular basis. Incidental or occasional business use isn’t considered regular use.

2. Exclusive use. You use a specific area of your home only for business. It’s not required that the space be physically partitioned off. But you don’t meet the requirements if the area is used for both business and personal purposes, such as a home office that you also use as a guest bedroom.

Your home office will qualify as your principal place of business if you 1) use the space exclusively and regularly for administrative or management activities of your business, and 2) don’t have another fixed location where you conduct substantial administrative or management activities.

Examples of activities that meet this requirement include:

  • Billing customers, clients or patients,
  • Keeping books and records,
  • Ordering supplies,
  • Setting up appointments, and
  • Forwarding orders or writing reports.

Other ways to qualify

If your home isn’t your principal place of business, you may still be able to deduct home office expenses if you physically meet with patients, clients or customers on the premises. The use of your home must be substantial and integral to the business conducted.

Alternatively, you may be able to claim the home office deduction if you have a storage area in your home — or in a separate free-standing structure (such as a studio, workshop, garage or barn) — that’s used exclusively and regularly for your business.

An audit target

Be aware that claiming expenses on your tax return for a home office has long been a red flag for an IRS audit, since many people don’t qualify. But don’t be afraid to take a home office deduction if you’re entitled to it. You just need to pay close attention to the rules to ensure that you’re eligible — and make sure that your recordkeeping is complete.

The home office deduction can provide a valuable tax-saving opportunity for business owners and other self-employed taxpayers who work from home. Keep in mind that, when you sell your house, there can be tax implications if you’ve claimed a home office. Contact us if you have questions or aren’t sure how to proceed in your situation.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

The IRS uses Audit Techniques Guides (ATGs) to help IRS examiners get ready for audits. Your business can use the same guides to gain insight into what the IRS is looking for in terms of compliance with tax laws and regulations.

Many ATGs target specific industries or businesses, such as construction, aerospace, art galleries, child care providers and veterinary medicine. Others address issues that frequently arise in audits, such as executive compensation, passive activity losses and capitalization of tangible property.

How they’re used

IRS auditors need to examine all types of businesses, as well as individual taxpayers and tax-exempt organizations. Each type of return might have unique industry issues, business practices and terminology. Before meeting with taxpayers and their advisors, auditors do their homework to understand various industries or issues, the accounting methods commonly used, how income is received, and areas where taxpayers may not be in compliance.

By using a specific ATG, an auditor may 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 business is located.

For example, one ATG focuses specifically on businesses that deal in cash, such as auto repair shops, car washes, check-cashing operations, gas stations, laundromats, liquor stores, restaurants., bars, and salons. The “Cash Intensive Businesses” ATG tells auditors “a financial status analysis including both business and personal financial activities should be done.” It explains techniques such as:

  • How to examine businesses with and without cash registers,
  • What a company’s books and records may reveal,
  • How to analyze bank deposits and checks written from known bank accounts,
  • What to look for when touring a business,
  • Ways to uncover hidden family transactions,
  • How cash invoices found in an audit of one business may lead to another business trying to hide income by dealing mainly in cash.

Auditors are obviously looking for cash-intensive businesses that underreport their cash receipts but how this is uncovered varies. For example, when examining a restaurants or bar, auditors are told to ask about net profits compared to the industry average, spillage, pouring averages and tipping.

Learn the red flags

Although ATGs were created to help IRS examiners ferret out common methods of hiding income and inflating deductions, they also can help businesses ensure they aren’t engaging in practices that could raise audit red flags. Contact us if you have questions about your business. For a complete list of ATGs, visit the IRS website here: https://bit.ly/2rh7umD

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Many businesses struggle to turn abstract strategic-planning ideas into concrete, actionable plans. One reason why is simple: ineffective meetings. The ideas are there, lurking in the minds of management and key employees, but the process for hashing them out just doesn’t work. Here are a few ways to run your strategic-planning meetings like they really matter — which, of course, they do.

Build buy-in

Meetings often fail because attendees feel more like spectators than participants. They are less likely to zone out if they have some say in the direction and content of the gathering. So, before the session, touch base with those involved and establish a clear agenda of the strategic-planning initiatives you’ll be discussing.

Another common problem with meetings occurs when someone leads the meeting, but no one owns it. As the meeting leader, be sure to speak with conviction and express positivity (if not passion) for the subject matter. (If others are delivering presentations during the proceedings, encourage them to do the same.)

Fight fatigue

To the extent possible, keep meetings short. Cover what needs to be covered, but ensure you’re concentrating only on what’s important. Go in armed with easy-to-follow notes so you’ll stay on track and won’t forget anything. The latter point is particularly important, because overlooked subjects often lead to hasty follow-up meetings that can frustrate employees.

In addition, if the contingent of attendees is large enough, consider having employees break out into smaller groups to focus on specific points. Then call the meeting back to order to discuss each group’s ideas. By mixing it up in such creative ways, you’ll keep employees more engaged.

Tell a story

There’s so much to distract employees in a meeting. If it’s held in the morning, the busy day ahead may preoccupy their thoughts. If it’s an afternoon meeting, they might grow anxious about their commutes home. If the meeting is a Web conference, there are a variety of distractions that may affect them. And there’s no getting around the ease with which participants can sneak peeks at their smartphones (or smart watches) to check emails, texts and the Internet.

How do you break through? People appreciate storytellers. So, think about how you can use this technique to find a more relaxed and engaging way to speak to everyone in the room. Devise a narrative that will grab attendees’ attention and keep them in suspense for a little bit. Then deliver a conclusion that will inspire them to work toward identifying fully realized, feasible strategic goals.

Make ’em great

Grumbling about meetings can be as much a part of working life as burnt coffee in the bottom of the breakroom pot. But don’t let this occasional negativity sway you from doing the critical strategic planning that every business needs to do. Your meetings can be great ones. We can’t help you run them, but we can assist you in assessing the financial feasibility and ramifications of your strategic plans.

© 2019 Covenant CPA