You’d be hard-pressed to find a business that doesn’t value its customers, but tough times put many things into perspective. As companies have adjusted to operating during the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic fallout, prioritizing customer service has become more important than ever.

Without a strong base of loyal buyers, and a concerted effort to win over more market share, your business could very well see diminished profit margins and an escalated risk of being surpassed by competitors. Here are some foundational ways to strengthen customer service during these difficult and uncertain times.

Get management involved

As is the case for many things in business, success starts at the top. Encourage your management team and fellow owners (if any) to regularly interact with customers. Doing so cements customer relationships and communicates to employees that cultivating these contacts is part of your company culture and a foundation of its profitability.

Moving down the organizational chart, cultivate customer-service heroes. Post articles about the latest customer service achievements on your internal website or distribute companywide emails celebrating successes. Champion these heroes in meetings. Public praise turns ordinary employees into stars and encourages future service excellence.

Just be sure to empower employees to make timely decisions. Don’t just talk about catering to customers unless your staff can really take the initiative to act accordingly.

Systemize your responsiveness

Like everyone in today’s data-driven world, customers want immediate information. So, strive to provide instant or at least timely feedback to customers with a highly visible, technologically advanced response system. This will let customers know that their input matters and you’ll reward them for speaking up.

The specifics of this system will depend on the size, shape and specialty of the business itself. It should encompass the right combination of instant, electronic responses to customer inquiries along with phone calls and, where appropriate, face-to-face (or direct virtual) interactions that reinforce how much you value their business.

Continue to adjust

By now, you’ve likely implemented a few adjustments to serving your customers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many businesses have done so, with common measures including:

  • Explaining what you’re doing to cope with the crisis,
  • Being more flexible with payment plans and deadlines, and
  • Exercising greater patience and empathy.

As the months go on, don’t rest on your laurels. Continually reassess your approach to customer service and make adjustments that suit the changing circumstances of not only the pandemic, but also your industry and local economy. Seize opportunities to help customers and watch out for mistakes that could hurt your company’s reputation and revenue.

Don’t give up

This year has put everyone under unforeseen amounts of stress and, in turn, providing world-class customer services has become even more difficult. Keep at it — your extra efforts now could lay the groundwork for a much stronger customer base in the future. Our firm can help you assess your customer service and calculate its impact on revenue and profitability.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

With the federal gift and estate tax exemption now at a record high $11.58 million for 2020, most estates aren’t taxable. But that doesn’t mean making lifetime gifts isn’t without significant benefits — even if your estate isn’t taxable under the current rules. Let’s examine reasons why gifting remains an important part of estate planning.

Lifetime gifts reduce estate taxes

If your estate exceeds the exemption amount — or you believe it will in the future — regular lifetime gifts can substantially reduce your estate tax bill. The annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give up to $15,000 per recipient annually tax-free without using up any of your gift and estate tax exemption. In addition, direct payments of tuition or medical expenses on behalf of your loved ones are excluded from gift tax.

Taxable gifts — meaning gifts beyond the annual exclusion amount and not eligible for the tuition and medical expense exclusion — can also reduce estate tax liability by removing future appreciation from your taxable estate. You may be better off paying gift tax on an asset’s current value rather than estate tax on its appreciated value down the road.

When gifting appreciable assets, however, be sure to consider the potential income tax implications. Property transferred at death receives a “stepped-up basis” equal to its date-of-death fair market value, which means the recipient can turn around and sell the property free of capital gains taxes. Property transferred during life retains your tax basis, so it’s important to weigh the estate tax savings against the potential income tax costs.

Tax laws aren’t permanent

Even if your estate is within the exemption amount now, it pays to make regular gifts. Why? Because even though the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act doubled the exemption amount, and that amount will be adjusted annually for inflation, the doubling expires after 2025. Without further legislation, the exemption will return to an inflation-adjusted $5 million in 2026.

The good news is that the IRS issued final regulations in late 2019 that should provide comfort to taxpayers interested in making large gifts under the current gift and estate tax regime. The concern was that a taxpayer would make gifts during his or her lifetime based on the higher exemption, only to have their credit calculated based on the amount in effect at the time of death.

To address this fear, the final regs provide a special rule for such circumstances that allows the estate to compute its estate tax credit using the higher of the exemption amount applicable to gifts made during life or the amount applicable on the date of death.

Gifts provide nontax benefits

Tax planning aside, there are other reasons to make lifetime gifts. For example, perhaps you wish to use gifting to shape your family members’ behavior — for example, by providing gifts to those who attend college.

Regardless of the amount of your wealth, consider a program of regular lifetime giving. We can help you devise and incorporate a gifting program as part of your estate plan.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Wouldn’t it be great if your employees worked as if they owned the company? An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) could make this a reality.

Under an ESOP, employee participants take part ownership of the business through a retirement savings arrangement. Meanwhile, the business and its existing owner(s) can benefit from some tax breaks, an extra-motivated workforce and a clearer path to a smooth succession.

How they work

To implement an ESOP, you establish a trust fund and either:

  • Contribute shares of stock or money to buy the stock (an “unleveraged” ESOP), or
  • Borrow funds to initially buy the stock, and then contribute cash to the plan to enable it to repay the loan (a “leveraged” ESOP).

The shares in the trust are allocated to individual employees’ accounts, often using a formula based on their respective compensation. The business must formally adopt the plan and submit plan documents to the IRS, along with certain forms.

Tax impact

Among the biggest benefits of an ESOP is that contributions to qualified retirement plans (including ESOPs) are typically tax-deductible for employers. However, employer contributions to all defined contribution plans, including ESOPs, are generally limited to 25% of covered payroll. But C corporations with leveraged ESOPs can deduct contributions used to pay interest on the loans. That is, the interest isn’t counted toward the 25% limit.

Dividends paid on ESOP stock passed through to employees or used to repay an ESOP loan may be tax-deductible for C corporations, so long as they’re reasonable. Dividends voluntarily reinvested by employees in company stock in the ESOP also are usually deductible by the business. (Employees, however, should review the tax implications of dividends.)

In another potential benefit, shareholders in some closely held C corporations can sell stock to the ESOP and defer federal income taxes on any gains from the sales, with several stipulations. One is that the ESOP must own at least 30% of the company’s stock immediately after the sale. In addition, the sellers must reinvest the proceeds (or an equivalent amount) in qualified replacement property securities of domestic operation corporations within a set period.

Finally, when a business owner is ready to retire or otherwise depart the company, the business can make tax-deductible contributions to the ESOP to buy out the departing owner’s shares or have the ESOP borrow money to buy the shares.

Risks to consider

An ESOP’s tax impact for entity types other than C corporations varies somewhat from what we’ve discussed here. And while these plans do offer many potential benefits, they also present risks such as complexity of setup and administration and a strain on cash flow in some situations. Please contact us to discuss further. We can help you determine whether an ESOP would make sense for your business.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, students are going back to school this fall, either remotely, in-person or under a hybrid schedule. In any event, parents may be eligible for certain tax breaks to help defray the cost of education.

Here is a summary of some of the tax breaks available for education.

1. Higher education tax credits. Generally, you may be able to claim either one of two tax credits for higher education expenses — but not both.

  • With the American Opportunity Tax Credit (AOTC), you can save a maximum of $2,500 from your tax bill for each full-time college or grad school student. This applies to qualified expenses including tuition, room and board, books and computer equipment and other supplies. But the credit is phased out for moderate-to-upper income taxpayers. No credit is allowed if your modified adjusted gross income (MAGI) is over $90,000 ($180,000 for joint filers).
  • The Lifetime Learning Credit (LLC) is similar to the AOTC, but there are a few important distinctions. In this case, the maximum credit is $2,000 instead of $2,500. Furthermore, this is the overall credit allowed to a taxpayer regardless of the number of students in the family. However, the LLC is also phased out under income ranges even lower than the AOTC. You can’t claim the credit if your MAGI is $68,000 or more ($136,000 or more if you file a joint return).

For these reasons, the AOTC is generally preferable to the LLC. But parents have still another option.

2. Tuition-and-fees deduction. As an alternative to either of the credits above, parents may claim an above-the-line deduction for tuition and related fees. This deduction is either $4,000 or $2,000, depending on the taxpayer’s MAGI, before it is phased out. No deduction is allowed for MAGI above $80,000 for single filers and $160,000 for joint filers.

The tuition-and-fees deduction, which has been extended numerous times, is currently scheduled to expire after 2020. However, it’s likely to be revived again by Congress.

In addition to these tax breaks, there are other ways to save and pay for college on a tax advantaged basis. These include using Section 529 plans and Coverdell Education Savings Accounts. There are limits on contributions to these saving vehicles.

Note: Thanks to a provision in the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, a 529 plan can now be used to pay for up to $10,000 annually for a child’s tuition at a private or religious elementary or secondary school.

Final lesson

Typically, parents are able to take advantage of one or more of these tax breaks, even though some benefits are phased out above certain income levels. Contact us to maximize the tax breaks for your children’s education.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

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