Four Business Functions You Could Outsource Right Now

One thing in plentiful supply in today’s business world is help. Orbiting every industry are providers, consultancies and independent contractors offering a wide array of support services. Simply put, it’s never been easier to outsource certain business functions so you can better focus on fulfilling your company’s mission and growing its bottom line. Here are four such functions to consider:

  1. Information technology. This is the most obvious and time-tested choice. Bringing in an outside firm or consultant to handle your IT systems can provide the benefits we’ve mentioned — particularly in the sense of enabling you to stay on task and not get diverted by technology’s constant changes. A competent provider will stay on top of the latest, optimal hardware and software for your business, as well as help you better access, store and protect your data.
  2. Payroll and other HR functions. These areas are subject to many complex regulations and laws that change frequently — as does the software needed to track and respond to the revisions. A worthy vendor will be able to not only adjust to these changes, but also give you and your staff online access to payroll and HR data that allows employees to get immediate answers to their questions.
  3. Customer service. This may seem an unlikely candidate because you might believe that, for someone to represent your company, he or she must work for it. But this isn’t necessarily so — internal customer service departments often have a high turnover rate, which drives up the costs of maintaining them and drives down customer satisfaction. Outsourcing to a provider with a more stable, loyal staff can make everyone happier.
  4. Accounting. You could bring in an outside expert to handle your accounting and financial reporting. A reputable provider can manage your books, collect payments, pay invoices and keep your accounting technology up to date. The right provider can also help generate financial statements that will meet the desired standards of management, investors and lenders.

Naturally, there are potential downsides to outsourcing these or other functions. You’ll incur a substantial and regular cost in engaging a provider. It will be critical to get an acceptable return on that investment. You’ll also have to place considerable trust in any vendor — there’s always a chance that trust could be misplaced. Last, even a good outsourcing arrangement will entail some time and energy on your part to maintain the relationship.

Is this the year your business dips its toe in the vast waters of outsourced services? Maybe. Our firm can help you answer this question, choose the right function to outsource (if the answer is yes) and identify a provider likely to offer the best value.

Do Your Long-Term Customers Know Everything About You?

A technician at a mobility equipment supplier was servicing the motorized wheelchair of a long-time customer and noticed it was a brand-new model. “Where did you buy the chair?” he asked the customer. “At the health care supply store on the other side of town,” the customer replied. The technician paused and then asked, “Well, why didn’t you buy the chair from us?” The customer replied, “I didn’t know you sold wheelchairs.”

Look deeper

Most business owners would likely agree that selling to existing customers is much easier than finding new ones. Yet many companies continue to squander potential sales to long-term, satisfied customers simply because they don’t create awareness of all their products and services.

It seems puzzling that the long-time customer in our example wouldn’t know that his wheelchair service provider also sold wheelchairs. But when you look a little deeper, it’s easy to understand why.

The repair customer always visited the repair shop, which had a separate entrance. While the customer’s chair was being repaired, he sat in the waiting area, which provided a variety of magazines but no product brochures or other promotional materials. The customer had no idea that a new sales facility was on the other side of the building until the technician asked about the new wheelchair.

Be inquisitive

Are you losing business from long-term customers because of a similar disconnect? To find out, ask yourself two fundamental questions:

  1. Are your customers buying everything they need from you? To find the answer, you must thoroughly understand your customers’ needs. Identify your top tier of customers — say, the 20% who provide 80% of your revenue. What do they buy from you? What else might they need? Don’t just take orders from them; learn everything you can about their missions, strategic plans and operations.
  2. Are your customers aware of everything you offer? The quickest way to learn this is, simply, to ask. Instruct your salespeople to regularly inquire about whether customers would be interested in products or services they’ve never bought. Also, add flyers, brochures or catalogs to orders when you fulfill them. Consider building greater awareness by hosting free lunches or festive corporate events to educate your customers on the existence and value of your products and services.

Raise awareness

If you have long-term customers, you must be doing something right — and that’s to your company’s credit. But, remember, it’s not out of the question that you could lose any one of those customers if they’re unaware of your full spectrum of products and services. That’s an open opportunity for a competitor.

By taking steps to raise awareness of your products and services, you’ll put yourself in a better position to increase sales and profitability. Our firm can help you identify your strongest revenue sources and provide further ideas for enhancing them.

A Refresher on Major Tax Law Changes for Small-Business Owners

The dawning of 2019 means the 2018 income tax filing season will soon be upon us. After year end, it’s generally too late to take action to reduce 2018 taxes. Business owners may, therefore, want to shift their focus to assessing whether they’ll likely owe taxes or get a refund when they file their returns this spring, so they can plan accordingly.

With the biggest tax law changes in decades — under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) — generally going into effect beginning in 2018, most businesses and their owners will be significantly impacted. So, refreshing yourself on the major changes is a good idea.

Taxation of pass-through entities

These changes generally affect owners of S corporations, partnerships and limited liability companies (LLCs) treated as partnerships, as well as sole proprietors:

  • Drops of individual income tax rates ranging from 0 to 4 percentage points (depending on the bracket) to 10%, 12%, 22%, 24%, 32%, 35%, and 37%
  • A new 20% qualified business income deduction for eligible owners (the Section 199A deduction)
  • Changes to many other tax breaks for individuals that will impact owners’ overall tax liability

Taxation of corporations

These changes generally affect C corporations, personal service corporations (PSCs) and LLCs treated as C corporations:

  • Replacement of graduated corporate rates ranging from 15% to 35% with a flat corporate rate of 21%
  • Replacement of the flat PSC rate of 35% with a flat rate of 21%
  • Repeal of the 20% corporate alternative minimum tax (AMT)

Tax break positives

These changes generally apply to both pass-through entities and corporations:

  • Doubling of bonus depreciation to 100% and expansion of qualified assets to include used assets
  • Doubling of the Section 179 expensing limit to $1 million and an increase of the expensing phaseout threshold to $2.5 million
  • A new tax credit for employer-paid family and medical leave

Tax break negatives

These changes generally also apply to both pass-through entities and corporations:

  • A new disallowance of deductions for net interest expense in excess of 30% of the business’s adjusted taxable income (exceptions apply)
  • New limits on net operating loss (NOL) deductions
  • Elimination of the Section 199 deduction (not to be confused with the new Sec.199A deduction), which was for qualified domestic production activities and commonly referred to as the “manufacturers’ deduction”
  • A new rule limiting like-kind exchanges to real property that is not held primarily for sale (generally no more like-kind exchanges for personal property)
  • New limitations on deductions for certain employee fringe benefits, such as entertainment and, in certain circumstances, meals and transportation

Preparing for 2018 filing

Keep in mind that additional rules and limits apply to the rates and breaks covered here. Also, these are only some of the most significant and widely applicable TCJA changes; you and your business could be affected by other changes as well. Contact us to learn precisely how you might be affected and for help preparing for your 2018 tax return filing — and beginning to plan for 2019, too.

Devote Some Time to Internal Leadership Development

Many factors go into the success of a company. You’ve got to offer high-quality products or services, provide outstanding customer service, and manage your inventory or supply chain. But there’s at least one other success factor that many business owners often overlook: internal leadership training and development.

Even if all your executive and management positions are filled with seasoned leaders right now, there’s still a major benefit to continually training, coaching and mentoring employees for leadership responsibilities. After all, even someone who doesn’t work in management can champion a given initiative or project that brings in revenue or elevates the company’s public image.

Ideas to consider

Internal leadership development is practiced when owners and executives devote time to helping current managers as well as employees who might one day be promoted to positions of leadership.

To do this, shift your mindset from being only “the boss” to being someone who holds an important responsibility to share leadership knowledge with others. Here are a few tips to consider:

  • Contribute to performance development. Most employees’ performance reviews will reveal both strengths and weaknesses. Sit down with current and potential leaders and generously share your knowledge and experience to bolster strong points and shore up shortcomings.
  • Invite current and potential leaders to meetings. Give them the opportunity to participate in important meetings they might not otherwise attend, and solicit their input during these gatherings. This includes both internal meetings and interactions with external vendors, customers and prospects. Again, look to reinforce positive behaviors and offer guidance on areas of growth.
  • Introduce them to the wider community. Get current and potential leaders involved with an industry trade association or a local chamber of commerce. By meeting and networking with others in your industry, these individuals can get a broader perspective on the challenges that your company faces — as well as its opportunities.
  • Give them real decision-making authority. Probably not right away but, at some point, put a new leader to the test. Give them control of a project and then step back and observe the results. Don’t be afraid to let them fail if their decisions don’t pan out. This can help your most promising employees learn real-world lessons now that can prove invaluable in the future.

Benefits beyond

Dedicating some time and energy to internal leadership development can pay off in ways beyond having well-trained managers. You’ll likely boost retention by strengthening relationships with your best employees. Furthermore, you may discover potential problems and avail yourself of new ideas that, otherwise, may have never reached you. Our firm can provide further information and other ideas.

Reduce Insurance Costs by Encouraging Employee Wellness

Protecting your company through the purchase of various forms of insurance is a risk-management necessity. But just because you must buy coverage doesn’t mean you can’t manage the cost of doing so.

Obviously, the safer your workplace, the less likely you’ll incur costly claims and high workers’ compensation premiums. There are, however, bigger-picture issues that you can confront to also lessen the likelihood of expensive payouts. These issues tend to fall under the broad category of employee wellness.

Physical well-being

When you read the word “wellness,” your first thought may be of a formal wellness program at your workplace. Indeed, one of these — properly designed and implemented — can help lower or at least control health care coverage costs.

Wellness programs typically focus on one or more of three types of services/activities:

  1. Health screenings to identify medical risks (with employee consent),
  2. Disease management to support people with existing chronic conditions, and
  3. Lifestyle management to encourage healthier behavior (for example, diet or smoking cessation).

The Affordable Care Act offers incentives to employers that establish qualifying company wellness programs. As mentioned, though, it’s critical to choose the right “size and shape” program to get a worthwhile return on investment.

Mental health

Beyond promoting physical well-being, your business can also encourage mental health wellness to help you avoid or prevent claims involving:

  • Discrimination,
  • Wrongful termination,
  • Sexual harassment, or
  • Other toxic workplace issues.

If you’ve already invested in employment practices liability insurance, you know that it doesn’t come cheap and premiums can skyrocket after just one or two incidents. But, in today’s highly litigious society, many businesses consider such coverage a must-have.

Controlling these costs starts with training. When employees are taught (and reminded) to behave appropriately and understand company policies, they have much less ground to stand on when considering lawsuits. And, on a more positive note, a well-trained workforce should get along better and, thereby, operate in a more upbeat, friendly environment.

To take mental health wellness one step further, you could implement an employee assistance program (EAP). This is a voluntary and confidential way to connect employees to outside providers who can help them manage substance abuse and mental health issues. Although it will call for an upfront investment, an EAP can lower insurance costs over the long term by discouraging lifestyle choices that tend to lead to accidents and lawsuits.

Hand in hand

Happy and healthy — there’s a reason these two words go hand in hand. Create a workforce that’s both and you’ll stand a much better chance of maintaining affordable insurance premiums. We can provide further information on how to reduce potential liability and lower the costs of various forms of business insurance.

Following the ABCs of Customer Assessment

When a business is launched, its owners typically welcome every customer through the door with a sigh of relief. But after the company has established itself, those same owners might start looking at their buying constituency a little more critically.

If your business has reached this point, regularly assessing your customer base is indeed an important strategic planning activity. One way to approach it is to simply follow the ABCs.

Assign profitability levels

First, pick a time period — perhaps one, three, or five years — and calculate the profitability level of each customer or group of customers based on sales numbers and both direct and indirect costs. (We can help you choose the ideal calculations and run the numbers.)

Once you’ve determined the profitability of each customer or group of customers, divide them into three groups:

  1. The A group consists of highly profitable customers whose business you’d like to expand.
  2. The B group comprises customers who aren’t extremely profitable, but still positively contribute to your bottom line.
  3. The C group includes those customers who are dragging down your profitability. These are the customers you can’t afford to keep.

Act accordingly

With the A customers, your objective should be to grow your business relationship with them. Identify what motivates them to buy, so you can continue to meet their needs. Is it something specific about your products or services? Is it your customer service? Developing a good understanding of this group will help you not only build your relationship with these critical customers, but also target marketing efforts to attract other, similar ones.

Category B customers have value but, just by virtue of sitting in the middle, they can slide either way. There’s a good chance that, with the right mix of product and marketing resources, some of them can be turned into A customers. Determine which ones have the most in common with your best customers; then focus your marketing efforts on them and track the results.

When it comes to the C group, spend a nominal amount of time to see whether any of them might move up the ladder. It’s likely, though, that most of your C customers simply aren’t a good fit for your company. Fortunately, firing your least desirable customers won’t require much effort. Simply curtail your marketing and sales efforts, or stop them entirely, and most will wander off on their own.

Cut costs; bring in more

The thought of purposefully losing customers may seem like a sure recipe for disaster. But doing so can help you cut fruitless costs and bring in more revenue from engaged buyers. Our firm can help you review the pertinent financial data and develop a customer strategy that builds your bottom line.

Tax-free Fringe Benefits Help Small Businesses and Their Employees

In today’s tightening job market, to attract and retain the best employees, small businesses need to offer not only competitive pay, but also appealing fringe benefits. Benefits that are tax-free are especially attractive to employees. Let’s take a quick look at some popular options.

Insurance

Businesses can provide their employees with various types of insurance on a tax-free basis. Here are some of the most common:

Health insurance.  If you maintain a health care plan for employees, coverage under the plan isn’t taxable to them. Employee contributions are excluded from income if pretax coverage is elected under a cafeteria plan. Otherwise, such amounts are included in their wages, but may be deductible on a limited basis as an itemized deduction.

Disability insurance.  Your premium payments aren’t included in employees’ income, nor are your contributions to a trust providing disability benefits. Employees’ premium payments (or other contributions to the plan) generally aren’t deductible by them or excludable from their income. However, they can make pretax contributions to a cafeteria plan for disability benefits, which are excludable from their income.

Long-term care insurance.  Your premium payments aren’t taxable to employees. However, long-term care insurance can’t be provided through a cafeteria plan.

Other types of tax-advantaged benefits

Insurance isn’t the only type of tax-free benefit you can provide — but the tax treatment of certain benefits has changed under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act:

Dependent care assistance.  You can provide employees with tax-free dependent care assistance up to $5,000 for 2018 though a dependent care Flexible Spending Account (FSA), also known as a Dependent Care Assistance Program (DCAP).

Adoption assistance.  For employees who’re adopting children, you can offer an employee adoption assistance program. Employees can exclude from their taxable income up to $13,810 of adoption benefits in 2018.

Educational assistance.  You can help employees on a tax-free basis through educational assistance plans (up to $5,250 per year), job-related educational assistance and qualified scholarships.

Moving expense reimbursement. Before the TCJA, if you reimbursed employees for qualifying job-related moving expenses, the reimbursement could be excluded from the employee’s income. The TCJA suspends this break for 2018 through 2025. However, such reimbursements may still be deductible by your business.

Transportation benefits.  Qualified employee transportation fringe benefits, such as parking allowances, mass transit passes and van pooling, are tax-free to recipient employees. However, the TCJA suspends through 2025 the business deduction for providing such benefits. It also suspends the tax-free benefit of up to $20 a month for bicycle commuting.

Varying tax treatment

As you can see, the tax treatment of fringe benefits varies. Contact us for more information.

A Strong BYOD Policy Combines Convenience & Security

It’s easy to understand why more and more businesses are taking a “bring your own device” (BYOD) approach to the smartphones, tablets, and laptops many employees rely on to do their jobs. BYOD can boost employee efficiency and satisfaction, often while reducing a company’s IT costs. But the approach isn’t without risk for both you and your staff. So, it’s highly advisable to create a strong formal policy that combines convenience with security.

Primary concerns

As an employer, your primary concern with BYOD is no doubt the inevitable security risks that arise when your networks are accessible to personal devices that could be stolen, lost, or hacked. But you also must think about various legal compliance issues, such as electronic document retention for litigation purposes or liability for overtime pay when nonexempt employees use their devices to work outside of normal hours.

For employees, the main worry comes down to privacy. Will you, their employer, have access to personal information, photos and other non-work-related data on the device? Could an employee lose all of that if you’re forced to “wipe” the device because it’s been lost or stolen, or when the employee leaves your company?

Important obligations

A BYOD policy must address these and other issues. Each company’s individual circumstances will determine the final details, but most employers should, at minimum, require employees to sign an acknowledgment of their obligations to:

  • Use strong passwords and automatic lock-outs after periods of inactivity,
  • Immediately report lost or stolen devices,
  • Install mandated antivirus software and other protective measures,
  • Regularly back up their devices,
  • Keep apps and operating systems up to date, and
  • Encrypt their devices.

The policy also should prohibit the use of public wi-fi networks or require employees to log in through a secure virtual private network when connecting via public wi-fi. You may want to forbid certain apps, too.

In addition, you need to spell out your rights to access, monitor and delete data on employees’ devices — including the types of data you can access and under which conditions. In particular, explain your wiping procedures and the steps employees can take to protect their personal information from permanent erasure.

Protection now

Nearly everyone who works for your company likely has a smartphone at this point. As such devices integrate themselves ever more deeply into our daily lives, it’s only natural that they’ll affect our jobs. Establishing a BYOD policy now can help prevent costly mistakes and potential litigation down the road. We can provide further information.

Prepare for Valuation Issues in Your Buy-Sell Agreement

Every business with more than one owner needs a buy-sell agreement to handle both expected and unexpected ownership changes. When creating or updating yours, be sure you’re prepared for the valuation issues that will come into play.

Issues?  What issues?

Emotions tend to run high when owners face a “triggering event” that activates the buy-sell. Such events include the death of an owner, the divorce of married owners, or an owner dispute.

The departing owner (or his or her estate) suddenly is in the position of a seller who wants to maximize buyout proceeds. The buyer’s role is played by either the other owners or the business itself — and it’s in the buyer’s financial interest to pay as little as possible. A comprehensive buy-sell agreement takes away the guesswork and helps ensure that all parties are treated equitably.

Some owners decide to have the business valued annually to minimize surprises when a buyout occurs. This is often preferable to using a static valuation formula in the buy-sell agreement, because the value of the interest is likely to change as the business grows and market conditions evolve.

What are our protocols?

At minimum, the buy-sell agreement needs to prescribe various valuation protocols to follow when the agreement is triggered, including:

  • How “value” will be defined,
  • Who will value the business,
  • Whether valuation discounts will apply,
  • Who will pay appraisal fees, and
  • What the timeline will be for the valuation process.

It’s also important to discuss the appropriate “as of” date for valuing the business interest. The loss of a key person could affect the value of a business interest, so timing may be critical.

Are we ready?

Business owners tend to put planning issues on the back burner — especially when they’re young and healthy and owner relations are strong. But the more details that you put in place today, including a well-crafted buy-sell agreement with the right valuation components, the easier it will be to resolve buyout issues when they arise. Our firm would be happy to help.