Monthly Archives: November 2016

Tips to Improving Your Small Business Profits

Every business needs to earn money to keep itself going. In a standard, for-profit company, your profit margin — the difference between your sales revenue and business expenses — often dictates your ability to grow and expand. But as a small company, how can you gain the momentum you need to increase that margin?

Whether you want to get your startup on the path to profitability or simply increase your overall profit margin, here are five ways you may not have thought of.

Focus on your customer experience
The people who purchase your products or services are the reason you have profits at all. It makes sense, then, that increasing those profits begins with honing in on the customer experience, said Yossi Caspi, general manager of North America for Nanorep, a provider of customer self-service solutions.

“Customer service can have a big impact on revenue, with data showing that more than half (52 percent) of consumers have switched providers due to poor customer service,” Caspi said. “A better customer experience will lead to lower purchase abandonment and higher loyalty, ultimately resulting in increased customer retention, brand recognition and profitability.”

Kestrel Linder, CEO of GiveCampus, a crowdfunding platform for schools, agreed, adding that customer sentiment, particularly about your product, can have a greater impact on your profit margin than your business model does. [See Related Story: Want to Boost Sales? Hire a Diverse Team]

“You must prioritize your product and your user,” Linder said. “If you build a great product that people badly want, you create time and space to refine the business model to go with it. By contrast, if you don’t make something people want, no business model can save you.”

Carefully track and justify your expenses
Starting a business comes with a lot of risk and variables, but one thing that’s entirely in your control is how much you spend. Linder noted that keeping a close eye on your finances — and making tough decisions about spending when necessary — can help keep your budget in check.

“You should know where every penny goes and what you get for it,” Linder said. “At GiveCampus, we routinely review all of our expenditures and force ourselves to justify each one in terms of the value that comes from it. We discuss how the expenditure is helping us grow [and] how it is helping us build a better product. If we can’t answer these questions in specific and precise terms, we cut the expenditure.”

“Identify where you’re spending your money … and then ruthlessly strip expenses that aren’t necessary,” added Harj Taggar, CEO of Triplebyte and a former Y Combinator partner. “Start by looking at every recurring charge you have to see if you need every subscription, or if you can renegotiate rates on existing services you’re subscribed to.”

Omar Aguilar, Americas strategy and operations leader and global strategic cost transformation leader at Deloitte Consulting LLP, added that cost-efficient practices can make things easier. These can include demand-based spending on travel and energy usage, and evaluating fixed expenses like your commercial lease, he said.

“Making more costs variable, rather than fixed, will also help address these challenges,” Aguilar said.

Look for partnership opportunities
A startup’s smaller scale can often make becoming cost-efficient a challenge, said Aguilar.

“Generally, they don’t have … [the] developed practices to spur growth like larger companies, so it can be more difficult for them to be cost-efficient,” Aguilar said. “For example, when a company buys more products, it receives more savings, but small companies have [smaller-scale] buying power than larger ones.”

One solution, Aguilar said, is to reduce the complexity of your operations. You may be able to consolidate suppliers, negotiate with vendors and suppliers, or participate in a shopping co-op to pool resources with others and buy things at lower cost.

Let data drive your decisions
Businesses generate mountains of data about their customers, sales, marketing campaigns and other key operational areas, just over the course of a regular day. Guy Amisano, CEO of Salient Management Company, a provider of retail-focused analytics tools, said the answer to increasing profits can be found in all this data. The key, he said, is to use the data to effectively drive the action.

Businesses need to “get specific and timely intelligence to the hands of decision makers,” Amisano told Business News Daily. “A better understanding of the history of investment and return can drive better, more effective decisions, and thus better results, over time.”

He added that granting data access to all levels of management “dramatically shortens the time-eating circuitry of communication and consensus by instantly exposing outlier behaviors and the root causes of variation.”

Understand (and increase) your value
Last, but certainly not least, your company needs to understand what makes it unique and different from other companies, and leverage that difference to justify a higher price than some of your larger competitors.

“The healthiest way to improve profits is by charging your customers more money and not see any drop-off [in sales], because they’re getting so much value from the product,” Taggar said. “This means you can boost profits without sacrificing your growth rate at all.”

Aguilar noted that innovative business models can help smaller businesses provide more value to customers.

“Small companies can consider alternative concepts and explore digital tools to help differentiate themselves,” he said. “Given their scale, small companies can go into digital models faster and focus more on innovation, enabling them to be more disruptive. Companies that have made it, and made a big impact in the marketplace, have been successful with different models.”

Let’s Learn About Tax Audit

With the beginning of tax season just a few weeks away, many business owners will soon be turning their attention to their tax returns. One concern that inevitably creeps into many taxpayers’ minds is the possibility of being audited by the IRS.

A tax audit is an examination of an organization’s or individual’s tax return to verify that financial information is being reported correctly. While the chances of being singled out for closer scrutiny are statistically low, there are factors that could increase your odds of receiving an audit notice. Fortunately, there are measures you can take now to minimize future problems.

What triggers an audit?
A variety of potential “triggers” in tax returns tend to raise questions and attract unwanted attention from the IRS. The IRS uses a computer scoring system, called the Discriminant Information Function (DIF) system, which analyzes tax deductions, compares taxpayer data, and is often the basis for initiating an audit.

According to TurboTax, issues can crop up when income is not fully reported or business operating losses are considered out of the ordinary. Other audit triggers may include errors or inconsistencies in the return, omissions, lavish business-expense deductions for meals and entertainment, and a sharp drop in reported income from one year to the next. Exceptionally large charitable deductions can sometimes trigger an IRS audit, but they’re usually allowed when a taxpayer has receipts and documentation to back them up.

Another item likely to prompt the IRS to dig deeper is having money in a foreign bank account. Examiners also pay closer attention to cash-intensive businesses such as restaurants and convenience stores, which generate a lot of cash receipts from smaller transactions.

Although most business owners and other taxpayers cringe at the idea of having to defend their tax return in an IRS audit, there’s usually little reason to worry. In its 2015 Data Book, the IRS reported that most audits (72.6 percent) were resolved via correspondence, rather than face-to-face meetings. The remaining 27.4 percent were conducted in the field (at the taxpayer’s place of business or CPA’s office) or at an IRS facility. While nearly 1.4 million tax returns were examined, that number represents a relatively small percentage (less than 1 percent) of the more than 150 million individual returns received and processed every year.

Scott Berger, a CPA and principal at the Boca Raton, Florida, office of Kaufman Rossin, said the IRS is moving more toward correspondence audits, which can impact individual taxpayers, small businesses and sole proprietorships. With this type of audit, the taxpayer receives a notice from the IRS saying that the agency is examining a tax return and has questions about specific line items. The purpose of the notification is usually to request supporting documentation for the line items being questioned.

How to minimize risk
Berger said one of the best ways to reduce your chances of being audited is to keep detailed records. This also helps ensure that if you are questioned by the IRS, you’ll be able to substantiate deductions, income and other information. He recommended organizing bookkeeping systems to create a clear and accurate record of all transactions, as well as maintaining and preserving the source documents used for accounting and tax preparation.

“The other thing I would recommend that somebody do is hire a bookkeeper,” Berger said. “Look at what it’s going to save you, not what it’s going to cost you.”

With the assistance of a knowledgeable bookkeeper or tax preparer, “issues will be vetted before [they’re] presented on a tax return,” Berger said. Accounting and bookkeeping professionals can also help substantiate and validate information reported to the IRS, he added.

What to do if you get an audit notice
Berger and other tax professionals said they generally advise against communicating directly with the IRS if you do receive an audit letter. Berger said his clients often tell him that because they have nothing to hide, they want to call the IRS and let them know that. Based on his nearly 30 years as a CPA, Berger thinks that’s a bad idea.

“Generally speaking, nothing good ever comes out of that,” he said. “Yes, they have nothing to hide; the return is all on the up and up, but this person on the other side of the phone has a job to do, and their job is to make sure the government collects all the taxes that it [legitimately] can.”

Berger also cautioned that IRS audit letters are always sent by postal mail, so phone calls or notifications sent via email are invariably scams.

Martin Press, a tax attorney with Gunster law firm, agrees that clients should not represent themselves in tax audits. As soon as a small business owner receives an audit notice in the mail, they should immediately contact their CPA and provide him or her with a signed power-of-attorney form (#2848), he said. This authorizes either a CPA, tax attorney or enrolled agent to contact the IRS and handle the audit, without the taxpayer needing to be present. He also said the audit examination should be held at the CPA’s office and not the taxpayer’s place of business.

Press said clients are always relieved when he informs them that they do not have to appear before the IRS — either initially or at any time down the road.

“The IRS, many times, claims that they have to start out with an interview of the taxpayer,” Press said. “There is no obligation for a taxpayer to do an interview at the beginning of a tax examination. Under what we call a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, they may never have to give an interview with the Internal Revenue Service.”

Although taxpayers are not required to meet directly with the IRS, an examination of a small business taxpayer is usually not over quickly; it often takes a minimum of six months to a year to resolve, Press said. If no resolution is reached, however, or if taxpayers wish to dispute the outcome of the initial audit, they do have a right to appeal it. Statistics released in the IRS’ 2015 Data Book show that a relatively small percentage of audited taxpayers decide to pursue further action. “Of the almost 1.4 million examinations of tax returns, nearly 28,000 taxpayers did not agree with the IRS examiner’s determination,” the report said.

How to Handle Audited It Like a Pro

For many businesses, the end of the calendar year means the beginning of tax season. As you prepare your receipts, invoices and other financial documents from the past 12 months, you may be concerned about the possibility of a dreaded tax audit.

As stressful and overwhelming as an audit may seem, there’s no need to panic. It does need to be taken seriously, but audits often deal with simple data or reporting errors that the IRS suspects may have occurred, said Frank Pohl, an attorney at Gunster law firm. He reminded business owners that not all tax audits end adversely for taxpayers.

If you do receive an audit notice, here’s what to do to make the process go as smoothly as possible, and to minimize any negative impact on your business.

1. Review the audit letter carefully.
Open the letter promptly, and understand what information the IRS needs from you, Pohl said. If you don’t have a designated financial adviser, hire an accountant or tax attorney to help you go through the audit letter and identify the issues the IRS has flagged. Pohl also warned not to delay action or ignore the letter.

“The IRS will not go away, and not acting promptly may only make the auditor suspicious or antagonistic,” he said.

For security purposes, if you are being audited, you will receive a mailed letter, Pohl said. Scammers will often masquerade as the IRS by sending emails or leaving phone messages in an attempt to get your personal data, but the real IRS does not communicate with taxpayers in these ways, Pohl said.

2. Get your records organized.
Before you and your tax professional respond to the IRS and/or meet with an auditor, take the time to dig up and organize all of your business records from the past tax year, said Kimberly Foss, a certified financial planner (CFP) and author of “Wealthy by Design” (Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2013). This includes receipts and invoices for income and expenses, bank statements and canceled checks, accounting books and ledgers, hard copies of tax-prep data, and leases or titles for business property, she said. If the IRS has requested specific documents to review, be sure you have those readily accessible as well.

3. Answer the auditor’s questions (and that’s it).
When you sit down with the auditor, you’ll be asked numerous questions about the information reported on your tax return. Our expert sources agreed that you should not volunteer any information you are not required to give.

“Just respond with the information [that is] requested,” Pohl told Business News Daily. “Providing unneeded or unasked-for information may lead to more questions … and additional issues.”

“Be straightforward in responding to questions, but don’t manufacture excuses,” Foss added.

Similarly, an article on NOLO.com advises not to bring or discuss any documents from previous tax years unless asked: “Don’t give copies of other years’ tax returns to the auditor. In fact, don’t bring … any documents that do not pertain to the year under audit or were not specifically requested by the audit notice,” said the article.

Keeping your tax professional involved
Dealing with the IRS can be stressful, and if you’re concerned about what you might say, it’s wise to let your tax professional do the talking for you. Sandy Gohlke, a CPA, chartered global management accountant and principal at Rehmann financial services company, advised giving the IRS a signed power-of-attorney agreement that will allow the IRS to deal directly with your tax professional. That takes you out of the loop and puts them in, she said.

Pohl agreed, and said that even if your tax professional doesn’t have power of attorney, you should still have him or her present when you meet with an IRS auditor. He also advised business owners not to get defensive or hostile during the interview.

“The auditor … cannot and will not forgive and tax debt or mistakes, and any admissions you make can be used against you,” Pohl said. “Adopting an antagonistic attitude risks alienating the auditor, [which] will not be in your best interest.”

Avoiding future audits
Gohlke reminded business owners that audits are generally random, and you can’t prevent them entirely. However, some companies are selected because of certain “red flag” expenses — either amounts or types — that are out of the ordinary and would cause a second look, she said.

Foss noted that bank transfers and other financial records beyond your receipts should be tracked, and anything that can’t be explained on the standard IRS form should be explained on paper. She also advised double-checking all of your math before filing.

“Keep proper documentation, and only deduct ordinary and necessary business expenses that are allowed by the IRS,” Gohlke added. “Even if you are selected for an audit, you will know you have nothing to worry about.”