Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The “Drive” To Pare Down Debt


During the 25 years I spent in publishing, I’ve taken more car service rides to airports or events than I care to remember. I used to keep a tally just for kicks but stopped at about 250.

So, a number of years ago when ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft debuted, I stubbornly continued either to avail myself of my local transportation service or use my personal car– which during convention season meant sticking it in long-term parking at JFK and LaGuardia.

Last month I’m sure I became just about the last person in the U.S. to take an Uber. The booking process was relatively easy – even for a technology Luddite like myself and the rides showed up promptly and certainly less expensive than my former method of getting around.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

What Are You “Wearing?”


For Mother’s Day my daughters decided to pitch in and present their mother with an upscale fitness tracker that resembles an oversized watch. Actually, it is an oversized watch. Since she’s a faithful gym attendee, it was both a practical necessary gift – although the early returns are in and she’s paying far more attention to it than she is any of us.

Recently, I had been noticing more gym members with fitness “wearables” obsessively monitoring their heart rates and oxygen levels (often to my annoyance while endlessly waiting to use a piece of equipment) and decided to perform some ad hoc research on the market.

Turns out that some 315 million wearable devices were sold worldwide last year and by 2022 – just four short years from now, sales are expected to top $75 billion, (yes, that’s with a B). Obviously high-profile wearables such as the Apple Watch dominate the category and according to tech research Gartner, sales of smartwatches will hit 81 million units within a span of three years.

That gave me pause.

Although I’m about three area codes of being knowledgeable on future tech trends, I could not help but harken back some 37 years ago when IBM rolled out its version of the PC and in just a few short years revolutionized back office accounting.

So my question is how long before wearable technology beings to make inroads into accounting?

Not long. In fact it already has.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Getting Your House in Order


Recently I went to a local restaurant with friends for a “quick” post-event meal – emphasis on “quick,” which turned out to be anything but. A glass of house wine arrived a mere 15 minutes after ordering and the specialty flatbread took almost an hour.

Our server could not be found on the side of a milk carton and as far as water was concerned, you could have gotten a refill faster stranded in the middle of the Mojave Desert.

Now to preface this fiasco, the place had recently received a lot of local press, primarily because the owners had opened several other locations throughout the Tri-State area. As one who covered the restaurant industry for 12 years and worked within its confines for another six, I tend to judge my dining experiences with a fairly critical eye but also with a bit of sympathy for those in one of the most demanding businesses there is.

But there are limits to even what I will tolerate.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Instant Replay


Now that another filing season is over, it’s usually about this time of year when my inbox begins to become overstuffed with reminders of upcoming conferences and subsequent links to their respective agendas.

By my count there are 14 prospective accounting-related events that I could conceivably attend by August, but for all practical purposes, will probably settle on one or two.

However like others in the profession, I’m becoming rapidly convinced that the time required, not to mention the expense of traveling to other cities, can be categorized by the law of diminishing returns. That coupled with the fact that the sessions staged in any specific year could simply be copied and pasted to events taking place in 2018.

As an example, I realize CPA firms have trouble getting good people. I’m reminded of it every day when I speak to clients. And yes, few would argue there is a significant cultural divide between Baby Boomers and Millennials that has to be addressed.

But tell me, does that scenario command roughly 14 sessions at several events dedicated to reaching out to Millennials and how to engage them? To me that’s the CPA version of summer television where reruns are the rule rather than the exception.

Ditto for blockchain and other pending disruptive technologies. At last count there were more than two dozen hours across the board assigned to that topic, not to mention a series of webinars.

Haven’t we seen this movie before?

Friday, April 20, 2018

“Rising” to the Occasion


Over the next several weeks, our company will begin in earnest contacting our CPA firm clients again to gauge their succession readiness or willingness. Or conversely, their lack thereof.

Traditionally, from mid-February until the end of April, our calls to clients are treated with equal disdain to those peddling replacement windows or the latest vacuum cleaner models. In other words, it’s one of the slower periods of the year.

So with tax software glitches, last-minute rule changes and of course, tardy clients who feel that it’s perfectly okay to send in their documents at 2 a.m. on deadline day, I like to re-engage these firms as soon as possible so that the aftertaste of another grueling season is not lost to revisionist history several months down the road.

But on a fee basis if nothing else, most of our clients should be pleased with the 2018 filing season as well as other accounting-related services they provide. Even though the oft-debated tax cuts enacted late last year curtailed the amount going this year to the coffers of the U.S. Treasury, the accountants and preparers were on the receiving end of record-breaking largesse in terms of client spending.

According to a recent survey, Americans doled out some $44 billion on accounting, tax prep, bookkeeping and payroll services in the fourth quarter of 2017. For those keeping score at home, that’s roughly $1 billion more than the year-ago period.

Distilling that figure down even further, it translates to about $135 for every person in the U.S.

On the taxpayer end, an estimated 65 percent of filers will receive a tax cut in 2018, according to the Tax Policy Center, averaging $2,200 from the new law’s individual provisions.

Closer to home, my long-time accountant Rocco said that his fees rose nearly 20 percent this year and that was without an increase or a bump up in the number of clients.

So the question arises, are there more people filing or is it a result of fee increases?

After observing the profession for nearly 20 years, my guess is that it’s an equitable mixture of both.

Whatever.

Not to throw out an oft-repeated cliché, but we’ll strike when the iron is hot and begin our annual client canvass when they’re relieved to have survived another season. And it won’t hurt that many of them will have a bit extra in their pocket.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

What’s Your Cybersecurity DQ?


For years the measure of someone’s intellect was the Intelligence Quotient or IQ. And anything over 130 was considered high. Growing up I recall there was a girl who lived on the next block who was rumored to have scored 180 as an 11-year old.

Needless to say I was never in any of her classes.

But as time wore on, it was discovered that such things as “environmental factors” can influence someone’s score by 20 points. That must have been why my teacher wrote “see me after class” on my test paper.

Today, with the advent of all things technological, there’s something called a DQ – or digital quotient, which measures your IT IQ so to speak. In a 2014 study conducted by a U.K.-based consulting firm it found that the average adult has a DQ of 96. By contrast, the average six-year-old had a DQ of 98.

I have never been completely comfortable in the tech arena, but with all the new advances encroaching (blockchain, AI, robotics) it has prompted us as a company to expand past our comfort zone of the CPA community and look at pairing our core clients with the higher end advisory and consulting services – HR and medical consulting, family offices, BPO and of course cybersecurity.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

“Thinking about it,” never cuts it


The summer between my junior and senior years in college, I worked for the now-defunct Jack LaLanne chain of health clubs. My job basically was to sell memberships to people who, in all honesty, most had no intention of embarking on a regular exercise regimen.

Also I was instructed in no uncertain terms to present them with a basic pricing model and then at the 11th hour convert them to what they referred to as the “platinum” tier. Many of you are probably familiar with this underhanded sales tactic – known fondly as “bait and switch.”

It probably goes a long way to explain why the chain is not around today. But if nothing else, I did learn one carryover sales tactic. When I had a prospect in the office who was on the fence about joining and admitted they’d been “thinking about it,” I countered by pointing out that “thinking about it” never got anyone in shape.

That worked about 50 percent of the time, which in sales terms was a pretty good conversion rate.

I sometimes think about that process when I visit CPA firms at the end of tax season which is fast encroaching. I try and schedule my appointments shortly after the filing deadline, so the aggravation and frustration of tax season is still fresh, especially for those firms who are in dire need of a succession plan. A few months down the road, what I like to call “revisionist history” sets in and suddenly those 14-hour days and seven day work weeks don’t seem so bad.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Some Things Are Almost Too Obvious


Years ago I remember watching a news segment which profiled a drawbridge that if memory serves, was located in Michigan’s famed tourist attraction - its Upper Peninsula.

Now for you Michiganders, you know that there isn’t a whole lot of activity in the “U.P.” from November to April. The same could be said for this particular structure, which for those six months, stretched across a frozen waterway devoid of any boat traffic. Yet some obscure state law mandated that the bridge be manned even during the off season. So each day someone sat in the small booth with obviously nothing to do until the spring thaw. Talk about a no-show job!

I believe that some years later, saner heads in the Wolverine State prevailed and the law was finally changed.

Talk about no-brainers. Here’s another.

Wellness programs.

I have been reading with increasing frequency about how a number of companies are attaching bonuses to them including a recent announcement from a Big Four firm which launched a $45 million investment for a broad-based program to include parental leave, child adoption, surrogacy, eldercare consultation and of course, health activities such as gym memberships.

Again, some policies should be automatic. Nearly 20 years ago, the CEO of the publishing house where I worked was beside himself because his health care claims were piling up and premiums rising steadily. So a number of us suggested he immediately discontinue the designated smoking room to help clear the air – literally – and strike a corporate rate membership with the new health club that had opened down the street.

He listened intently and then proceeded to ignore everything we suggested. It wasn’t until three years later that he finally acted on both. But in between he managed to sink $1 million into a failing newsletter and then grossly overpaid for a small medical publishing company. Predictably, his company today is a literal shell of what it once was – having siphoned off many of the marquee publishing titles to raise cash in order to stay afloat and just steps ahead of the creditors.

Some 30 years ago a podiatrist told me that medicine in the future will be predicated on the preventive rather than the traditional method of reactive treatment. I don’t think I need to explain how eerily accurate that statement was and wellness programs vs. preventive medicine combine to form a Venn diagram of that. Wellness should be policy at every company with the resources to subsidize such programs. Maybe there’s even a place somewhere for an ex-drawbridge operator.

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Working through tax season is what you make of it


Over the weekend, a friend of my youngest who works for a Big Four firm in its New York City office was complaining about the skill set of her managers in terms of workplace atmosphere. Now full bore into tax season she harbored no illusions of her position adhering to a 9-to-5 schedule through April 16, but the other night her manager made her remain until nearly midnight on a Saturday to run some minor reports and apparently kept the entire team there for what today they often refer to as “good optics.”

She knows she has to put in at least a year at the firm for continuity sake and the fact that at least a year’s worth of Big Four experience looks good on her resume. But she was stunned that several of her colleagues enjoyed being there, often until 1 or 2 a.m. with seemingly little to do.

As she’s only a mere 22 years of age, I advised her to bite the bullet now and she will have plenty of time down the road to pursue a job at a firm she truly feels comfortable with.

Contrast that with another young, budding CPA who works for a smaller practice. Yes, he’s often there until 9 or 10 pm on weekdays, but was given his choice of working either Saturday or Sunday on the weekends until the annual landfill of 1040s begins to ebb. It’s needless to point out which one is often in the better mood when I see them.

As someone who has either covered or consulted on the accounting profession for nearly 18 years, I’ve seen both sides when it comes to working environments during tax season. I’ve met managing partners who abide by a code that their staff will never be there past 8 pm regardless of how busy they are, and then I’ve spoken to tax partners who lug along cots to the office and see their families about as often as someone confined to protective custody.

You don’t need to be an industrial psychologist to know that the first few years out of college forge a formidable imprint as to working in a profession or industry of one’s choosing. As an example I once thought of entering the hospitality profession, but several weeks of 16 hour days and leaving at 3 or 4 am quickly absolved me of that notion.

No matter how you spin it, tax season is a rough haul – always has been and always will be. It’s up to you and your firm how your younger staff will perceive it on an annual basis. My daughter’s friend is already thinking about the private sector.

For those in public accounting that’s an unpleasant scenario that could probably be avoided with an equitable mixture of creativity and compassion.

Friday, March 9, 2018

DIYer is DOA


Seeing as we’re knee deep into filing season the chatter on many of the social media platforms naturally turns to tax matters. On Facebook I read where one poster who had “friended” me several years ago, complained that after 10 years with the same CPA, his accountant actually had the temerity to raise his fee.

The complainant groused about now having to pay $500 for his return and sent out a group question of whether or not he should use Turbo Tax to save money.

Since I’m the furthest thing from a DIYer, my immediate and very vocal response would be a decided “NO.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Lessons from a storm


For those who were fortunate not to live in Northeast this weekend, the area got walloped by the worst storm since Hurricane Sandy. Rain, sleet, snow and wind gusts approaching 70 miles per hour knocked out power to roughly 1.5 million people from Maine to Pennsylvania and downed thousands of trees and power lines.

As of this writing there are still nearly 100,000 people in my area without electricity and appears that it will not be restored anytime soon. Many school districts are closed and to add insult to injury, another storm is expected to hit in mid-week.

As you can imagine, residents are at the end of their patience as the local power suppliers have been almost glacial in their response. In fact one of the towns had to call the local and state police to quell a near civil riot as some folks threatened the repair personnel due to their inability to make any progress.

In a word it’s ugly.

So yesterday I happened to be in line at the local grocery store and struck up a conversation with one of the repair lineman who explained that part of the problem was jurisdictional squabbles between state and local power authorities and who was responsible for what.  

So in addition to slow progress, residents have to bear the brunt of red tape as well. Strangely this got me to thinking about the changes about client services now impacting the CPA profession.

Friday, March 2, 2018

Dr. Jeff and the search for a new accountant


In full disclosure, I have enjoyed a “bromance” with my dentist – Dr. Jeff – since I first wandered into his midtown Manhattan practice back in 1995, with two cracked fillings and a new experience in oral pain.  He’s simply one of the best practitioners – medical, dental or legal – I have ever met. He takes the time to ask about family – even remembering their names – and never, ever performs any work without it being absolutely necessary.

I made the commute from my suburban home to New York City for 25 years to my office and despite working from home since early 2012; I still make the trek in to see Dr. Jeff.

Even though he’s approaching his late 60s he assured me, he will not retire anytime soon. That elicits a collective sigh of relief.

Ditto for my accountant Rocco.

He’s been preparing my 1040s since 1991 and is basically a tax code geek – aware of even the minutest changes that most CPAs would have to research. He, much like Dr. Jeff, assured me he will never retire.

So when a fellow member of my health club began complaining about his dentist and asked me for a recommendation, I realized that despite their differing professions, dentists are much like accountants in that their client base is predicated largely on referrals. Think about how many of you are patients and clients of either and how you got there. I’ll wager over 90 percent of you came to both through a referral by a friend or colleague.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Power of Positioning


I once read where a pediatric dentist decided to break away from the group practice he was in and set off on his own. He secured an office space in the business district of a large Midwestern city and proceeded to hang out his shingle.

But after six months the flow of patients wasn’t anywhere where he thought it would be at that point. So he had a friend who happened to be in marketing come in and analyze the problem.

It wasn’t long before the marketer discovered why young patients weren’t flocking in. And in truth it was his own child who pointed out that it wasn’t a fun place. Truth be told, the youngster was spot on. The office décor was geared toward adults – nothing was at a child’s eye level or interest, so the office to a youngster looked like every other medical facility their parents went to and dragged them along. Once he began refurbishing his space with eye-catching scenery and added children’s toys and games, his practice soon flourished.

Sometimes little changes can spell the difference between whether your business or for that matter CPA firm, can drive new business or not. It’s a given that the two most frequently overlooked parts of any business and often the victims of cost-cutting measures are marketing and training. And in truth those are two areas that should NEVER be downsized or eliminated.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What do you mean I can’t deduct that?


This weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to see Rocco, my trusted tax preparer since 1990. I’m convinced that he is a real-life version of Dorian Gray, as he, at least in my eyes, has aged almost imperceptibly over the past 27 years. Although he claims that the new tax law changes enacted under the Trump Administration has increased his number of gray hairs exponentially.

After ranting for a half-hour on the byzantine guidelines he now has to follow as a result, he assured me that my return won’t be any more complicated than in years past, as I didn’t have any unusual deductions.

So as I do every year at this time I did some research on some of last year’s most outrageous attempts at tax deductions and subsequent rejections by Uncle Sam. Here’s but a few of my admitted favorites.

Friday, February 16, 2018

The CPA advertising battle for your mind


Harkening back more years than I probably want to remember, I arrived in Denver anxious to begin my college experience. It was my first trip to the Mile High City and after one of the hottest summers on record in New York it was a welcome relief to experience the refreshing atmosphere of the Southwest.

Strangely, one of the first things that struck me was the difference between the two cities in the quality of advertising – whether on television, radio or print. Coming from the literal heartbeat of advertising – Madison Avenue – the commercials in Colorado seemed humorously amateurish including one – and I kid you not - for a used car lot run by a man who went by the moniker “Honest Ira.”

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

No Excuses

During summer breaks in college, I held some interesting jobs. One year I sold season tickets for the-then New York Nets when they were part of the defunct American Basketball Association.

Another year I worked for a collection agency, calling delinquent customers to, well, pay up or face legal action. The latter taught me research skills and how to track people that would serve me well during my quarter-century as a journalist, while the former taught me the importance of being prepared to pitch a $1,000 ticket package. In other words, I had to know not only who I was talking to but a lot about the company I was pitching.

That is why today that my patience wears thin when I get cold-called about a pitch for a service or services which cannot possibly align with our company’s needs or on a personal level, my needs.

Years ago when I worked for a business newspaper that covered the restaurant industry a public relations person pitching a client actually asked and I quote, “so you guys like, um, write about restaurants?”

Click.

But more recently, a case in point, or more accurately, cases in point.

Friday, January 26, 2018

There oughta be a law!

I’ve often wondered why it is when your children graduate college and land a job, they still remain on your payroll. Or when they need something, say a new mobile phone they (wink, wink) promise they’ll pay you back.

That eerily echoes the time I lent my brother-in-law money (lots of it) to save his house and his business and who promised to pay me back as soon as he got back on his feet.

That was 1999. I have not seen a dollar since then. I’m sure that rings all-to-familiar with many of you.

So this past weekend my youngest and I took a trip to the local wireless carrier. For the past several years their new pricing plan now mandates that customers pay for the phone either outright or in monthly installments. So my daughter and I forged a contract, she would pay me the difference between my previous monthly statement and the new total.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Only Fools Rush In….

I always had a caveat when it came to attending out of town conventions – go to bed before midnight because nothing good rarely happens after that. That was particularly true in venues like Las Vegas, Miami or New Orleans where late-night trouble was easy to find – if you were so inclined to look.

In fact, in the category of “strange but true” convention tales, I was about one month into my first publishing job when I returned from an out of town meeting and learned that one of my former colleagues – a married woman with children, had literally run off with one of the conference speakers and never returned either to work or home.

That’s taking first impulses to the extreme.

The same cautionary measures can also be applied to mergers. It’s not uncommon for two parties to become smitten with each other after the first or second meetings. But after that, some common sense needs to come into focus.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

You could file this under the headline “in other news, water was found to be wet.”

A report came out this week announcing the winner of the “most unpopular company of 2017,” an award that lends new meaning to the word “dubious.”

To exactly no one’s surprise the company was Equifax, the consumer credit reporting agency that collects and aggregates information to nearly 1 billion customers and nearly 100 million businesses around the world.

Unless you’ve been on another planet, you probably know that Equifax suffered a massive data breach last year that affected some 145 million customers. And no, that’s not a typo - 145 million. That’s a lot of sensitive information circulating somewhere. You would think that a company of this size and scope would have had something resembling an impenetrable firewall, but apparently not.

In addition, the government watchdog, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau fielded some 30,000 complaints about Equifax. I’m just guessing here but that probably didn’t do much to help their reviews on Yelp.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Are You Using the Right Bait?

In truth, I’ve never cared much for fishing. Having cast out my lines on riverbanks and various boating charters to much frustration, I can assure you I will never wind up on the cover of Field & Stream.

One time, a grizzled veteran of the sport subtly suggested my poor fortunes were the result of not using the right bait. Even a change in lures and night crawlers did little to improve the quantity of my catches. I did however manage to hook one of nature’s least attractive creatures – a horse shoe crab – which I had no regrets about immediately dumping back in the drink.

But I thought about the wrong bait analogy and strangely saw how it applied colloquially to CPA firms with regard to recruiting and retention.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

No Excuses

Despite the fact that the temperatures and wind chills were lower in greater New York area this weekend than either Fargo, North Dakota, or Minneapolis, I recited a brief prayer and turned the ignition key hoping my car would start.

Then, I drove over snow and ice encrusted roads (not to mention potholes large and deep enough to hide a small footlocker) and made a much needed trip to a strip mall for the week’s necessities.

I also noticed something I have not seen in a number of years – a free-standing phone booth. My daughters think I’m kidding when I tell them that it was my mobile phone growing up. Yes, I actually had to stand inside and deposit money before making a call.

I thought about that relic of communications past whilst I was speaking to a New York City practitioner who, in this day and age, did not have a website. I didn’t think anybody under the age of 80 would eschew the benefits of an online presence to promote their practice, but as I found out, this was by design.

Let me repeat that, he purposely did not have a website. I honestly did not know where to begin asking him about this mind-boggling strategy, but instead let it go in lieu of beginning a United Nations-length debate.

Now I’m not within three area codes of being proficient in IT matters but I can tell you that as a former journalist and someone who knows something about communications, there’s no excuse in 2018 not to have an online presence. And it doesn’t have to be expensive or showcase a lot of bells and whistles, but in truth provide the following:

1. Contain the basics about your firm – services, contact information, specialty credentials and even client testimonials.
2. A brief history of the practice, when it began and its growth through the years.
3. An easy channel to communicate – in addition to the obvious, phone number, email, also LinkedIn and even Facebook.
4. A library of resources – this could include aggregated content from other areas and news such as the new tax law changes or articles your or other members of your firm have written for professional journals.

There.

And the good news is that there are a number of low-cost providers who can construct a basic framework for you.

Someone once told me that those who don’t embrace technology will be like the racehorse that can see the entire field because he’s behind. And in 2018, that’s surely a sucker’s bet.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Moving the goal posts

Welcome back and belated Happy New Year.

Here’s hoping you all enjoyed your holiday and now you have a month or so to not only prepare for another filing season, but digest all the new tax law changes so you can explain in layman’s terms to your clients what it means for them.

Believe it or not, in the midst of all this we still have a number of M&A deals awaiting closure. It sounds grossly counter-intuitive but just prior to tax season is sometimes the best time of the year to facilitate a merger. If you’re a seller firm it’s the one time of the year you see virtually all your clients in person and when you need all the resources you can muster.

Hence, it’s often a perfect time to set the wheels in motion for an efficient transition.

Unless of course you decide to move the proverbial goal posts.

And what I mean by that is to suddenly begin expanding your list of “must haves” prior to entertaining any merger meetings or discussions.

Case in point.