Everyone loves a story. It’s why movies are still big business and many of us spend hours on the couch binge-watching our favorite television shows. What’s important to keep in mind — and to remind your sales team — is that effective storytelling can also drive sales.

This doesn’t mean devising fanciful, fictional tales to entice customers and prospects into buying. Rather, it involves learning the customer or prospect’s story, putting it into words, and then demonstrating how your company’s products or services can add a happy chapter to the tale. Think of it as a three-act play:

Act I: Set the scene. Building rapport is key in sales. Find out from your sales manager(s) how much time sales staffers are spending with customers and prospects. Ensure they’re not rushing through initial contact. Salespeople should take the time to provide a concise overview of your business, telling its story and emphasizing its capabilities.

Act II: Build the plot. Salespeople should generally ask a series of prepared questions that prompt responses outlining the customer or prospect’s needs and goals. The potential buyer should do most of the talking. The more that salespeople listen, the better chance they’ll have in identifying and filling out the plot of the customer’s story and, one hopes, making the sale.

At this point, the sales staffer also wants to uncover any objections the customer or prospect might have about doing business with your company. These “subplots” can often go overlooked and ultimately ruin the ending of the story for you.

Act III: Resolve the problem. The final scene should be a climactic one. The salesperson needs to summarize the customer or prospect’s story — identifying the key needs revealed by the questions asked. Then, the sales staffer must present a viable solution to meeting those needs and emphasize your company’s ability to efficiently fulfill the products ordered or provide the necessary service(s).

When executed properly, the three acts above should increase the odds for an encore (or a sequel, as the case may be). Buyers who know that your business understands their story will be more likely to become return customers.

Although using storytelling as a sales tool may seem simplistic, it’s a tool that needs sharpening from time to time. We can help you evaluate your sales process from a financial perspective so you can implement changes as necessary.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

4 ways to refine your cash flow forecasting

Run a business for any length of time and the importance of cash flow becomes abundantly clear. When payroll is due, bills are piling up and funds aren’t available, blood pressure tends to rise. For this reason, being able to accurately forecast cash flow is critical. Here are four ways to refine your approach:

1. Know when you peak. Many businesses are cyclical, and their cash flow needs vary by month or season. Trouble can arise when an annual budget doesn’t reflect, for example, three months of peak production in the summer to fill holiday orders followed by a return to normal production in the fall.

For seasonal operations — such as homebuilders, farms, landscaping companies and recreational facilities — using a one-size-fits-all approach can throw budgets off, sometimes dramatically. To forecast your company’s cash flow needs and plan accordingly, track your peak sales and production times over as long a period as possible.

2. Engage in careful accounting. Effective cash flow management requires anticipating and capturing every expense and incoming payment, as well as — to the extent possible — the exact timing of each payable and receivable. But pinpointing exact costs and expenditures for every day of the week can be challenging.

Businesses can face an array of additional costs, overruns and payment delays. Although inventorying every possible expense can be tedious and time-consuming, doing so can help avoid problems down the road.

3. Keep an eye on additional funding sources. As your business expands or contracts, a dedicated line of credit with a bank can help you meet cash flow needs, including any periodic shortages. Interest rates on these credit lines, however, can be high compared to other types of loans. So, lines of credit typically are used to cover only short-term operational costs, such as payroll and supplies. They also may require significant collateral and personal guarantees from the company’s owners.

Of course, a line of credit isn’t your only outside funding option. Federally funded small business loans have been widely offered during the COVID-19 pandemic and may still be available to you. Look into these and other options suitable to the size and needs of your company.

4. Invoice diligently, run leaner. For many businesses, the biggest cash flow obstacle is slow collections. Be sure you’re invoicing in a timely manner and offering easy, convenient ways for customers to pay (such as online). For new customers, perform a thorough credit check to avoid delayed payments and bad debts.

Another common obstacle is poor resource management. Redundant machinery, misguided investments and oversized offices are just a few examples of poorly managed expenses and overhead that can negatively affect cash flow. For help reducing expenses and more effectively forecasting cash flow, please contact us.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

The U.S. economy is still a far cry from where it was before the COVID-19 pandemic hit about a year ago. Nonetheless, as vaccination efforts continue to ramp up, many experts expect stronger jobs growth and more robust economic activity in the months ahead.

No matter what your business does, you don’t want your sales staff hamstrung by overly complicated procedures as they strive to seize opportunities in the presumably brighter near-future. Here are five ways to streamline and energize your sales process:

1. Reassess territories. Business travel isn’t what it used to be, so you may not need to revise the geographic routes that your sale staff used to physically traverse. Nonetheless, you may see real efficiency gains by creating a strategic sales territory plan that aligns salespeople with regions or markets containing the prospects they’re most likely to win.

2. Focus on top-tier customers. If purchases from your most valued customers have slowed recently, find out why and reverse the trend. For your sales staff, this may mean shifting focus from winning new business to tending to these important accounts. See whether you can craft a customized plan aimed at meeting a legacy customer’s long-term needs. It might include discounts, premiums and extended warranties.

3. Cut down on “paperwork.” More than likely, “paperwork” is a figurative term these days, as most businesses have implemented electronic means to track leads, document sales efforts and record closings. Nevertheless, outdated or overly complicated software can slow a salesperson’s momentum.

You might conduct a survey to gather feedback on whether your current customer relationship management or sales management software is helping or hindering their efforts. Based on the data, you can then make sensible choices about whether to upgrade or change your system.

4. Issue a carefully chosen challenge. What allows a business to grow is not only retaining top customers, but also creating organic sales growth from new products or services. Consider creating a sales challenge that will motivate staff to push your company’s latest offerings. One facet of such a challenge may be to replace across-the-board commission rates with higher commissions on new products or “tough sells.”

5. Align commissions with financial objectives. Along with considering commissions tied to new products or difficult-to-sell products, investigate other ways you might revise commissions to incentivize your team. Examples include commissions based on:

  • Actual customer payments rather than billable orders,
  • More sales to current customers,
  • Increased order sizes,
  • Delivery of items when customers prepay, or
  • Number of new customers.

Again, these are just ideas to consider. Ultimately, you want to set up a sales compensation plan based on measurable financial goals that allow your sales staff to clearly understand how their efforts contribute to the profitability of your business. Contact us for help evaluating your sales process and targeting helpful changes.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Rightsizing your sales force

With a difficult year almost over, and another one on the horizon, now may be a good time to assess the size of your sales force. Maybe the economic changes triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic led you to downsize earlier in the year. Or perhaps you’ve added to your sales team to seize opportunities. In either case, every business owner should know whether his or her sales team is the right size.

Various KPIs

To determine your optimal sales staffing level, there are several steps you can take. A good place to start is with various key performance indicators (KPIs) that enable you to quantify performance in dollars and cents.

The KPIs you choose to calculate and evaluate need to be specific to your industry and appropriate to the size of your company and the state of the market in which you operate. If you’re comparing your sales numbers to those of other businesses, make sure it’s an apples-to-apples comparison.

In addition, you’ll need to pick KPIs that are appropriate to whether you’re assessing the performance of a sales manager or that of a sales representative. For a sales manager, you could look at average annual sales volume to determine whether his or her team is contributing adequately to your target revenue goals. Ideal KPIs for sales reps are generally more granular; examples include sales by rep and lead-to-sale percentage.

More than math

Rightsizing your sales staff, however, isn’t only a mathematical equation. To customize your approach, think about the specific needs of your company.

Consider, for example, how you handle staffing when sales employees take vacations or call in sick. If you frequently find yourself coming up short on revenue projections because of a lack of boots on the ground, you may want to expand your sales staff to cover territories and serve customers more consistently.

Then again, financial problems that arise from carrying too many sales employees can creep up on you. Be careful not to hire at a rate faster than your sales and gross profits are increasing. If you’re looking to make aggressive moves in your market, be sure you’ve done the due diligence to ensure that the hiring and training costs will likely pay off.

Last, but not least, think about your customers. Are they largely satisfied? If so, the size of your sales force might be just fine. However, salespeople saying that they’re overworked or customers complaining about a lack of responsiveness could mean your staff is too small. Conversely, if you have market segments that just aren’t yielding revenue or salespeople who are continually underperforming, it might be time to downsize.

Reasonable objectives

By regularly monitoring the headcount of your sales staff with an eye on fulfilling reasonable revenue goals, you’ll stand a better chance of maximizing profitability during good times and maintaining it during more challenging periods. Contact us for help choosing the right KPIs and cost-effectively managing your business.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

If you invest in mutual funds, be aware of some potential pitfalls involved in buying and selling shares.

Surprise sales 

You may already have made taxable “sales” of part of your mutual fund investment without knowing it.

One way this can happen is if your mutual fund allows you to write checks against your fund investment. Every time you write a check against your mutual fund account, you’ve made a partial sale of your interest in the fund. Thus, except for funds such as money market funds, for which share value remains constant, you may have taxable gain (or a deductible loss) when you write a check. And each such sale is a separate transaction that must be reported on your tax return.

Here’s another way you may unexpectedly make a taxable sale. If your mutual fund sponsor allows you to make changes in the way your money is invested — for instance, lets you switch from one fund to another fund — making that switch is treated as a taxable sale of your shares in the first fund.

Recordkeeping 

Carefully save all the statements that the fund sends you — not only official tax statements, such as Forms 1099-DIV, but the confirmations the fund sends you when you buy or sell shares or when dividends are reinvested in new shares. Unless you keep these records, it may be difficult to prove how much you paid for the shares, and thus, you won’t be able to establish the amount of gain that’s subject to tax (or the amount of loss you can deduct) when you sell.

You also need to keep these records to prove how long you’ve held your shares if you want to take advantage of favorable long-term capital gain tax rates. (If you get a year-end statement that lists all your transactions for the year, you can just keep that and discard quarterly or other interim statements. But save anything that specifically says it contains tax information.)

Recordkeeping is simplified by rules that require funds to report the customer’s basis in shares sold and whether any gain or loss is short-term or long-term. This is mandatory for mutual fund shares acquired after 2011, and some funds will provide this to shareholders for shares they acquired earlier, if the fund has the information.

Timing purchases and sales

If you’re planning to invest in a mutual fund, there are some important tax consequences to take into account in timing the investment. For instance, an investment shortly before payment of a dividend is something you should generally try to avoid. Your receipt of the dividend (even if reinvested in additional shares) will be treated as income and increase your tax liability. If you’re planning a sale of any of your mutual fund shares near year-end, you should weigh the tax and the non-tax consequences in the current year versus a sale in the next year.

Identify shares you sell 

If you sell fewer than all of the shares that you hold in the same mutual fund, there are complicated rules for identifying which shares you’ve sold. The proper application of these rules can reduce the amount of your taxable gain or qualify the gain for favorable long-term capital gain treatment.

Contact us if you’d like to find out more about tax planning for buying and selling mutual fund shares.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Economists will look back on 2020 as a year with a distinct before and after. In early March, most companies’ sales projections looked a certain way. Just a few weeks later, those projections had changed significantly — and not for the better.

Because of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, businesses across a variety of industries are revising their sales compensation models. Nonprofit workforce researchers WorldatWork released a report in late April indicating that 36% of organizations had begun addressing sales compensation in light of the crisis, and another 49% were developing plans to do so.

If your company is considering changes to how it compensates sales staff in a drastically changed economy, here are three of the most common actions being implemented according to the survey:

1. Adjusting sales quotas. Of the organizations surveyed, 46% were adjusting their quotas to account for the pandemic’s impact. For many businesses, this means providing “quota relief” to salespeople who find themselves in a reluctant buying environment. Of course, any adjustment should be based on a realistic and detailed forecast of what your sales will likely look like for the current period and upcoming ones.

2. Modifying performance measures. The report indicates that 44% of organizations will modify how they measure the performance of their sales staffs. Whereas a sales quota is a time-bound target assigned to an individual, performance measures encompass much wider metrics.

For example, you might want to amend your average deal size to account for more conservative buying during the pandemic. This metric is typically calculated by dividing your total number of deals by the total dollar amount of those deals. Also look at conversion rate (or win rate), which measures what percentage of leads ultimately become customers. Scarcer leads will likely lead to a lower rate.

3. Lowering plan thresholds. Survey results showed 36% of organizations intend to lower the plan thresholds for their sales teams. From a compensation plan perspective, a threshold describes what performance level qualifies the employee for a specified payout. This includes a max threshold to identify outstanding sales performances during a given period.

The pandemic-triggered economic downturn serves as a prime, even extreme, example of the kinds of external, macroeconomic factors that can alter the effectiveness of a plan threshold. When looking into corrective action, it’s critical to go beyond the usual adjustments and conduct analyses specific to your company’s size, market and industry outlook.

Setting sales compensation has never been a particularly straightforward endeavor. Businesses often tweak their approaches over time or even implement completely new ways when competitively necessary — and this is during normal times. Our firm can help you assess your sales figures since the pandemic hit, forecast upcoming ones and design a compensation model that’s right for you.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

“Love and marriage,” goes the old song: “…You can’t have one without the other.” This also holds true for sales and marketing. Even the best of sales staffs will struggle if not supported by a well-researched and carefully executed marketing plan. Here are six ways to ensure your marketing plan is likely to drive strong sales:

1. Keep customers aware of all your products and services. Among the fundamental objectives of any marketing plan is to familiarize those who buy from you with everything you’re offering. But what often happens is that customers get overly focused on just a few products or services, which in turn limits sales. Make sure your marketing plan maintains the visibility of your total product or service line.

2. Distinguish your products and services from those of competitors. Your salespeople will stand a much greater chance of success if your customers believe you’re the only place to get precisely what they’re looking for. Your marketing plan should emphasize the distinctive value offered by your products or services and how they differ from those of competitors. A key part of this effort involves monitoring the competition’s marketing activities and responding in kind.

3. Benchmark your marketing/advertising budgets. Are competitors outspending you? If so, your sales staff is fighting an uphill battle. To find out, use competitive intelligence and publicly available industry data to determine the average marketing and advertising budgets for companies of similar size and specialty in your area.

4. Search for new markets. While your sales staff is out on the front lines, your marketing team needs to be spending time back at the office looking for additional buyers (or types of buyers). Undertake this research carefully and methodically. When you believe you’ve found a new market, adjust your marketing plan as necessary and train salespeople on how to best traverse this unfamiliar terrain.

5. Track new leads generated through marketing. A good marketing plan not only keeps existing customers engaged and informed, but also pulls in new prospects. Do you know how successful your company has been at doing so? Your sales team may be able to generate some leads themselves, but your marketing department must do its fair share. If it’s not, something needs to change.

6. Update your marketing plan regularly. Coming up with a comprehensive, viable marketing plan isn’t easy. Once they’ve got one, many businesses make the mistake of sticking with it too long, leaving their sales departments to struggle in a dynamic, ever-changing marketplace.

Review your marketing plan often, at least quarterly, and adjust it based on both hard numbers (metrics and sales results) and feedback from your sales staff. Our firm can help you identify, track and better understand the analytical data that aligns a good marketing plan with strong sales figures.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

When market competition heats up, you might provide extra incentives for your sales staff to perform. But be careful: Some employees may step over the line — to earn bigger bonuses or out of enthusiasm for the challenge — and use unethical sales tactics. Take steps to ensure your salespeople always operate with integrity.

Make a commitment to honesty

Culture starts at the top. If you clearly demonstrate, through both words and behavior, your commitment to honesty, your sales team will get the message. Your customers will too.

Try to anticipate the challenges your sales force may face as they attempt to meet sales goals. The temptation to sell more than your company can deliver, for example — or to recommend a product they know isn’t the best solution for a customer’s problem — may be strong. Those and similar sales strategies may land the account, but they do nothing to build the trust and credibility your business needs to keep that account over the long haul.

It’s also important that your company and salespeople don’t try to slip through loopholes when a situation requires taking responsibility. For example, some insurance companies that wrote coverage on homes and businesses damaged during Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, and Hurricane Harvey lost goodwill by quibbling over what damage was covered. Ensuing legal battles and negative publicity have done nothing to raise consumer confidence in the insurance industry.

Promote lasting relationships

When your salespeople make a sale, require them to be clear about what the sale includes and what it doesn’t. Reiterate that their job isn’t simply to make sales, but to build lasting customer relationships. To do that, they must always keep the customers’ best interests in mind. To make sure the message gets heard, consider tying compensation to customer satisfaction and repeat business, in addition to sales revenue quotas.

That may mean acknowledging, for example, that one of your products won’t do everything the customer needs it to do. If a customer asks about a feature your product doesn’t have, your sales reps shouldn’t imply that it does. Instead, they should work with the customer to determine whether the desired feature is necessary and emphasize your product’s other features and benefits. Ultimately, however, they must be honest about any limitations.

Your sales force doesn’t need to steer customers to competitors, but they shouldn’t disparage the competition, either. And incentivizing customers to load up on unneeded products during promotions may boost the bottom line, but it won’t do much to build trust.

Shift priorities

Too often sales staffs are encouraged to focus on short-term goals, which makes them more likely to do “whatever it takes” to get a sale. It’s up to you and your managers to prioritize the kind of ethical behavior that’s crucial to your company’s long-term success.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

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

“I could sell water to a whale.”

Indeed, most salespeople possess an abundance of confidence. One could say it’s a prerequisite for the job. Because of their remarkable self-assurance, sales staffers might appear to be largely autonomous. Hand them something to sell, tell them a bit about it and let them do their thing — right?

Not necessarily. The sales department needs support just like any other part of a company. And we’re not just talking about office supplies and working phone lines. Here are five ways that your business can give its sales staff the support they really need:

1. Show them the data. Virtually every aspect of business is driven by analytics these days, but sales has been all about the data for decades. To keep up with the competition, provide your sales team with the most cutting-edge metrics. The right ones vary depending on your industry and customer base, but consider analytics such as lead conversion rate and quote-to-close.

2. Invest in sales training and upskilling. If you don’t train salespeople properly, they’ll face an uphill climb to success and may not stick around to get there with you. (This is often partly why sales staffs tend to have high turnover.) Once a salesperson is trained, offer continuing education — now commonly referred to as “upskilling” — to continue to enhance his or her talents.

3. Effectively evaluate employee performance. For sales staff, annual job reviews can boil down to a numbers game whereby it was either a good year or a bad one. Make sure your performance evaluations for salespeople are as comprehensive and productive as they are for any other type of employee. Sales goals should obviously play a role, but look for other professional development objectives as well.

4. Promote positivity, ethics and high morale. Sales is often a frustrating grind. It’s not uncommon for sales staff members to fall prey to negativity. This can manifest itself in various ways: bad interactions with customers, plummeting morale and, in worst cases, even unethical or fraudulent activities. Urge your supervisors to interact regularly with salespeople to combat pessimism and find ways to keep spirits high.

5. Regularly re-evaluate your compensation model. Finding the right way to compensate sales staff has challenged, if not perplexed, companies for years. Some businesses opt for commission only, others provide a salary plus commission. There are additional options as well, such as profit margin plans that compensate salespeople based on how well the company is doing.

If your compensation model is working well, you may not want to rock the boat. But re-evaluate its efficacy at least annually and don’t hesitate to explore other approaches. Our firm can help you analyze the numbers related to compensation as well as the metrics you’re using to track and assess sales. Call or email us! 205-345-9898 or info@covenantcpa.com.

© 2019 CovenantCPA