Subchapter V: A silver lining for small businesses mulling bankruptcy
Many small businesses continue to struggle in the wake of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Some have already closed their doors and are liquidating assets. Others, however, may have a relatively less onerous option: bankruptcy.
Although bankruptcy obviously isn’t an optimal outcome for any small company, there may be a silver lining: A new bankruptcy law — coupled with an under-the-radar provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act — has made the process quicker and easier. It may even allow you to retain your business.
New law made better
The law in question is the Small Business Reorganization Act of 2019. That’s right, it was passed just last year and took effect on February 19, 2020, about a month before the pandemic hit the country full force.
The Small Business Reorganization Act added a new subchapter to the U.S. bankruptcy code: Subchapter V. Its purpose is to streamline the reorganization process for smaller companies and, in some cases, improve their odds of recovery.
When signed into law, Subchapter V applied only to companies or proprietors with less than about $2.7 million in debt. However, under the CARES Act, this amount has been temporarily increased to $7.5 million in debt. (Additional details apply; contact a bankruptcy attorney for a full explanation.)
For small-business owners, Subchapter V could improve the bankruptcy process in several ways:
You may be able to keep your company. Under a Chapter 11 reorganization, business owners typically don’t receive an equity stake in the reorganized company until all debts are repaid. Subchapter V creates a pathway for owners to retain their equity if their disposable income is distributed to creditors over a certain period (generally three to five years) in a “fair and equitable” manner.
You may not need creditors’ approval to proceed. Small-business bankruptcies have long been stymied when one group of creditors object to the reorganization plan. Under Subchapter V, once a bankruptcy court approves the plan, the reorganization may proceed without creditors’ approval.
You may incur fewer costs and get it done more quickly. Subchapter V offers the opportunity to reduce the documentation and level of detail required under a traditional Chapter 11 proceeding. In turn, this can make the process less costly and more expeditious.
Given the extreme and sudden nature of this year’s economic downturn, bankruptcy has unfortunately become an option that many embattled small businesses will need to consider. Our firm can help you assess your company’s financial position and choose the most prudent path forward.
IRS extends some (but not all) employee benefit plan deadlines
The IRS recently issued Notice 2020-23, expanding on previously issued guidance extending certain tax filing and payment deadlines in response to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis. This guidance applies to specified filing obligations and other “specified actions” that would otherwise be due on or after April 1, 2020, and before July 15, 2020. It extends the due date for specified actions to July 15, 2020.
Specified actions include any “specified time-sensitive action” listed in Revenue Procedure 2018-58, including many relating to employee benefit plans. The relief applies to any person required to perform specified actions within the relief window, and it’s automatic — your business doesn’t need to file any form, letter or other request with the IRS.
Filing extensions beyond July 15, 2020, may be sought using the appropriate extension form, but the extension won’t go beyond the original statutory or regulatory extension date. Here are some highlights of Notice 2020-23 specifically related to employee benefit plans:
Form 5500. The relief window covers Form 5500 filings for plan years that ended in September, October or November 2019, as well as Form 5500 deadlines within the window as a result of a previously filed extension request. These filings are now due by July 15, 2020. Notably, the relief window does not include the July 31, 2020 due date for 2019 Form 5500 filings for calendar-year plans. Those plans may seek a regular extension using Form 5558.
Retirement plans. The extended deadlines apply to correcting excess contributions and excess aggregate contributions (based on nondiscrimination testing) and excess deferrals. They also apply to:
- Plan loan repayments,
- The 60-day timeframe for rollover completion, and
- The deadline for filing Form 8955-SSA to report information on separated plan participants with undistributed vested benefits.
The relief for excess deferrals is a change from previous guidance indicating that 2019 excess deferrals still needed to be corrected by April 15, 2020. In addition, while loan relief is already available to certain individuals for specified reasons related to COVID-19, this relief appears to apply more broadly — albeit for a shorter period. The Form 8955-SSA due date is the same as for the plan’s Form 5500, so the extension applies in the same manner.
Health Savings Accounts (HSAs). The notice extends the 60-day timeframe for completing HSA or Archer Medical Savings Account (MSA) rollovers. It also extends the deadline to report HSA or Archer MSA contribution information by filing Form 5498-SA and furnishing the information to account holders. The regular deadline for the 2019 Form 5498-SA would be June 1, 2020, placing it squarely within this relief period.
Business owners and their plan administrators should carefully review Notice 2020-23 in conjunction with Revenue Procedure 2018-58 to determine exactly what relief may be available. For example, the revenue procedure covers various cafeteria plan items, but many deadlines may fall outside the notice’s window. We can provide you with further information about this or other forms of federal relief.
Just launched: The SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program
To stem the tide of joblessness caused by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, the Small Business Administration (SBA) has officially launched the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). The program’s stated objective is “to provide a direct incentive for small businesses to keep their workers on the payroll.”
What does the program offer?
The PPP was authorized under a provision of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. It provides up to eight weeks of cash-flow assistance through 100% federally guaranteed loans to eligible recipients to maintain payroll during the COVID-19 crisis and cover certain other expenses.
Under the program, eligible recipients may qualify for loans of up to $10 million determined by eight weeks of previously established average payroll. The first loan payment is deferred for six months. All loans will have an interest rate of 1%, a maturity of two years, and no borrower or lender fees.
If the recipient maintains its workforce, up to 100% of the loan is forgivable if the loan proceeds are used to cover the first eight weeks of payroll, rent, mortgage interest or utilities. (The U.S. Treasury Department anticipates that no more than 25% of the forgiven amount can be for non-payroll costs.)
How is payroll defined?
Under the PPP, payroll includes:
- Employee salaries (up to an annual salary of $100,000),
- Hourly wages,
- Cash tips,
- Paid sick or medical leave,
- Group health insurance premiums,
- Retirement benefit payments,
- State or local tax on employee wages, and
- Compensation to a sole proprietor or independent contractor of up to $100,000 per year.
If the PPP recipient doesn’t retain its entire workforce, the level of forgiveness is reduced by the percentage of decrease. However, if the laid-off workers are rehired by June 30, the full amount of the loan may still be forgiven.
Eligible recipients are small businesses with fewer than 500 employees (including sole proprietorships, independent contractors and self-employed persons). Private nonprofits and 501(c)(19) veterans organizations affected by COVID-19 may also qualify. In addition, businesses in certain industries with more than 500 employees may be eligible if they meet the SBA’s size standards for those industries.
The PPP begins retroactively on Feb. 15, 2020, and ends June 20, 2020. (The retroactive start allows eligible recipients to bring back workers who were laid off because of the crisis.) Qualifying companies may apply for a loan at lending institutions approved to participate in the program through the SBA’s 7(a) lending program. Applications may also be available through participating federally insured depository institutions, federally insured credit unions and Farm Credit System institutions.
When should you apply?
The Treasury Department released the PPP Application Form on March 31, and lenders could begin processing applications on April 3. If you believe your small business may be eligible to participate, it’s a good idea to apply as soon as possible because funds are limited under the program. We can help you confirm your eligibility, complete the application and optimally manage any loan funds you receive.
Using your financial statements during an economic crisis
The economic fallout from the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has forced business owners to reevaluate their operations and make difficult decisions. One place to look for the information you need to make rational, reasonable moves is your financial statements. Under U.S. Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, these typically comprise a statement of cash flows, a balance sheet and an income statement.
A statement of cash flows should be organized into three sections: cash flows from operating, financing and investing activities. Ideally, a company generates enough cash from operations to cover its expenses.
For many businesses, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused revenue to drop precipitously without a proportionate decrease in certain (fixed) operating expenses. Keep a close eye on whether you’re reaching a danger point. To generate additional cash flow, you may need to borrow money — consider a Small Business Administration loan, if you’re eligible.
Assets and liabilities
Your balance sheet tallies your company’s assets, liabilities and net worth — creating a snapshot of its financial health on the statement date. Assets are typically listed in order of liquidity. Current assets (such as accounts receivable) are expected to be converted into cash within a year, while long-term assets (such as your plant and equipment) will be used to generate revenue beyond the next 12 months.
Similarly, liabilities are listed in order of maturity. Current liabilities (such as accounts payable) come due within a year, while long-term liabilities are payment obligations that extend beyond the current year.
As its name indicates, the balance sheet must balance — that is, assets must equal liabilities plus net worth. Net worth is the extent to which the book value of assets exceeds liabilities. In times of distress, certain assets (such as receivables, financial assets, pension funds and inventory) may need to be written off, and intangibles (such as brands and goodwill) may become impaired. These changes may cause the book value of a company’s net worth to be negative, suggesting that the business is insolvent. Other red flags include current assets growing faster than sales, and a deteriorating ratio of current assets to current liabilities.
Income and overhead
An income statement shows revenue and expenses over the accounting period. Revenue has fallen for many businesses as the result of social distancing during the COVID-19 outbreak. Fortunately, certain variable expenses — such as materials and direct labor costs — have also fallen.
Unfortunately, most fixed expenses — such as rent, equipment leasing fees, advertising, insurance premiums and manager salaries — are ongoing. Review costs that are categorized on the income statements as overhead and sales, general and administrative expenses. Consider whether you can scale back these items, renegotiate them or convert them into variable costs over the long run.
For example, you might return a leased copier that isn’t being used, decrease your insurance coverage or rely more on independent contractors, rather than employees, for certain tasks.
Your existing financial statements may not account for the sudden changes inflicted upon businesses worldwide by COVID-19. We can assist you in evaluating them, gleaning insightful data using updated numbers, and generating new ones going forward.
Digital documents with e-signatures aren’t going away
Have you applied for a business loan lately? Or had some repairs done on your facilities? Maybe you’ve signed a contract with a certain technologically inclined customer or vendor. In any of these instances, you (or one of your employees) probably had to electronically sign a digital document.
So, the next question is: Why isn’t your company using this technology? If the answer is, “We are,” kudos to you (assuming it’s working out). But if your reply is, “We’ve always used paper and don’t want to deal with the expense and hassle of converting to digital documentation,” you may want to reconsider — because it’s not going away.
Why go digital?
For businesses, there are generally three reasons to use digital documents with e-signatures:
1. Speed. When you can review and sign a business document electronically, it can be transmitted instantly and approved much more quickly. And this works both ways: your customers can sign contracts or submit orders for your products or services, and you can sign similar documents with vendors, partners or consultants. What used to take days or even weeks, as paper envelopes crisscrossed in the mail, now can occur in a matter of hours.
2. Security. Paper has a way of getting lost, damaged and destroyed. That’s not to say digital documents are impervious to thievery, corruption and deletion, but a trusted provider should be able to outfit you with software that not only allows you to use digital docs with e-signatures, but also keep the resulting files encrypted and safe from anyone or anything who would do them harm.
3. Service. This may be the most important reason to incorporate digital docs and e-sigs into your business. Younger generations have come of age, if not grown up, with digitized business services. They expect this functionality and may prefer a company that offers it to one that still requires them to put pen to paper.
What about the law?
Many business owners hesitate to dive into digital docs and e-sigs because of legal concerns. This is a reasonable concern. However, e-signatures are now widely used and generally considered lawful under two statutes:
- The Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act of 2000, a federal law, and
- The Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, which governs each state unless a comparable law is in place.
What’s more, every state has some sort of legislation in place legalizing e-signatures. There may be some limited exceptions in certain cases, so check with your attorney for specifics.
Is now the time?
To be clear, investing in digital documents with e-signatures, and training your employees to use them, is a major strategic initiative. You need to ensure the return on investment will be worth the effort. We can assist you in evaluating whether now’s the time to “go digital” and, if so, in setting a budget for the software purchase and implementation.
Look closely at your company’s concentration risks
The word “concentration” is usually associated with a strong ability to pay attention. Business owners are urged to concentrate when attempting to resolve the many challenges facing them. But the word has an alternate meaning in a business context as well — and a distinctly negative one at that.
A common problem among many companies is customer concentration. This is when a business relies on only a few customers to generate most of its revenue.
The dilemma is more prevalent in some industries than others. For example, a retail business will likely market itself to a broad range of buyers and generally not face too much risk of concentration. A commercial construction company, however, may serve only a limited number of clients that build, renovate or maintain offices or facilities.
How do you know whether you’re at risk? One rule of thumb says that if your biggest five customers make up 25% or more of your revenue, your customer concentration is high. Another simple measure says that, if any one customer represents 10% or more of revenue, you’re at risk of elevated customer concentration.
In an increasingly specialized world, many types of businesses focus only on certain market segments. If yours is one of them, you may not be able to do much about customer concentration. In fact, the very strength of your company could be its knowledge and attentiveness to a limited number of buyers.
Nonetheless, know your risk and explore strategic planning concepts that might enable you to lower it. And if diversifying your customer base just isn’t an option, be sure to maintain the highest levels of customer service.
There are other forms of concentration. For instance, vendor concentration is when a company relies on only a handful of suppliers. If any one of them goes out of business or substantially raises its prices, the company relying on it could find itself unable to operate or, at the very least, face a severe rise in expenses.
You may also encounter geographic concentration. This can take a couple forms. First, if your customer base is concentrated in one area, a dip in the regional economy or a disruptive competitor could severely affect profitability. Small local businesses are, by definition, dependent on geographic concentration. But they can still monitor the risk and look for ways to mitigate it (such as online sales).
Second, there’s geographic concentration in the global sense. Say your company relies on a foreign supplier for iron, steel or another essential component. Tariffs can have an enormous impact on cost and availability. Geopolitical and environmental factors might also come into play.
Yes, concentration is a good thing when it comes to mental acuity. But the other kind of concentration is a risk factor to learn about and address as the year rolls along. We can assist you in measuring your susceptibility and developing strategies for moderating it.
5 ways to strengthen your business for the new year
The end of one year and the beginning of the next is a great opportunity for reflection and planning. You have 12 months to look back on and another 12 ahead to look forward to. Here are five ways to strengthen your business for the new year by doing a little of both:
1. Compare 2019 financial performance to budget. Did you meet the financial goals you set at the beginning of the year? If not, why? Analyze variances between budget and actual results. Then, evaluate what changes you could make to get closer to achieving your objectives in 2020. And if you did meet your goals, identify precisely what you did right and build on those strategies.
2. Create a multiyear capital budget. Look around your offices or facilities at your equipment, software and people. What investments will you need to make to grow your business? Such investments can be both tangible (new equipment and technology) and intangible (employees’ technical and soft skills).
Equipment, software, furniture, vehicles and other types of assets inevitably wear out or become obsolete. You’ll need to regularly maintain, update and replace them. Lay out a long-term plan for doing so; this way, you won’t be caught off guard by a big expense.
3. Assess the competition. Identify your biggest rivals over the past year. Discuss with your partners, managers and advisors what those competitors did to make your life so “interesting.” Also, honestly appraise the quality of what your business sells versus what competitors offer. Are you doing everything you can to meet — or, better yet, exceed — customer expectations? Devise some responsive competitive strategies for the next 12 months.
4. Review insurance coverage. It’s important to stay on top of your property, casualty and liability coverage. Property values or risks may change — or you may add new assets or retire old ones — requiring you to increase or decrease your level of coverage. A fire, natural disaster, accident or out-of-the-blue lawsuit that you’re not fully protected against could devastate your business. Look at the policies you have in place and determine whether you’re adequately protected.
5. Analyze market trends. Recognize the major events and trends in your industry over the past year. Consider areas such as economic drivers or detractors, technology, the regulatory environment and customer demographics. In what direction is your industry heading over the next five or ten years? Anticipating and quickly reacting to trends are the keys to a company’s long-term success.
These are just a few ideas for looking back and ahead to set a successful course forward. We can help you review the past year’s tax, accounting and financial strategies, and implement savvy moves toward a secure and profitable 2020 for your business.
What’s the right device policy for your company?
Device policies pertaining to smartphones and other technology tools continue to frustrate business owners as they try to balance their needs for security and functionality against employees’ rights to privacy and freedom. At some companies, loose “bring your own device” (BYOD) policies are giving way to stricter “choose your own device” (CYOD) or “corporate-owned, personally enabled” (COPE) policies.
CYOD: Their device, your data
A CYOD policy lets employees buy a device for combined personal and work purposes from an approved list of products. Generally, the employee owns the device with the business retaining ownership of the SIM card and any proprietary data. Many employers pay for the accompanying mobile plan. Sometimes, high-performance devices are made available only to “power users,” while employees with fewer tech-related job requirements must choose from lesser models.
Under a CYOD policy, you can:
- Ensure device compatibility with your systems,
- Require security protections on the devices, and
- Conduct ongoing security monitoring.
It also makes maintenance and support easier for your IT department, because IT staff will know exactly which devices they’ll need to handle.
Some employees may be unhappy with their choice of devices, which can undermine morale and productivity. Then again, many workers appreciate the improved functionality and flexibility of owning a device that connects them to work.
COPE: All yours
If you’re looking for even greater control and security, look into a COPE policy. They’re most common at large companies or those with heavy compliance burdens.
Here, you buy and own the device, which is intended primarily for business purposes. Most policies do allow for limited personal use — such as phone calls and messaging, approved non-work-related apps and some settings customization.
COPE policies are like CYOD policies in that you can configure employees’ devices for maximum security (including blocking certain features or apps and activating remote wipe capabilities). But they go one step further by minimizing personal use and allowing you to retain possession after an employee leaves the company. Another upside: Many employees will view an employer-provided device as a valuable perk.
One downside is you’ll incur higher costs in covering both the purchase price and mobile plans, though you may be able to lessen the hit through volume discounts. In addition, employees may have concerns about their employer-provided devices inevitably containing some of their own information. “Containerization” tools can help alleviate such worries by segregating business and personal data.
A matter of priorities
The right move for your company comes down to priorities. To tighten security and control costs, a CYOD policy may be a reasonable upgrade to an existing BYOD approach. But if you need absolute security, a COPE policy could be necessary.
Bear in mind that you can always customize a policy to best suit your needs. For example, you might apply different requirements to different departments based on the type of work performed and data accessed. Our firm can help you analyze the potential costs of any device policy and make the right choice.
Taking a long-term approach to certain insurance documentation
After insurance policies expire, many businesses just throw away the paper copies and delete the digital files. But you may need to produce evidence of certain kinds of insurance even after the coverage period has expired. For this reason, it’s best to take a long-term approach to certain types of policies.
Generally, the policy types in question are called “occurrence-based.” They include:
- General liability,
- Umbrella liability,
- Commercial auto, and
- Commercial crime and theft.
You should retain documentation of occurrence-based policies permanently (or as long as your business is operating). A good example of why is in cases of embezzlement. Employee fraud of this kind may be covered under a commercial crime and theft policy. However, embezzlement sometimes isn’t uncovered until years after the crime has taken place.
For instance, suppose that, during an audit, you learn an employee was embezzling funds three years ago. But the policy that covered this type of theft has since expired. To receive an insurance payout, you’d need to produce the policy documents to prove that coverage was in effect when the crime occurred.
Retaining insurance documentation long-term isn’t necessary for every type of policy. Under “claims-made” insurance, such as directors and officers liability and professional liability, claims can be made against the insured business only during the policy period and during a “tail period” following the policy’s expiration. A commonly used retention period for claims-made policies is about six years after the tail period expires.
Along with permanently retaining proof of occurrence-based policies, it’s a good idea to at least consider employment practices liability insurance (EPLI). These policies protect businesses from employee claims of legal rights violations at the hands of their employers. Sexual harassment is one type of violation that’s covered under most EPLI policies — and such claims can arise years after the alleged crime occurred.
As is the case with occurrence-based coverage, if an employee complaint of sexual harassment arises after an EPLI policy has expired — but the alleged incident occurred while coverage was in effect — you may have to produce proof of coverage to receive a payout. So, you should retain EPLI documentation permanently as well.
Better safe than sorry
You can’t necessarily rely on your insurer to retain expired policies or readily locate them. It’s better to be safe than sorry by keeping some insurance policies in either paper or digital format for the long term. This is the best way to ensure that you’ll receive insurance payouts for events that happened while coverage was still in effect. Our firm can help you assess the proper retention periods of your insurance policies, as well as whether they’re providing optimal value for your company.
The 1-2-3 of B2B marketing
Does your business market its products or services to other companies? Or might it start doing so in the future? If so, it’s critical to recognize the key differences between marketing to the public — or even certain segments of the public — and business-to-business (B2B) marketing.
Whereas wide-scale marketing campaigns generally need to be simple, concise and catchy, effective B2B campaigns are typically more detailed, complex and substantive. Here are three critical points to keep in mind:
1. Solve their problems. You’re not selling a product or service; you’re selling a solution. For example, a company selling aspirin is offering to solve the problem of anyone with a headache. But in B2B marketing, you want to show how your product or service can help a company cure the cause of that headache, not just the symptom.
Think of it from your own perspective. When other companies try to sell to you, you’re not going to pay for anything without an acceptable return on investment. Tell the businesses you’re marketing to precisely how your product or service will solve problems in areas such as productivity, quality, time and costs. Better yet, show them with real-world examples and testimonials.
2. Provide plenty of specifics. When marketing to the public, an abundance of detail can confuse or bore buyers. In B2B marketing, specifics are often what close the deal. Every industry faces myriad challenges that encompass a wide array of technical, technological and regulatory details. Speak their language. Make it clear you understand what they’re up against.
And give yourself plenty of room to do so. Whereas a traditional sales letter or pamphlet sent to an individual is usually best kept short and colorful, B2B marketing materials can be longer and more detailed. Apply the same principle to social media: Posts directed at other companies can go to greater lengths as long as they include current and cogent points.
3. Get to know the people involved. If you tried to get to know every person included in a mass marketing campaign, you’d never get anywhere and probably go out of business. In B2B campaigns, however, specific people — that is, those who make the buying decisions at your targeted accounts — mean everything.
In fact, under an approach called account-based marketing, a company directs its B2B marketing efforts directly at the individual or set of individuals at each targeted account (or certain high-valued accounts). It’s the “personal approach” writ large, with your sales and marketing staff working together to get to know and appeal to the sensibilities and personalities of the people representing the companies that buy from you.
Obviously, any B2B marketing effort will need to go beyond these three points. Nonetheless, they should form a solid foundation in this often-tricky area. Our firm can help you assess the financial impact of your marketing efforts, B2B and otherwise, and come up with strategies for the future.
Is your accounting software living up to the hype?
Accounting software typically sells itself as much more than simple spreadsheet or ledger. The products tend to pride themselves on being comprehensive accounting information systems — depending on the price point, of course.
So, is your accounting software living up to the hype? If not, there are a couple of relatively simple steps you can take to improve matters.
Train and retrain
Many businesses grow frustrated with their accounting software packages because they haven’t invested enough time to learn their full functionality. When your personnel are truly up to speed, it’s much easier for them to standardize reports to meet your company’s needs without modification. Doing so not only reduces input errors, but also provides helpful financial information at any point during the year — not just at month end.
Along the same lines, your company should be able to perform standard journal entries and payroll allocations automatically within your accounting software. Many systems can recall transactions and automate, for example, payroll allocations to various programs or vacation accrual reports. If you’re struggling to extract and use these types of financial information, you might be underusing your accounting software (or it might be time for an upgrade).
Ideally, a champion on your staff may be able to step up and share his or her knowledge with others to get them up to speed. Otherwise, you could explore the cost of engaging an external consultant to review your software’s functionality and retrain staff on its basic features, as well as the many shortcuts and advanced features available.
Commit to continuous improvement
Accounting systems that aren’t monitored can become inefficient over time. Encourage employees to be on the lookout for labor-intensive steps that could be better automated, along with processes that don’t add value and might be eliminated. Also, note any unusual activity and look for transactions being improperly reported — remember the old technological adage, “garbage in, garbage out.”
Leadership plays an important role, too. Ownership and management are ultimately responsible for your company’s overall financial oversight. Periodically review critical documents such as monthly bank statements, financial statements and accounting entries. Look for vague items, errors or anomalies and then determine whether misuse of your accounting system may be to blame.
Take the time
Many businesses don’t even realize they have a problem with their accounting software until they take the time to evaluate and improve it. And only then does the system finally deliver on the hype — sometimes. Our firm can help you review your accounting software and ensure it’s delivering the information you need to make good business decisions.
Odd word, cool concept: Gamification for businesses
“Gamification.” It’s perhaps an odd word, but it’s a cool concept that’s become popular among many types of businesses. In its most general sense, the term refers to integrating characteristics of game-playing into business-related tasks to excite and engage the people involved.
Might it have a place in your company?
Sometimes gamification refers to customer interactions. For example, a retailer might award customers points for purchases that they can collect and use toward discounts. Or a company might offer product-related games or contests on its website to generate traffic and visitor engagement.
But, these days, many businesses are also using gamification internally. That is, they’re using it to:
- Engage employees in training processes,
- Promote friendly competition and camaraderie among employees, and
- Ease the recognition and measurement of progress toward shared goals.
It’s not hard to see how creating positive experiences in these areas might improve the morale and productivity of any workplace. As a training tool, games can help employees learn more quickly and easily. Moreover, with the rise of social media, many workers are comfortable sharing with others in a competitive setting. And, from the employer’s perspective, gamification opens all kinds of data-gathering possibilities to track training initiatives and measure employee performance.
In most businesses, employee training is a big opportunity to reap the benefits of gamification. As many industries look to attract Generation Z — the next big demographic to enter the workforce — game-based learning makes perfect sense for individuals who grew up both competing in various electronic ways on their mobile devices and interacting on social media.
For example, safety and sensitivity training are areas that demand constant reinforcement. But it’s also common for workers to tune out these topics. Framing reminders, updates and exercises within game scenarios, in which participants might win or lose ground by following proper or improper work practices, is one way to liven up the process.
Game-style simulations can also help prepare employees for management or leadership roles. Online training simulations, set up as games, can test participants’ decision-making and problem-solving skills — and allow them to see the potential consequences of various actions before granting them such responsibilities in the real-word situations. You might also consider rewards-based games for managers or project leaders based on meeting schedules, staying within budgets, or preventing accidents or other costly mistakes.
Naturally, gamification has its risks. You don’t want to “force fun” or frustrate employees with unreasonably difficult games. Doing so could lower morale, waste time and money, and undercut training effectiveness.
To mitigate the downsides, involve management and employees in gamification initiatives to ensure you’re on the right track. Also consider involving a professional consultant to implement established and tested “gamified” exercises, tasks and contests. We can help you identify and assess the potential costs involved and keep those costs in line.
Grading the performance of your company’s retirement plan
Imagine giving your company’s retirement plan a report card. Would it earn straight A’s in preparing your participants for their golden years? Or is it more of a C student who could really use some extra help after school? Benchmarking can tell you.
Mind the basics
More than likely, you already use certain criteria to benchmark your plan’s performance using traditional measures such as:
- Fund investment performance relative to a peer group,
- Breadth of fund options,
- Benchmarked fees, and
- Participation rates and average deferral rates (including matching contributions).
These measures are all critical, but they’re only the beginning of the story. Add to that list helpful administrative features and functionality — including auto-enrollment and auto-escalation provisions, investment education, retirement planning, and forecasting tools. In general, the more, the better.
Don’t overlook useful data
A sometimes-overlooked plan metric is average account balance size. This matters for two reasons. First, it provides a first-pass look at whether participants are accumulating meaningful sums in their accounts. Naturally, you’ll need to look at that number in light of the age of your workforce and how long your plan has been in existence. Second, it affects recordkeeping fees — higher average account values generally translate into lower per-participant fees.
Knowing your plan asset growth rate is also helpful. Unless you have an older workforce and participants are retiring and rolling their fund balances into IRAs, look for a healthy overall asset growth rate, which incorporates both contribution rates and investment returns.
What’s a healthy rate? That’s a subjective assessment. You’ll need to examine it within the context of current financial markets. A plan with assets that shrank during the financial crisis about a decade ago could hardly be blamed for that pattern. Overall, however, you might hope to see annual asset growth of roughly 10%.
Keep participants on track
Ultimately, however, the success of a retirement plan isn’t measured by any one element, but by aggregating multiple data points to derive an “on track to retire” score. That is, how many of your plan participants have account values whose size and growth rate are sufficient to result in a realistic preretirement income replacement ratio, such as 85% or more?
It might not be possible to determine that number with precision. Such calculations at the participant level, sometimes performed by recordkeepers, involve sophisticated guesswork with respect to participants’ retirement ages and savings outside the retirement plan, as well as their income growth rates and the long-term rates of return on their investment accounts.
Ask for help
Given the importance of strong retirement benefits in hiring and retaining the best employees, it’s worth your while to regularly benchmark your plan’s performance. For better or worse, doing so isn’t as simple as 2+2. Our firm can help you choose the relevant measures, gather the data, perform the calculations and, most important, determine whether your retirement plan is really making the grade.
Put a number on your midyear performance with the right KPIs
We’ve reached the middle of the calendar year. So how are things going for your business? Conversationally you might say, “Pretty good.” But, analytically, can you put a number on how well you’re doing — or several numbers for that matter? You can if you choose and calculate the right key performance indicators (KPIs).
4 common indicators
There are a wide variety of KPIs to choose from. Here are four that can give you a solid snapshot of your midyear position:
1. Gross profit. This figure will tell you how much money you made after your manufacturing and selling costs were paid. It’s calculated by subtracting the cost of goods sold from your total revenue.
2. Current ratio. This ratio will help you gauge the strength of your cash flow. It’s calculated by dividing your current assets by your current liabilities.
3. Inventory turnover ratio. This ratio will warn you ahead of time if certain items are moving more slowly than they have in the past. It also will tell you how often these items are turned over. The ratio is calculated by dividing your cost of goods sold by your average inventory for the period.
4. Debt-to-equity ratio. This ratio will measure your company’s leverage, or how much debt is being used to finance your assets. It’s calculated by dividing your total liabilities by shareholder’s equity.
KPIs aren’t limited to widely used ratios. You can make up your own and apply them to any area of your business.
For example, let’s say the company’s goal is to improve its response time to customer complaints. Its KPI might be to provide an initial response to complaints within 24 hours, and to eventually resolve at least 80% of complaints to the customer’s satisfaction. You can track response times and document resolutions and eventually calculate this KPI.
As another example, say your business wants to improve its closing rate on sales leads. Its KPI could be to convert 50% of all qualified leads into customers over the next six months with the goal of raising this percentage to 60% next year.
Notice that these KPIs are both specific and measurable. Just saying that your company wants to “provide better customer service” or “close more sales” won’t produce a sound KPI.
Midyear is the perfect time to stop, take a breath and objectively assess your company’s performance. This way, if things are really going well, you can determine precisely why and keep that momentum going. And if they’re not, you can figure out how you’re ailing and adjust your budget and objectives accordingly. Our firm can help you choose the KPIs that will provide the information you need, as well as help you apply that data to good business decisions.