Retail

Interview with Mark Stone

Jonathan: I recently spoke to Mark Stone, the founder of Sales Tax Defense about how to best handle sales tax issues and how to prevent them from occurring.  Below is an edited version of our conversation:

Jonathan: Mark, why don’t you share a little bit of your background dealing with sales tax issues?

Mark: I am the Managing Partner of Sales Tax Defense LLC since 2006. We specialize in Sales, Use and Transaction taxes. I have worked as a New York State sales tax auditor as well as a Tax Manager at several prominent accounting firms over the past 25 years. I am frequently invited by various organizations to speak on Sales & Use Tax issues and I have served as an expert witness testifying in tax court on behalf of my clients.

Jonathan: Excellent.  What are the best practices a business should employ so that the proper amount of sales tax is paid on-time? 

Mark: First you want to register for Sales & Use Tax, so you have the legal right to collect sales tax.  Sales tax is collected on retail sales, leases or rentals of most goods, and any taxable services in the state required.  Use tax is due when a seller hasn’t properly charged a purchaser sales tax.  Businesses should understand when they need to charge sales tax and what documentation they need from their customers if the customers are not paying tax.

Then you want to make sure you file on time, even if no tax is due.  Lastly, mail your returns by certified mail with a return receipt requested so that you have proof it was received on-time, or file electronically.

Jonathan: OK, what should you be doing in your business?

Mark: You need to know what you are supposed to charge tax on and charge it.  Too many sellers make excuses as to why they didn’t charge their customers tax.  The State comes back years later and make the seller pay what they didn’t collect, plus interest and penalties.  Your business should keep adequate and complete records for at least 3 years and make sure your customers pay the tax when they are due.  You also want to collect Exemption Certificates from the customers you don’t charge sales tax.

Jonathan:  It sounds like a POS system would solve many of these issues.  Also, you mentioned Exemption Certificates?  How do I get that?

Mark: Exemptions certificates are provided by the customer and given to the seller.  They are blank forms downloaded from the NYS Tax Department’s website.  The purchaser completes the forms and gives them to the seller to document why the purchaser is not required to pay the seller sales tax on the transaction.

Jonathan:  Anything else?

Mark: Generally, NYS gives a person or business 90 days to respond to a notice.  If you don’t respond within 90 days, then the amount claimed to be due becomes “fixed and final” and the Taw Department can now begin seizing your assets to pay the assessments.  If you get a bill from the government, you should call your tax professional immediately.  The bill is not going to go away on its own!

Jonathan: Mark thank you for your time.  Mark can best be reached at: Sales Tax Defense, LLC

673 Deer Park Avenue, Dix Hills, NY  11746, 631-491-1500 x.11, www.salestaxdefense.com

mstone@salestaxdefense.com

Interview with Zev Asch

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Zev Asch

LEDAZA

Jonathan: I have known Zev, a hands-on marketing expert, for a few years. We sat down for an open, heart-to-heart discussion about marketing and small business.   

Jonathan: Zev, before you start, tell me a little bit about your background and how you wound up spending a career building small businesses with a focus on marketing?

Zev: My journey didn’t start in business or marketing but psychology. I’ve always been fascinated by the human brain. I came to the U.S. from Israel to study psychology but with just enough money to last me for my freshman year. When I graduated (with Honors) I wanted to pursue a doctorate in psychology but there was no way I could have afforded to study and support myself. I decided to pursue an MBA in Marketing instead, or what I thought was a discipline that was very much aligned with psychology.

Jonathan: And then what happened?

Zev: I had a choice to make as an immigrant with a six-month-old baby; work for IBM and climb the sought-after corporate ladder or work for small businesses where, if I was good, would provide me with an opportunity to grow professionally and financially. I was never interested in titles or corner offices anyway. It was a strategic, career decision but it worked out very well for me and I was able to learn first-hand, in “the trenches of small business” what it takes for small companies to survive and thrive.

Jonathan: So how did marketing fit into your plan?

Zev: Without dating myself, I am one of few professionals that has experience that extends way before the Internet and well into the 21st century. It has awarded me an extensive and very interesting perspective on how to grow a business but especially on marketing.

Jonathan: Since you brought it up, what do you think has been the most influential aspect of the Internet, or the digital revolution, on retail businesses?

Zev: I am going to get some people angry with my answer but if you bear with me, you’ll understand why I believe I’m right. When I do public speaking or workshops I always ask the audience this question: “Do you think it was easier or more difficult before the Internet to grow a business?” The majority always answer, “it is much easier today than it has ever been to run and grow a business,”. Sorry, wrong answer – remember, I’ve done both and I can say unequivocally that today is way more challenging than pre-Internet.

Here’s why: Remember the saying, “if it was that easy everyone would be doing it?” – that’s exactly my point! Every business owner and entrepreneur has access to the full range of digital platforms and products to promote their business. The result an overwhelming marketing noise that continuously hits our prospective customers. This constant barrage of messages, posts, videos, paid advertising that rank high on Google, etc., is not only challenging from a business standpoint but more importantly, it overwhelms and confuses our customers.

Jonathan: That is an interesting perspective so why does it matter, or maybe the question is “so now what should a retailer do”?

Zev: It matters because differentiating yourself is incredibly challenging. Which brings up to marketing – I like simplicity and dislike jargon so here’s the role of marketing in one sentence: “Get your business noticed in a way that drives qualified leads, or prospective buyers, to engage and learn more about you.” But here’s the thing, it doesn’t and shouldn’t end right there. While in my core I am a marketing specialist, I have always ensured that my responsibility covers what I call The Three Pillars of Growth in business: Marketing, or “get the leads in”, Sales or “convert them to paying customers”, and Customer Service or “never ever give them a reason to think about leaving”.

All of this is especially critical for retailers – whether you are a fashion boutique, wine shop, or a restaurant owner, you’ve got to go through the painstaking process of identifying what makes you unique. The best way for retailers to do that is also the simplest way: Speak to your customers, get to know them and let them tell you how they make a buying decision.

Jonathan:  So retailers should ask their clients right after they make a purchase why they just made that purchase from them?

Zev: Let me first state that this is incredibly critical, but it is also hard work. You can’t just send a survey and expect the work to be done. How many customers love to complete surveys? Not many. The best way, the one I recommend without hesitation, is to speak to your customers. Engage your customers when they come to your business.  Engage them before, during, and after they leave. They will appreciate the attention and will tell you what you want to know. For example, ask them which Facebook pages they follow, what blogs they read, what podcasts they listen to, what other sources of information they subscribe to. Ask them what it important to them when they shop at your store.  Is the service?  Do they value you are two minutes away from their office?  Ask them how you rate when it comes to fulfilling their expectations?  It’s not difficult to have a conversation, but be strategic about what you ask and what you want to know.  Lastly, you need to commit to getting this feedback. 

Jonathan: If we can pivot, it seems that all everyone talks about is marketing these days: web-marketing, brand-marketing, email-marketing, social media-marketing, etc. Are they missing something?

Zev: Absolutely. Look how many webinars and “secret tips to crush your next marketing campaign” books and podcasts are out there. There are quite a few gurus and self-made experts who claim they uncovered the secret to successful marketing; some of them are brilliant marketers who are making a lot of money on the backs of desperate entrepreneurs.  But most are not because despite their claims, no one has been able to demystify human behavior.  It may appear simple, that a “red” call to action button is the color that will make a human to press it.  I’m sorry, but whatever study was run to suggest that, next week “blue” may win. While color may certainly play a role in decision-making, what takes place before you get to press the button is way more critical.

Jonathan: So how do we figure out what works and what doesn’t?

Zev: Marketing is a science – it’s not a “thing” where all you do is post stuff on Facebook, LinkedIn etc. My favorite saying to our clients is, “likes don’t pay the bills”.  You simply can’t make assumptions; instead all we do in marketing is test, retest and test again.  I don’t know if red or blue is the color this week, so I run two ads and compare the responses.

Jonathan: With Social media everywhere, are we spending too much time marketing on it?

Zev: That’s a great question and the answer is actually quite simple: When marketing ‘works’ i.e., creates a consistent and sustainable growth for your business, it is always a result of the cumulative efforts of marketing, not just social media but direct mail, email, PR, etc. It is a balancing act using multiple platforms and tools but the most critical aspect of doing anything in marketing is “know your customer!” We have the ability to reach the masses but the key to success is identifying who your customers are (the multiple groups and segments) then spending time constructing their “profile”.  Intimate knowledge of your ideal customer is the key to success.

Jonathan: What do you think is the biggest challenge small retailers face today?

Zev: Get out of your own way. One of the most frustrating aspects of working with entrepreneurs is their increasing lack of patience – everyone wants guaranteed results or what I call “the endless chase for certainty.” Owners must commit to a marketing budget (free marketing doesn’t work) then let a marketing professional implement a scientific approach to business growth – identify your customer, make some assumptions, present marketing “ideas” and measure what works. Testing, by virtue of what the word means, requires multiple approaches and the patience to learn from them. Every client we speak with starts with, “so if I commit a budget to this it will work right?” – No, I would rather than you invest less but commit more in the form of patience and allowing us to intimately engage with your prospects. 

Jonathan: I am curious, is there one person that influenced you the most when it comes to marketing?

Zev: Absolutely and it is Seth Godin. I’ve followed him for over twenty year and I truly consider him a marketing genius – not from an intellectual perspective, although I wish I had his brain, but from his ability to “see” clearly and deeply what marketing is all about. Seth’s mantra that I have adopted throughout my career is rooted in his “Purple Cow” book – or to quote a title of another book, “Differentiate of Die” – especially nowadays where there is so much marketing noise out there, we must find a way to get noticed (Purple Cow) and then find a way to engage at a deep and meaningful way in order for marketing to actually generate results.

Jonathan: Zev thanks for your time and insights, and one can read more about Zev and his marketing, sales and customer service approach at www.ledaza.com.  You can also reach him at zev@ledaza.com or call him on his cell because that’s how he’s most accessible at 631.875.4103.

Interview with Doug Bend

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Jonathan: I recently spoke to Doug Bend of the Bend Law Group about how to best create layers of defense for a retail business

Jonathan: Before getting to how a business should create layers of defense, what exactly are we defending against?

Doug: Our firm has counseled hundreds of business owners, including many retail businesses. The owners who sleep the best at night are those who have made strategic legal and insurance investments to protect their business and personal assets. That's why we recommend four layers of defense for small business owners.

Jonathan.  Ok.  What’s the first layer of defense?

Doug:  It's hard to overstate the amount of litigation that could be avoided by great customer service. The saying "penny wise and pound foolish" is never more true than when it comes to a customer potentially suing you for negligence. All it takes is for an unhappy customer to complain to an attorney at a cocktail mixer who responds, “You should sue!”.  The least expensive legal defense you will ever pay is apologizing and comping the customer product or providing them with a discount. If a customer was harmed at your business, apologize and be quick to fix whatever might have caused the injury, and err on the side of reimbursing the customer's reasonable, documented expenses. 

Jonathan:  And if you are able to nip this problem in the bud, not only might you prevent potential lawsuits, but you might turn what could have been a 1-star review into a 5-star review. 

Doug:  Yes, you might gain new customers and not lose any potential customers because of the bad PR.

Jonathan:  I’m sure that sometimes the apology and offers to reimburse the cost of products does not insulate a retail business from unhappy customers who want a pound of flesh.  So what’s the next layer of protection for retailers?

Doug:  Yes, even with great customer service there may still be a lawsuit. A solid insurance policy can help cover the costs of the litigation, and if you lose the lawsuit, the damages.  Be sure to know what the insurance policy covers and what it doesn't. Many mistakes occur when a business believes they have coverage when they actually don't. They're only left to find out after a potential claim has been brought to their attention.

Jonathan:  What’s the final layer of protection?

Doug:  A properly formed and maintained legal entity can serve as a crucial last line of defense to help protect your personal assets from your business activities. If a customer isn't satisfied with your apology and your insurance don't cover the claim, a legal entity can serve as a final backstop to prevent the customer from going after your personal assets. Consult with a business attorney and your CPA about the best type of legal entity for your business, as there isn't a one-size-fits-all legal entity choice.

Jonathan:  This last layer of protection sounds like the very first thing a business owner should do.

Doug: A legal entity certainly provides the most bang for the legal buck for most retail businesses

Jonathan:  I know there is also a bit of pushing between the attorneys and the accountants over the ‘best’ legal structure for a business.  The attorneys are looking for protection and the accountants are looking at tax efficiency, and they may not come up with the same answer.  Do you have a feeling which should prevail?

Doug: Many of our retail clients form an LLC, but there is not a one size fits all answer. It depends on each client’s goals, sources of financing and other factors to make sure we select the best legal entity for their business.

Jonathan:  Many thanks for your time as I know how precise your time is and this is not a billable event.

Doug:  Thank you for this opportunity to talk, and if anyone would like to discuss business formation, I’m reachable.

Jonathan: Doug Bend can best be reached at the Bend Law Group, 555 California Street, Suite #4925, San Francisco, CA. 94104, (415)-633-6841, Doug@bendlawoffice.com. Bend Law Office Website