Thursday, February 09, 2012

Beware of sales tax seminars in state capitals.

Actually Doing My Job

This article may not be terribly helpful to most of you. But it’s kind of funny. And there’s a point to the story. But it’s mostly kinda sorta interesting. Oh, what do I know? Read the dang story.

A couple of years ago, I was doing a sales tax seminar in a hotel that just happened to be in the state capital. It was a small city (as many state capitals are) and the class wasn’t very big. I was sitting at the registration table waiting for the first folks to arrive. I scanned the roster and came to “Joe Smith, XXXX Department of Revenue.”

“Oh, great,” I thought. That’s just what I need - a sniper, and from the state too. All I could hope for was that the participant worked in accounting.  Revenuers have accounting departments, right?
A “sniper” in public speaking and training circles is someone in the audience who thinks they know more than the speaker, and is anxious to show off their dazzling brilliance. I’ve found pepper spray is helpful.
As it happened, Joe was the first one to arrive. I asked him, as he was signing in, what he did at the Department of Revenue. “I’m the director of the sales tax audit division.”

Oh, great. This was shaping up to be a bad day.

I wanted to chat, but other folks started arriving and he wandered off to take a seat in the front row. In the front row! This day was looking even worse.

I decided I needed to make sure the rest of the group knew he was in the room. I didn’t want someone blurting out, “Yeah, I need some sales tax advice. I’m the accountant for Arnold’s Pizza Place, over on 31st and Hillside. In fact, my boss gave me a bunch of coupons for everyone in the class. Our address and a map are right on the coupon.  Here, pass them around. Make sure everyone gets one. Don’t forget that guy in the front row. Anyway, we’ve been collecting sales tax for years but never paid it to the state. Is that a big problem?”
And yes, I’ve had that question in my seminars. Really.
I didn’t really feel comfortable just starting the seminar saying, “Attention everyone, this is Joe.  He runs the audit division for the state.  You might want to shut up.  Just saying.”   Instead I did something I never do, “OK, it’s a small group, let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves.” 

I know, you hate it when we do that, don’t you?

The last person to introduce himself was Joe.   After doing so, I noticed that everyone else had the look people must have when they get to the top of the first drop on the roller coaster.  Joe then said, “Now I’m not here to collect names for our auditors.  You folks have nothing to worry about.  We got the seminar brochure in the mail, so we thought we'd see what Jim here was saying.”

Oh, yeah.  This was shaping up to be the worst day of my life.  I also made a mental note to tell the marketing department to, in the future, not send brochures on tax topics to any state agencies.

Joe’s statement that he wasn’t looking for people to audit apparently wasn’t believed.  This turned into the most boring seminar I ever taught.  For six hours, there were NO QUESTIONS.  The audience, other than Joe, simply stared at me in absolute terror.  There was an AUDITOR in the room!

Nobody would talk to me, even at the breaks.  The only person that didn’t clamp their hand over their mouth and run from the room was Joe.  So I picked his brain and got a lot of good insights into revenue department strategies, etc.  So there was that silver lining - for me.

Here’s the relevant point for you folks.  And I’m serious.  Reconsider before going to a seminar on sales tax, or any tax or regulatory topic, in a state capital.  There’s a good chance that there will be an auditor in the room.  And you will not get the dynamic, interactive seminar that you paid for. I've done seminars in several state capitals over the years, and had experiences similar to what I've described in many of them.  I ain't lying here.  And the above is a true story!

Oh, in case you’re wondering, Joe said I got everything right and was pretty good  Yes!  

The Sales Tax Guy

See the disclaimer - this is for education only.  Research these issues thoroughly before making decisions.  Remember: there are details that haven't been discussed, and every state is different.  Here's more information

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Picture note: any images above are hosted on Flickr. If you'd like to see more, click on the photo.  And the picture isn't from this seminar.

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