10 Questions To Ask When Choosing An Accountant

Posted on November 30, 2012

The vast majority of small businesses could use the services of an accountant. The number of ways in which it is possible to introduce errors into your business through accounting practices is staggering. Your accounting includes issues related to payroll, monitoring profitability, inventory control, avoiding penalties and interest on taxes, and much, much more. It is wise to select a competent professional in this field to help you navigate the minefield of accounting pitfalls. Selecting such a professional can be difficult, especially since not all accountants are created equal. Here are some questions to ask to help ensure that you are selecting the best accountant you can for your business.

1. Are they recommended by a trusted colleague?

One way to start the search for an accountant is to ask people that you already trust for suggestions. Your banker, insurance agent, attorney, and financial planner most likely know and work with accountants on a regular basis. Also inquire to the companies that you do business with, such as you barber, florist, butcher, and plumber. Chances are, these sorts of business owners use an accountant for some business functions, since these tend to be the types of business owners that are excellent at what they do, but not so great with dealing with the complexities of taxes and accounting.

2. Ask around your Chamber of Commerce.

If you are familiar with your local Chamber, they can be an excellent resource. You can ask at Chamber events for referrals to accountants, and you are likely to meet many such service providers at Chamber functions, trade events, and leads groups. Also, many Chambers have an internal complaint system and can let you know whether or not complaints have been issued locally against an accountant or firm.

3. Do they have any complaints with the Better Business Bureau?

When many individuals decide to take action and make a complaint against a firm, they often think first of the BBB. Check with your local division, or look them up online, and make sure that the company you are considering hiring has a good record with the BBB. If they have a Gold Star award from the BBB, then you’re on the right track to working with a company that is reputable and stands by their word. The BBB’s new letter grading system can also help you in selecting a good firm.

4. Have they ever been investigated by your state Attorney General’s office or state board of accountancy?

This is another place to do your own due diligence. Complaints with the state AG or Board of Accountancy is an automatic red flag and should be highly considered before selecting a firm.

5. What services do they provide, and what services do you NEED?

Think about exactly what you’re looking for in a service provider. Do you need full service accounting, outsourcing all functions to another person or firm? Or do you just need year-end tax preparation? Knowing the answer to what services you need will help you pick the best person to do what you need, and will affect your budget for getting it done. For example, if you just need tax preparation, then you might be better off with an experienced tax preparer instead of a CPA firm that mostly does auditing and general accounting. If you only need payroll services, then you might want to hire a payroll company rather than a bookkeeper that does payroll on the side. If you need the books updated weekly or monthly, most communities have competent, independent full charge bookkeepers that you can hire.

If you’re looking for somebody to come set up your books and show you how to use your accounting software, you may want to consider a general CPA or a competent bookkeeper. If you do all your own books using Peachtree, Quickbooks, MS Money, or another popular commercial software package, it can be very helpful to have somebody to call should something go wrong. The large commercial accounting software publishers all provide some sort of certified expert rating system for individuals that are experts on using their software. You may want to look for and consult with such a certified expert on your particular accounting software. For example, Intuit offers its Quickbooks Certified ProAdvisor program to consultants. Finding one of these certified individuals can really help you a lot if you’re doing the books yourself.

If your only interest is in tax compliance, look for a CPA that specializes in taxation, or an Enrolled Agent (EA). An EA is an individual licensed directly by the U.S. Treasury to handle tax matters, and this individual can represent you before the IRS just like a CPA or an attorney. By nature of the credential, EAs are dedicated tax professionals and are generally more competent in areas of tax issues than a general CPA, unlicensed tax preparer, or bookkeeper.

Selecting the type of professional you need is a serious consideration in this process, and depends largely on what you plan on doing yourself, and what you expect to need help with.

6. Are they licensed in some way?

Credentials are not always the most important thing to consider, but they do reflect at least a minimum level of professional competency, in theory. If they are a CPA, they’ve passed a rigorous four part examination and have at least a bachelor’s degree in accounting and two years of professional experience, at a minimum. If they are an Enrolled Agent, they have passed a very rigorous three part exam covering individuals, businesses, and practices and ethics that is administered directly by the Internal Revenue Service.

The individual preparing your tax returns, doing your books, or processing your payroll doesn’t necessarily need credentials in order to do the tax and do it right, so experience is a critical piece of the puzzle you’ll want to inquire about.

Do keep in mind that if you’re audited by the IRS, only CPAs, EAs, or attorneys can represent you, unless you wish to represent yourself, which is not recommended.

7. How much experience do they have?

How many years have they been doing what they do? What type of companies do they generally work with, such as which industries and what size companies? Inquire as to how many of each of your type of entity they work with each year. If they’re experienced working with your type of legal entity, within your industry, or your size of company, they might be a good fit.

8. How do they charge, and how much?

Don’t be afraid to ask about the money. Some firms will charge by the hour, or on a piece rate for the type of work being done. Bookkeepers will usually charge an hourly rate, while tax preparers often charge a flat rate per form and schedule. If your tax return is pretty complex, expect to pay more, which could be a base rate plus an hourly rate for doing accounting work to generate the numbers needed for various line items on the return. If you’ll be seeking software assistance, find out what they will charge for this, usually at an hourly rate. It can’t hurt to know whether you’ll be over your head in terms of what you can reasonably afford for the services you are seeking.

A word of caution: Price should not be the ultimate determining factor when decided who to use and what services to do yourself. If you’re genuinely over your head when it comes to certain tasks, don’t be afraid to spend the money. There’s an old saying that goes like this, “Do what you do best, hire out the rest.” Accounting can be one of the most frustrating aspects of owning a business, and trying to do it all yourself can take time away from what you should be doing, which is running your business to the best of your ability to generate a profit.

9. Are you comfortable with the individual?

Even if you hire a large firm to do your accounting, there is still going to be an individual person that will be doing the work and with whom you will work with almost exclusively. You need to sit down with this person and make sure that you are comfortable working with them. If anything makes you uncomfortable in any way, you need to find somebody else. Think about it: This person is going to have access to an incredible amount of private financial information, so it has to be somebody you feel comfortable trusting.

10. Don’t be afraid to make a change.

Even after selecting somebody to work with, don’t be afraid to find somebody else if things aren’t working out. Your accounting is too important to the success of your business to leave it in the hands of an incompetent person or somebody you don’t completely trust. Problems with your current accountant could range from having just plain bad interpersonal chemistry to gross incompetence on their part, or perhaps you have the wrong specialist to meet your needs. Regardless, don’t hesitate to take your business elsewhere, since your accounting, bookkeeping, and taxes are simply that important to the life of your business.

Using the ten steps outlined in this article will give you a great start towards finding the accountant that is right for you. Identify the type of professional that can best provide the services you need, ask around for referrals, then check them out and interview them personally. This process will ensure that you get the best accountant for your business needs.

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