Posted: 28 Jan 2011 in
How to select an accountant
The first thing to remember that accounting firms are all different!
Each firm will have a different style, offer different services, have expertise in different sectors and have different strengths and weaknesses: just like any other business.
Accountants can also provide a wide range of services from basic bookkeeping to specialist business advice. Some offer a full service, whilst others only focus on a narrow range or may be specialists in one particular industry.
It’s vital that you choose an accountant who’s right for both you and your business: it’s also not only about your immediate needs, but if your business is going to grow, your accountant needs to able to help you get there. Also, you need to be confident that your accountant can not only provide the help and support you need, but that they will do it in the way you want. For example, if you’re looking for aggressive tax avoidance schemes, make sure that the accountants you select offer this service – as many don’t!
Also look hard at your business and your attitude: do you want to have as little as possible to do with your accountant as possible – using them only to submit the documents you can’t complete yourself? Or do you want an accountant who will give you business advice and be involved in developing your business. Many small businesses are looking for an accountant who is somewhere between these two: the right accountant for you will be largely determined by where you sit on this spectrum. Before you start contacting any prospective accountants, consider the factors which are most important to you.
Put together a shortlist of three or four accountancy firms. The easiest way of doing this is to ask business colleagues, members of your online/offline business, suppliers, customers and even friends and family.
Meet all the accountants on your shortlist and find out about their experience and services. This is also an opportunity for you to outline your business needs
Check whether you will be charged for this meeting: most reputable accountants offer the first meeting free-of-charge
What to Ask:
There are many questions you could ask, some can be fairly general, whilst others may need to be very specific to your business and/or its activities and markets. Here are some broad categories which should help you decide on the accountant who would best suit your needs.
Does the accountant have clients in your sector and experience of businesses of a similar size and can they deal with your business' unique needs?
It’s also worth finding out about their professional qualifications, background and expertise.
Few people like asking about fees and costs, but it’s vital that you understand how your proposed accountant will charge – right from the outset. Ask some detailed questions about what their fees cover and whether they offer all-in/fixed fees. If it doesn’t seem clear to you, ask again and make sure that you understand what is included and what is not
It’s important to find out who will be handling your business on a day-to-day basis – will it be a partner or someone more junior. Ask too, about the practice in general and get some background information, such as how many partners and employees the firm has
Communication and Service
You will be sharing some of your most important information about your business with your accountant, so this is an ideal opportunity to find out about how they propose to work with you - and you with them. Ask about opening hours and check how easily you can contact them and whether guarantee to get back to you within a certain period
It’s also vital to ask whether their service will be proactive - eg will they remind you when you need to submit accounts or tax filings, or send you updates on changes in legislation?
At this stage, you may only want a simple service, but as your business expands you will need access to additional services. So ask about the additional services they offer? For example, inheritance planning, advice on IT, accounting systems, starting a business or a stock market listing.
If you’re not sure what you might need in the future, ask how they think they could help you develop your business
Not all accountants offer business advice, so check that if they do! Find out what’s on offer and how they provide it (face-to-face, online, etc)
Access to Information
You might need information to update your business plan or to prepare tender document so check the level of access you will have to data that your accountant holds about your business. Check too, the accounting systems they use and whether they will support the ones you currently – or plan – to use. As business is increasingly mobile and you may need to access financial information from multiple locations, ask the accountants whether they offer on-line, real-time accounting which is available wherever you are
Last, but certainly not least! It’s vital that you get other clients’ views of the practice to see if what you’ve been told is accurate. A good accountant should also be happy to pass on names of clients for you to take up references.
What Information Will They Need?
Any potential accountant should want to know as much about you as you do about them. If you can take as much information as possible about your business, it will help both of you during your meeting.
Remember, it’s a two-way conversation – you both want to get something from the meeting. The following information will be useful at your first meeting – this is a guide, not a necessity and as young business, you may not be able to provide all these items:
Background about you and your business
Your business plan
Last set of accounts
Accounting software you use or would like to use
What you are looking for from an accountant
Other support that you may require
Specific concerns or issues you may have
Timescale for any work you require
Making Your Decision!
Once you’ve met all the accountants, it’s time to make the decision! Take account of both your initial deciding factors and anything new that came up in the process. Don’t be embarrassed to phone or email them with further questions after the meeting - after all, you are going to give them your business
The key deciding factors are likely to include the following:
Who best addresses your needs
Who do you think best understood you and your business
Which firm best meets your budget criteria
Empathy – which firm do you feel y you can build-up the best relationship
At the end of the process, you should be in a position to choose an accountant, with whom you can work immediately and over time, develop a long-term relationship which will benefit both your business.