The right fit matters more than you think. Before you open up the books to just anyone, ensure you choose the number-cruncher that best meets your particular needs.
Not everyone is born to do math, and most people don’t know the intricacies of federal tax laws and state financial regulations. That’s where accountants, the professional number crunchers, come in.
An accountant can and should be more than just someone who tallies the balance sheet. “Ideally, an accountant is someone who will do much more for your business than its taxes or bookkeeping,” says NFIB member Martin H. Abo, a CPA with Abo and Company in Mount Laurel, New Jersey. “Especially for small and medium-size businesses, the CPA is the quintessential consultant, business advisor.”
When picking an accountant to act as a trusted ally for your business, it’s crucial that you consider the following factors:
Size and scale: Not every small business requires the full suite of services, says NFIB member Darryl Lyons, chief executive officer of PAX Financial Group in San Antonio. "Some small businesses are not too complicated and can be served by a small group of accountants, while others have more complex needs, things like group benefit plans, where they need a greater range of services,” he explains. “You want to match your needs with the accounting firm’s capabilities."
Inside knowledge: Accounting practices cover a broad swath, and not every professional is going to know the nuances of every industry. Most accountants work a narrow specialty that will be reflected in their client base. See who else is on the roster and check whether the accountant is affiliated with a larger national firm that can help on intricate issues.
Ask the right questions: It’s important to know how to properly interview a potential accountant. Here are some basic questions, courtesy of the Georgia Small Business Development Center:
- Will I be assigned the same accountant each time or multiple accountants?
- Who can I call if I have a question?
- What are your normal business hours?
Price matters a lot, of course, but it’s not the only factor to consider. It is important to clarify up front the scope of services needed. Do you need a bookkeeper, tax preparer, or full-scale business consultant? Different professionals will offer different levels of service.
Industry involvement: Sophisticated accountants will typically be involved in their professions as members of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA), state societies of CPAs, and other professional groups. Many of these require continuing professional education, ensuring members stay on top of the latest accounting and tax changes.
The right fit: A business owner will work in close concert with an accountant. As business analyst and consultant, the accountant will often sit elbow-to-elbow with the owner to discuss not just financial matters but also big-picture questions of business strategy. That means there needs to be a level of personal comfort in addition to professional confidence. “There’s got to be a certain personal chemistry there, along with financial expertise,” Abo says.
Making connections: When financial issues need to be addressed, you want an accountant who will pick up the phone, return a text, or answer email in a timely way. In today’s world of multiple communication channels, it’s important to clarify up-front the means by which business owner and accountant will be talking. No one method will be better than another, but both parties will have to be on the same page in order for the relationship to thrive.
Perhaps more than any other service-provider relationship, the choice of an accountant requires special care. You’ll literally be opening your books to this person, sharing closely held details of business practice and long-term strategy. Ask a lot of questions. Grill references. Perhaps most significantly: Understand your needs up front. In order to get the full value of an accountant’s services, you need to know going in exactly what you’re hoping to get out of the deal.