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Hiring an accountant is a significant event for you and your business. The right accountant can not only keep you in compliance with the law through proper tax filings, and keep your financial statements pristine – he or she can also be the trusted advisor who helps you grow and operate your business successfully in the long term.

Accountants are not “one size fits all”. There are many types of accountants. There are sole practitioners and accounting firms, specialists and generalists, those who keep up with or set the trends in their profession, and those who do things the way they’ve always done them. The right accountant for you is out there, but you have to do some investigating to find that person or firm.

It’s important that you ask the right questions before you hire an accountant, rather than finding out they aren’t a good fit for you when it’s too late. The free consultation offered by most accountants is your opportunity to ask tough questions and listen carefully to the answers. Here are the top ten questions you should ask each accountant you interview, as well as some information to help you evaluate their answers.

1. What are your qualifications?

If your prospective accountant is a sole practitioner, you need to find out whether that person is qualified to complete the work you need. If you are meeting with a firm, you need to know the level of qualifications of their professionals and partners, as well as how many there are with each type of qualification.

In Canada, the benchmark credential is the Chartered Professional Accountant designation, CPA. Most accountants will include “CPA” after their signature in emails or on their websites, so you may be able to decipher the answer to this question before a meeting.

When you do need to ask this question, it should be answered without hesitation by someone who is qualified to do your work.

2. What types of clients do you work with?
Do you have experience in my industry and with businesses of my size?

Any qualified accountant knows the fundamental accounting concerns that come with any business. They can assist with standard tasks such as year-end tax filing and other compliance activities. However, your business needs may be more complicated depending on your industry, as well as the size and structure of your business. If your chosen accountant has specific expertise and experience in your industry, you stand a better chance of receiving service that will benefit your business.

Conversely, you should find out if the firm has any of your direct competitors as clients. If they do, ask how any potential conflict would be managed.

Certain businesses and industries have very specific and detailed needs, such as professionals like doctors. If you are interviewing a sole practitioner, make sure they have the specialized knowledge you need. Accounting firms, on the other hand, are more likely to have a variety of individual accountants with deeper experience in your field. You can usually find information about their team members on their website. If the websites identifies a specific person with experience in your field, it could be useful to contact him or her directly for a preliminary discussion of your needs.

3. What is the added value that you will bring to my business beyond compliance?

“Compliance” is jargon for services that keep clients in compliance with government regulations. The most common example is compliance with the Income Tax Act in filing income tax returns and other forms on time and accurately. Compliance is the goal of any accountant, but it’s important that it’s not the only goal. By asking an open-ended question about their services beyond compliance, you can find out what level of experience they have in helping businesses grow and succeed, instead of just meet the minimum standards. The answer to this question will tell you whether they are likely to be a valued business advisor who can help you through complex business challenges. If they seem knowledgeable, ask a direct question about how they can help you grow your business, or a question about a specific problem you’ve dealt with in the past.

4. What are your professional fees?

Professional accountants use several models in structuring their fees:

* Time-based fees are generally calculated on an hourly basis at different hourly rates depending on the seniority of the person performing each task.

* Project-based fees may be charged for specific, easily defined project work a firm undertakes.

* Value-based fees are related to a professional’s estimate of the value of the services to the client. Value-based fees are calculated on the presumed advantage to you. For example, if specific services of the firm will save you a great deal of money or help your business earn much higher revenues, the fee may be considerably higher than an hourly or project rate.

If the model used by your prospective accountant is time-based or project-based, ask whether the cost to you can be fixed. This ensures consistency and prevents any unexpected bills from popping up on your desk.

No matter which model the firm uses, the individual must be able to explain it clearly to you, so you can make an informed decision as to whether or not it suits your needs.

5. Who will be my regular point of contact, and who will be doing the work on my file?
Will I be able to speak with you about my business?

Your relationship with your accountant is a sensitive one that is built not only on professional competence, but also on trust. This trust can only evolve from an ongoing relationship with a specific person at the firm. This is why it’s crucial to make sure you won’t be passed around from person to person according to the firm’s needs rather than yours.

This does not mean, of course, that your work should not occasionally be given to a specialist within the firm. In fact, being moved to a specialist is a distinct advantage as complex needs arise. When this happens, however, you should be personally introduced to the specialist and provided with an explanation of what he or she will be doing for you and why.

There is considerable value in having a single point of contact within the firm for all your needs. It can help build that trusting relationship and simplify your contact with the firm. Having quality communication with your accountant starts from the first time you meet them. Accountants are very important to the continued success of your company, so it’s important you can get the best out of each other with open and honest dialogue.

By the way, trust in this relationship must be two-way. Your accountant must be able to trust you. It’s important to be completely open and honest, and not withhold any pertinent information about your business or finances.

6. Do you have a network of non-accounting professionals you can refer me to when appropriate?

There are many non-accounting professionals whose services are useful, perhaps even essential, for certain situations in your personal life and the life of your business. These include lawyers, bankers, financial planners, and insurance providers. A reputable accounting firm should have a track record of referring and working with such professionals in the service of their clients. An added benefit is that a referred professional is likely in close contact with your accountant, which usually means improved communications and coordination when you need related services.

7. What Technology Do You Use?

It might be hard to believe, but some accountants still use DOS-based accounting software. An accountant who is stuck in the ’90s is unlikely to advise you on the benefits

of newer technology, which could help you improve workflow and smooth out processes. Find an accountant who uses cloud-based accounting software so you can track and access your financial data in real-time. Technology also ensures smooth coordination with your accountant.

8. How do you keep up with changes in your profession and the technology you use?

The accounting profession in Canada and elsewhere has undergone substantial change in recent years, inevitably affecting the way client work is handled. Ask about ongoing professional development activities within the firm. If your firm or accountant is actively pursuing news, information, and technology, they are more likely to have a high level of competence in all aspects of their work.

Like all businesses (probably including your own) the practice of accounting is subject to the ongoing, relentless march of technology. The more efficient the technology a firm uses, the better they will be able to serve you. Routine processes will be accomplished very quickly, allowing time for the firm’s professionals to provide deeper and more meaningful assistance to you and your business. Automating lower-level processes means more time can be spent on higher-level questions and concerns.

When you are interviewing prospective accountants, don’t let them blind you with jargon-filled explanations of technology or accounting processes. Insist on clear explanations you can understand — and this advice applies even after you have become their client.

9. How long will you take to get back to me if I call or email you?

This is one of the most crucial questions to ask an accountant. How responsive are they? Will they respond to you within a day? A week? A month? When you ask, make it clear that you will hold them to their commitment once you begin working together.

Professional firms are busy places, and many have earned a reputation for poor response to clients. The typical excuse is that they haven’t “gotten around to it”, or they “didn’t have anything to report” to you anyway. Or, worst of all, they “didn’t have an answer to your question”.

This is not acceptable. Your time is also valuable and they should respect it. Make it clear that you expect a response within a specified time limit, even if it is simply to report that they don’t have your answer yet.

If the interview has gone well and you are satisfied with the answers you’ve received, there is one more absolutely critical open-ended question to ask. This question can elicit

a variety of responses — and the answer might just tip the balance on who you select. That question is:

10. Why should I use your firm?

You’ll want to hear a spirited and logical answer to this question, and not simply receive a shrug of the shoulders. If the prospective accountant can’t make a solid argument for why you should hire them – you probably shouldn’t.

Jeff Schwan

Jeff established Schwan & Associates CPA to bring unique “cloud-based” accounting services to small and medium-sized Edmonton businesses. Inspired by the quality time spent with his family, Jeff’s goal is to put more time back in the hands of the busy entrepreneurs who strengthen Edmonton’s business community. With 10+ years of experience in diverse management roles, Jeff has acquired a strong set of leadership and mentoring skills. He is, and always has been, an educator at heart. He knows the value of spreading knowledge, investing in people, and continually learning.

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