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Choosing An Accountant: 10 Questions to ask when looking to Change Accountants

What really annoys me is the Generally Accepted Poor Standards, or "GAPS", in the accounting industry.  Accountants have the power to change the lives of business owners, but most of them aim for average.

How many business owners do you know that actually say "I really like working with my accountant!"?  They are out there - but more often than not, their accountant has done a shocking job at serving their customers' actual needs.

It's not a light decision to make the leap to another accountant, but if you've been meaning to change accountants for a while now, make it your new year's resolution!

I've put together a list of 10 questions that you should ask when choosing an accountant.  We've based this list on our 'About Us' page - and you can see our responses to these questions over there.

The 10 questions to ask:

Who does the accountant normally work with?

This is important to know - are you a good fit to the accounting firm, and are they a good fit for you?

It's a two way street, and unfortunately most accounting firms will usually say yes to anyone - whether they can provide them value or not.

Be sure you ask, and even look at their marketing material to gauge this.  Don't try to fit a square peg in a round hole!

Oh, and do look for client testimonials too!

What services does the accountant offer?

You need to make sure their experience and skill set matches the service that you're after.

Are you looking for business advice at an accounting firm that just pumps out tax returns?

In most cases, if the accounting firm cannot do what you're after, they will most likely work with someone who can.  It's also best that if you need a second adviser, for an international tax matter for instance, that you keep your accountant in the loop, or let them manage the relationship.

What does the accountant specialise in?

What is the one thing that the accountant would provide you over all other things?

Where is there best value to you as the customer?

Look for things like "we work with you, providing insight into the numbers" rather than "we're really, really good at tax returns".  Really, what is more important?

How does the accountant charge?

How do the dollars work?  Do they charge by the hour (and are therefore rewarded for being inefficient), or do they charge for the value that they provide?

It's a different conversation and focus for both you and the accountant.  The attention shifts from 'be quick to reduce the fee' to 'let's focus on where the value is'.

Some questions within this section are:

  • What does the project or subscription include?
  • Do they price each job before they start, so you can both agree to the scope and terms?
  • Do they allow you to pay by the month to spread out the burden on cash flow?
  • Do they charge for each phone call or email, or are these questions included?

Be sure to get a good understand of the charges and how they work - it avoids unwanted surprises and you have clarity before moving forward.

What is the response time to your questions?

How quickly will you expect to hear back from your accountant?  We regularly hear that a business' accountant takes weeks to get back to them, or doesn't even respond at all!

Response time is key number that we focus on - and we measure it in hours, live on our website.

Make sure you ask for a clear understanding of how and how quickly your accountant will return your call or email.

How long does it take to get our work done?

"Turnaround time" is often a common complaint we hear with businesses talking about their existing accountants.

If your accountant takes three months to finish your work, maybe it's time that you moved on.

What would your standards be if you ran a business that took that long?

This is one of the key numbers that we measure as a team - one that we see is important in the eyes of our clients.  (We aim to keep this no more than 10 business days - and we're averaging just under 8!)

What technology does the accountant use?

Cloud accounting

The adoption of cloud accounting software is saving businesses thousands of dollars, and hours of bookwork every week.

Does the accounting firm work with cloud accounting software?  (It's a must to move to the cloud for your accounting software!)

Do they not only use cloud accounting, but are they able to recommend, implement and support the various add-ons you can use with cloud accounting?

Technology in communication

It's important to know how you'll be interacting with your accountant on a regular.  I'm a big fan of throwing around ideas on a whiteboard in the boardroom.  But what about for the in between time?

Do they use technology such as Skype, GoToMeeting, Lync or others to enhance web meetings to describe concepts and run scenarios?  Can they share their computer screen and run you through diagrams using LucidChart?

Be sure that it makes sense to you.

How often does the accountant talk to you each year?

What I really love about working with our clients is that I get to learn about their business and their lives.  Accountants can't do that if they only speak to them once or twice a year.  How on earth is an accountant able to provide real insights?

It's important that you understand how often you'll be in touch with your accountant, and that you're comfortable with this.

Is the accountant a Chartered Accountant, or part of an association?

And a few years ago I wrote this article on the difference between an accountant and a Chartered Accountant to get an idea.

While I don't want this to be an argument about which association is best, it's good to choose an accountant that is part of an association.

The three main associations in Australia are:

  • The Institute of Chartered Accountants (we're a part of this one);
  • CPA Australia; and
  • Institute of Public Accountants Australia.

All three have different levels of requirements to join, different membership levels - but all have a set of standards that members must adhere to.  If you've got a problem with an accountant, you can usually take it to their association.

Can you have a beer with them?

I had to be cheeky for the last one.

It's important that you can hold a conversation with your accountant, outside of your business.

And we loved this one so much, we created a cafe / bar in the centre of our office! (Check out inspirecafe.com for more!)