Whitepapers: Ten Tough Questions to Ask Before You Hire an AccountantDate: July, 2015
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 your financial statements pristine, but can also be the trusted advisor who helps you grow and operate your business successfully over the long term.
Accountants are not “one size fits all”. 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 when it’s too late that they are not a good fit for you. The free consultation offered by most accountants is your opportunity to ask tough questions and listen carefully to the answers. This white paper provides ten suggested questions for you to ask each accountant you interview, and the 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, and has the capacity, to do your work. If you are speaking with a firm, you need to know the level of qualifications of their professionals and partners, as well as how many there are.
In Canada, the benchmark credential is the Chartered Professional Accountant designation (CPA, CA). A CPA, CA must also hold a Public Accountant’s License to be able to issue an audit opinion on a set of financial statements.
Many individuals in accounting firms also have specialist credentials such as the Master of Taxation (MTax) or Chartered Business Valuator (CBV). These skills may also be of particular value to you depending on the complexity or stage of growth of your business.
When you ask this question, it should be answered without hesitation by someone who is in fact 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 issues around any business and can assist with standard tasks such as yearend tax filing and other compliance activities. However, your business issues may be dependent on your industry as well as the size and structure of your business. If your chosen accountant has specific expertise and experience in these areas, 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 and how the potential conflict would be managed.
If you are interviewing a sole practitioner you need to make sure that they have the specialized knowledge you need. Firms, on the other hand, are more likely to have individual accountants with deeper experience in your field, and you can usually find this information by perusing their website. If they identify such a person, it could be useful to contact him or her directly for a preliminary discussion of your specific needs.
3. What value can you provide to me beyond compliance?
“Compliance” is jargon for services that keep clients in compliance with government regulations, the most common example being compliance with the Income Tax Act in filing income tax returns and other forms. By asking an open question about their services beyond compliance, you can find out whether they are likely to be a valued business advisor who can help you through many complex business challenges. If you like what they are saying, ask a direct question about how they can help you grow your business.
4. 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, so you must 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, and in fact this is a distinct advantage as specialized needs arise. When this happens, however, you should be personally introduced to the individual with an explanation of what he or she will be doing for you and why.
There is considerable value to you in having one point of contact within the firm for all your needs, both in building that trusting relationship and in simplifying your contact with the firm.
By the way, trust in this relationship must be two-way. Your accountant must be able to trust you, so you should be completely open and honest, and not withhold any pertinent information about your business.
5. 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, as well as accounting professionals in other jurisdictions that may also be needed if your business expands outside Canada. A reputable accounting firm should have a track record of referring and working with such professionals in the service of their clients.
6. 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 that ensure a high level of competence in all aspects of 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.
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.
7. How do you charge?
Professionals 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. It may be, for example, that specific services of the firm will save you a great deal of money or help your firm earn much higher revenues, and the fee may be considerably higher because it is based on the presumed advantage to you.
If the model used is time-based or project-based you should enquire whether the cost to you can be fixed.
No matter which model the firm uses, the individual must be able to explain it clearly to you, so that you can make an informed decision as to whether or not it suits your needs.
8. Can I contact comparable references?
Speaking to other clients is a time-honoured method of finding out how well a firm serves its clients. Most firms will put you in touch with a few clients who have agreed to share their opinions of the firm. Their experience can be a useful part of your due diligence in choosing an accountant. Similarly, it is telling if a firm is unable to provide suitable references to you.
9. How long will you take to get back to me if I call or email you?
You must ask the all-important question of their responsiveness when you need to contact them. When you ask, make it clear that you will hold them to their commitment once you start working together.
Professional firms are busy places, and many have earned a reputation for poor response to clients with the excuse that they haven’t “gotten around to it” or they “didn’t have anything to report” to you anyway, or 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, 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 are two open-ended questions that can elicit a variety of responses — and the answers might tip the balance on who you select. These questions are:
10. How can I recognize a good accountant?
Why should I use your firm?
Many will give bland, generic answers, particularly to the second question. But you may well receive fascinating insights from those who make the effort to answer the questions honestly and fully.
This white paper is brought to you by Crowe Soberman LLP, a member of Crowe Horwath International
As a mid-sized, independent accounting firm that is also part of a worldwide professional network, Crowe Soberman is uniquely positioned to provide our clients with the best of both worlds. Our size enables our partners to build personal relationships with the owners of our business clients, while at the same time putting at their disposal an engagement team made up of the specialists appropriate for each client’s needs.
Our clients, many of whom are mid-sized businesses and high net worth individuals, typically see us as part of their strategic advisory team. Our partners have a personal role in the relationship and work closely with owners to not only understand their business objectives, but to help them reach those objectives and beyond.
Many of our clients have specific needs based on their industry or situation. We have specialist professionals who provide situation specific advice. Within our firm and our network, we are able to provide whatever type of accounting or business service you require.
As our Managing Partner, Jerry Cukier, has said, “We specialize in providing business advice, relevant advice and timely advice to owners.”
We are pleased to offer you a no-obligation free consultation to explore your business needs and how we can meet them. Feel free to ask us the tough questions!
Jerry Cukier, BComm, CPA, CA
Jerry Cukier Professional Corporation
Crowe Soberman LLP
Chartered Professional Accountants
The content of this article provides a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.