Choosing the right accountant

One of the most important rules that running a business teaches us is that no-one is an expert in everything. A wide skill-base is certainly valuable, but just as important is the ability to delegate and outsource those services which your business needs but you cannot do yourself. The services of an accountant will at some stage be necessary for the vast majority of businesses, but for those who have never set foot in this world, choosing the right one can be daunting.

The first step when contemplating choosing an accountant is to consider the following questions: What do I need? What will it cost? What qualifications should I look for? How do I choose one whose knowledge and expertise matches my own needs?

Qualifications – how accountants work

This may be the most important question of all. Accountancy is a delicate and complex area and you need to ensure the practitioner you choose has the right qualifications for the job. The leading qualifications for accountants in public practice are the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales (ICAEW) and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA).

Both ICAEW and ACCA qualifications require rigorous studies, the passing of exams and appropriate post-qualification experience before a member can obtain a certificate to practise. Having qualified, some people set up on their own while others go into partnership to form a firm, employing support staff and other accountants to assist with the work.

In the US, the equivalent is the CPA (Chartered Public Accountant.) The qualification itself is largely similar and respected worldwide, however, it’s worth noting that the CPA application process does vary from state to state.

All qualified accountants in practice are required to have Professional Indemnity Insurance and carry out ongoing training (referred to as Continuing Professional Development or CPD) to keep up to date. Non-qualified accountants have no requirement to do either of these and many do not.

Experience has shown that employing an unqualified accountant, or one who offers very low fees, usually works well for very small businesses on routine matters but falls short on more technical issues and when the business grows to the next level. Put simply, choosing the right professional from the outset can play a vital part in your business’s life cycle.

Word of mouth

In reality, as with so many goods and services, a personal recommendation tends to count for a lot. Many people ask a friend or family member who they use and choose their accountant based on this. This works fine most of the time. But engaging an accountant is not something to be undertaken lightly, so before going with the same firm your cousin or friend uses, consider the following:

What is it you need? Is it completion of a tax return, assistance with payroll, book-keeping, VAT returns, accounts, or business forecasts? First of all, check the accountant you engage is properly qualified, preferably by looking for ICAEW or ACCA. Then check whether their staff are all appropriately qualified too.

Then, you’ll need to see what range of services are offered by your preferred accountant, and whether they match your area of business. Go into specifics – for example, if you need an audit, are they audit registered? What are your tax and accounting requirements? Do they have the expertise to deal with this? Have they other clients operating in a similar field? If you want help with your business plans, do they offer this? For some businesses forecasting expansion, hiring an accountant who may be able to suggest ideas for a business’s future prospects will be of invaluable help.

Costs and resources 

And then, there are practical questions. Accountancy services, like legal ones, can mount up if you don’t know exactly what you’re paying for. The first thing to establish is whether any firm or practitioner you employ will have the resources to deal with matters concerning your business in a timely manner, and you shouldn’t be afraid to ask this. Get an estimate as to timescales within which you can expect your affairs to be dealt with.

The next question is to ask for an indication of cost for each service you need. An itemised breakdown will help you plan ahead and allow for proper budgeting.

Don’t forget the personal touch

Finding the right accountant is rather like employing someone; it is important that you are going to rub along. Don’t forget that your accountant will not only be working with you to ensure compliance with all relevant accounting and tax legislation, but should also be there to advise on the most cost effective and tax effective ways of dealing with your tax and business affairs. If your professional relationship isn’t good because you simply don’t get on, it’s just not going to work.

In the US, the equivalent is the CPA (Chartered Public Accountant.) The qualification itself is largely similar and respected worldwide, however, it’s worth noting that the CPA application process does vary from state to state.

Are you getting value for money?

Having plumped for an accountant, you still need to ensure that the services they offer are providing you with genuine value for money going forward. Many businesses look at costs for any services they buy in and make their own judgement on how cost effective it is. But when it comes to accountancy, how do you really know if you are getting value for money?

This raises a number of other issues such as: is your accountant charging you for services you could handle yourself? Has your accountant suggested your business handles elements of its own accounting where this is practical and there is time? If your accountancy firm deals with most things, do they explain why it is beneficial for them to do the jobs and charge you for them – and does this make sense to you?

In some cases, it may be better for a business to engage its own staff to fulfil some of the tasks undertaken by an accountancy firm. An accountancy firm which actually suggests this course of action is likely to have the best interests of their client at heart, and not simply be looking to their own bottom line. In the best cases, an accountant will work closely with the client for the best financial outcomes for that client.

Adding value

A great accountant will not simply perform routine tasks, at their best they will also add value to your business. This can range from the specialist tax advice that they might be able to offer, through to their general commercial awareness of how your business operates. Remember, your accountant has gone through rigorous training and should be technically and commercially aware of latest hot topics in the business world. This is all part of their continuing professional development obligations.

A good accountant will not be able to wave a magic wand and make everything okay but they should be able to identify, evaluate and recommend how best to achieve business results through day to day financial planning.

As you will have gathered, there is no easy solution to this question and you will undoubtedly know when you find the right person or firm, but hopefully these pointers will make the task of choosing the right accountant a little easier.