How to find an accountant

Unless you have a background in finance or accounting, you'll almost certainly need the help of an accountant at some stage in the running of your business. This guide helps you find the right one.

Where to look

What to do next

  • Once you've identified some in your area (and by looking at the list below to get a clearer idea of what you want), draw up a shortlist of at least three accountants and have face-to-face interviews with all of them.
  • Use the pointers below to work out what you need to ask in the interviews.
  • Also, try calling prospective accountants a couple of time to see how quickly your call is returned - this should give you a feel of how responsive they are.

Checklist: what to look for

In the interview, ask about the following areas. Draw up a list based on the below points to identify what your dream accountant would be able to do.

Expertise and experience:

  • Qualifications - absolutely vital. Use the membership bodies above for guidance on which qualifications you should be seeing.
  • Membership to one of the professional bodies above is a big bonus.
  • Experience with small businesses - are they familiar with the problems you face?
  • Ideally, experience with small businesses in your sector, or at least a solid grasp of the issues it faces.
  • Asking about capital allowances you may qualify for can be a good litmus test to compare different accountants by.
  • Expertise in managing investments - which will come in handy in the future (ask about retirement plan experience).
  • What success they've had - how much money they've saved other clients, for example.
  • Any client testimonials, if they have them.

Communication skills:

  • You need to feel you can trust them and that they are good at listening to and understanding your needs - talk through what you need, what you struggle with and see how they respond.
  • You also need to make sure they respond in a way you can understand - communication will be key to this relationship.

How they operate:

  • You want more than just tax help - you also want an accountant who can advise you on business and your finances and find ways to reduce costs.
    • Ask them how for initial suggestions on how they would go about doing this in the interview - explain how you keep your books and payroll currently.
    • Ask them if they provide help with business plans and how much it costs - this can prove invaluable if you need it.
    • Ask if they can carry out audits - not all accountants are qualified to do this, but it can be a bonus.
  • How many people are in their practice - fewer is probably better as they will have more time to handle your accounts and will typically be keener to provide a strong relationship than a larger practice.
  • But make sure you only deal with one or two of the accountants in the practice - you don't want to be passed from person to person without any of them really knowing your business.
  • Also, ask about who their other clients are. You don't want to get lost among other much bigger (and so more important to them) clients - you want to be alongside similar-sized companies.
  • How they bill you - by year, by week, by the hour, by a minute or by the project?
    • Getting a fixed rate for the first twelve months means you can use them as much as you want (and you'll probably need to).
    • By project is also good but can end up adding up.
    • If they bill by minute beware, as it indicates they'll be very scrupulous on what they charge.
    • If they bill by the hour or part-hour, find if they round up or down.
    • Will you be charged for phone-call queries? What if they only last a minute or two?
    • Make sure you feel the billing policy is fair and manageable.
    • Get estimates for what you think a year of them working for you would cost in total.
  • How quickly they'll respond to your queries.

Once you've chosen your accountant

Once you've chosen the person or firm you want:

  • Meet with them to discuss all your requirements over the next year or so and what their plan of action will be.
  • You'll receive a letter stating all their terms and conditions - read over this and consider getting a solicitor to check it.
  • Keep in regular touch with your accountant, and ask them for advice on running your business regularly.
  • Tell them immediately if you've made any changes to your business and about any problems.
  • Regularly assess how well they are meeting your business's needs - talk to them if you have any problems.
  • Review their fees every three to five years.

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