Top 10 questions you should ask when selecting your accountant

If you have read my article on the selection of one of the most important support members of your ceramic business, you know that selecting/keeping a first class accountant ranks very high. Recently readers have asked: Which questions should I ask?

It’s a tough question to answer in a concise way. Ranking the questions in importance is impossible, so consider all of those I am listing of equal importance. Remember what I said about the legs under your stool? They all need strength to support the burden of your inevitable future challenges or when you have a real problem

Before I start, let me advise you to meet your prospective accountant at his office. Not at your place. This gives you the opportunity to get the first impression in terms of how organized the office is, how busy they are and how accommodating their employees are. Your aim is to possibly work with this firm for years to come. Their main office, should look busy but don’t expect it to be overly neat. After all, this is where they work. However, the office of the boss, whom you will interview, should be tidy in anticipation of your visit. The tidiness might be temporary, but it is a professional preparation for your visit. Remember – you are the employer.

Being at their place will also tell you about the class of their neighborhood and – sometimes important – how easy they will be to visit for a personal talk.

So here we go

  1. Tell me about your office: How long have you been in business? If it less than 5 years, I would probe deeper and ask about the background of the office workers and how high their staff turnover is.
  2. How long have you, as the present owner of the firm, been in charge? If not for the whole length of the life of the business, find out its history.
  3. Would you give me the names, addresses and phone numbers of five of your biggest customers? There is no reason why they should not be able to do that immediately.
  4. Explain to me how you work with your customers. Do you come for a monthly visit? How often do you want to have a talk with me or with my bookkeeper?
  5. Who would you assign to be our regular contact? Can I say hello to him/her today and have a little chat? This is a so-called “knock-out” question. If you are not assigned a person who will remain with you for the longer term, write this firm off. If that person is the owner, that is just fine. An assigned employee will be essential for you to trust and for your bookkeeper to trust. He/she will get to know your business so you don’t have to explain it over and over again. If the answer is “whoever is available at the time”, just shake hands and leave.
  6. I would like a quarterly reading of the financial results of my business. Is that your regular routine? How much information do I have to submit to you? Do you have a form to give me so I can review it?
  7. Do you give a summary reading on the figures in my office? Do you give me recommendations, point out trends, weaknesses? Such quarterly readings are a blessing. They give you chance to adjust your course for the year, work on weaknesses, consider tax implications, collect outstanding receivables and review your policy for giving credit and for paying your bills.
  8. How about my accounting system? How about yours – can you live with how we do it? What system to you use? Will we be able to easily read both your interim reports and your year end one? This is another knock-out question. Unless they can suggest time-saving improvements, you may not want to change your system. You rather work with someone who adapts to what you are doing or plan to do. Always consider the time implications when you set up systems or change them.
  9. You will have all our financial record in your computer system. What if we part ways? Will we be given all of it? You must get a positive answer to this. What if the Accountant sells his business and you don’t like the successor? The records are yours and you want to hear a “yes” here.
  10. Will you handle all tax filings and tax questions? Do you have the expertise in-house to oversee a tax audit, should it happen?
  11. Bonus question: What are your charges? Do you charge per hour and how much?

I have left the cost of the accountant to the end. Keep in mind that you get what you pay for. Compare their rates to other accounting firms or individual accountants. If they sound cheap, be aware. If too expensive and you like them, negotiate. Remember, in business, everything is negotiable. You are, in this scenario, the employer and you know “where to set the compensation” – what you can afford.

When you interview the various contenders for the job as your accountant, bring this list and – after the meeting – assign a ranking from 1-10 for each answer. Then add all numbers and compare one firm with another. Yes, this is somewhat arbitrary, but it helps your memory, makes you think and supports your discussion with you bookkeeper.

When the meeting is over, make additional notes immediately. Do not hire on the spot. Sleep on it.

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© 2011 by Rolf E. Ericson, Oneonta, New York, publisher. All rights reserved. Photocopying, reproduction , copying, or redistribution of any kind in printed or electronic form is strictly prohibited without written permission from the publisher.