Small Business Accountants – How to Make the Right Choice

Choosing the right accountant for your firm should be at the very foundation of your business set-up; get it right and the relationship you have with your accountant will be one of the longest business relationships you’ll ever enjoy. Get it wrong and you could be left feeling bitter and disenchanted with the whole profession.Many people swear by recommendations from friends, family or business contacts and indeed this is still a vital source of new fees for many accountants; the problem with this is that accountants are not a ‘one size fits all’ type of profession, and so Uncle Peter’s perfect accountant is not necessarily going to work well for you; it is important therefore to do a bit of ground work, make a checklist, ask questions, explore your options, and choose a practice that is right for your business.Make sure that you choose a qualified accountant; any one can call themselves an accountant but check that yours is a member of one of the main three professional bodies: The Institute of Chartered Accountants, The Association of Chartered Certified Accountants or The Chartered Institute of Management Accountants; if things go wrong you’ll have some redress through their professional association or institute.Accountants come in all shapes and sizes, so choose carefully; it is important that your new accountant is appropriate to your needs. Be aware of what different accountants can and cannot provide for you; a one-man-band accountant for instance may be harder to speak to as they are spread more thinly between clients, they may not be reachable when they go on holiday; a very large firm may be geared to servicing very large businesses and may have a less personal touch; think about what is important to you and your firm because your accountant will probably be your main business advisor and for small businesses in particular may end up as a sort of unofficial finance director.Once you have narrowed down your list and have some appropriate, qualified accountants in your sights, there are a few things to ask about when speaking to a prospective accountant; most qualified accountants should be able to get the basics right, the things they term ‘compliance’ work, filing documents correctly and on time, looking after payroll etc. but it has often been said that the difference between an average accountant and a good accountant is that a good accountant will also save you money, so it is important to establish just how seriously each potential accountant takes their firm’s tax advice; check that they keep up to date on tax issues as it is an area that changes very quickly and confirm that they keep their clients abreast of tax information, perhaps with a monthly email.On the subject of money, fees can be a very confusing pool to dive into, accountants do not all charge in a uniform way, making it hard to compare like-for-like, many charge an hourly rate, still a very traditional way to charge but very hard to budget for, some will provide an estimate for the year, but do be aware that estimates are just that and as such are subject to change, others may advise a fixed fee, probably the most beneficial way to be charged as it allows for confident budgeting, but do ensure that the fixed fee is all inclusive as it is easy to believe your fee was fixed only to receive an unexpected top-up bill for extras at the end of the year. The safest thing to do is to get the fixed fee in writing with a clear quote advising its all inclusive nature. If the accountant also offers a way of paying a monthly amount rather than a lump sum this is obviously of great benefit to the cash flow of your business.It is probably sensible to get more than one quote (unless you are very enamoured with the first accountant you speak to), but advisable to limit the number to three or four (unless you are completely disenchanted with all that you’ve spoken to) because it is very easy to become bogged down with a surfeit of information.Good accountants are not always necessarily good communicators and yet good communication between you is essential for the relationship to work, so have a chat with someone at the practice who knows what they are doing and check that a point of contact and or a ‘who does what’ list is something that they provide, as this shows that they care about keeping you connected to what is going on. Another simple sign that a practice is thinking of its clients is a focus on new technology, if an accountant is comfortable using online facilities and email and utilises things such as virtual signature systems, this can not only maximise your security but free up your accountant’s time allowing them to concentrate on the real business of saving you money.Finally a few myths busted:It is not essential and in fact it is often counterproductive to have everything in the hands of your accountant, small businesses benefit greatly from doing their own bookkeeping and it will certainly lower your fee. Locale is no indication of quality or convenience, an accountant being next door to your premises does not mean that they are necessarily your only or best choice; today’s information technology allows us to explore options further afield. If you are unhappy with your accountant it is easy and painless to change to another and there is absolutely no good reason for remaining a client of an accountant with whom you have lost confidence. Of course a good accountant alone is no guarantee of business success, but when you find an accountant that is right for you and your business you are at least starting as you mean to go on. Good Luck.