Having a strong small-business accountant from day one can be a smart move. Working with an accountant may help you avoid many of the crippling mistakes that others can face, and help make sure you have a strong handle on your company's financials. But even if you know that you need a small-business accountant, how exactly do you go about hiring one? Whether you've been in a business for years or you're just getting started, consider these 10 questions to help find the right accountant for your small business.
1. How long have you been a Certified Public Accountant?
First and foremost, make absolutely sure that the person you will be working with is a Certified Public Accountant, or CPA—meaning that they have passed the professional credentials for standardized accounting services.
2. Will I be working consistently with you, or with the same accountant or group of accountants on your team?
If you're interviewing a bigger firm, the person you meet with may not necessarily be the person who will service your account on a regular basis. Find out exactly who you will be working with—and make sure that you'll be in communication with the same person or small team consistently.
3. Is everyone who will work on my account a certified CPA?
Depending on the size of the accounting firm and the size of your retainer, there may be multiple people servicing your account. In these cases, some accounting firms will assign a primary CPA to your account, but have a non-certified bookkeeper doing much of the legwork involved. As long as there is proper oversight from the CPA, there's nothing inherently wrong with this setup, necessarily—but you should know about it before you hire your small-business accountant.
4. How many clients do you work with at a time and what size are the majority of your accounts?
Use this question to get a sense of the size of the accounting firm—and where you are likely to fall within their priorities. If your accountant is overloaded with too many clients, or if your account will be comparatively “small fish" as opposed to their average customers, your work could too easily be pushed to the bottom of the list.
5. What technology do you use to share documents and updates with clients?
Don't waste your time hunting for the right spreadsheet or working from an out-of-date income statement. Particularly if you won't be meeting with your accountant in person, make sure that you will have an easy way to communicate up-to-date information so that no one's valuable time is wasted.
6. What procedures do you follow to secure your clients' private financial data?
Anytime you are dealing with Social Security numbers and other sensitive information, security must be an important consideration. Ask your accountant what steps they take to protect your files and information from hacking, identity theft and other security threats.
7. What can I do to help keep your fees lower?
You may be able to negotiate your small-business accountant's initial quote by agreeing to do certain legwork in the bookkeeping process that makes his or her job more efficient. For example, could you pay a virtual assistant at a lower rate to organize paperwork, categorize expenses or prepare invoices, then rely on your CPA only for higher-level strategic help?
8. Why is it worth the cost to invest in your services?
For small businesses on a budget, hiring a quality accountant is a significant investment with very real implications for the company's bottom line. Before you hire your small-business accountant, he or she should be able to explain how their expertise can save you money in the long run, making the cost worth your while.
9. Tell me about a time when you helped to improve a client's bottom line through a creative accounting solution.
Smart accountants will go beyond the obvious to increase revenue or save your business money in creative ways. This might include taking advantage of available tax deductions, re-evaluating your employee benefits structure to take better advantage of tax incentives or even helping you restructure how you bill clients.
Ask your potential small-business accountant how they have implemented creative solutions for past clients and how they could foresee doing the same for your business. Even without having reviewed your books, a knowledgeable CPA should at least be able to suggest opportunities worth investigating.
10. What specific experience do you have with ________?
Your business isn't generic. It's not exactly like every other business, so not every accountant's skills will translate to your specific needs. Think about factors that may create special considerations for your business—and ask your prospective small-business accountant about his or her experience with these issues. Some examples might include:
- Industry-specific factors. If your business is in a heavily regulated or highly technical industry like health care, energy or manufacturing, your accountant may need special knowledge about taxes or requirements in your industry.
- Corporate customers. Small B2B business owners working with much larger corporate customers know that these customers can bring extra hoops to jump through and headaches to your accounts receivable process. If your business processes corporate purchase orders, find out whether your potential accountant has experience with this style of client relationships.
- Government contracts. Does your business operate with government agency contracts at the federal, state or local level, or do you hope to have these types of contracts in the future? If so, look for a small-business accountant who has experience with the particularities of accounts receivable for large government contracts.
- Virtual teams. As more and more businesses go virtual and in many cases have employees in multiple states or countries, this creates added financial and tax considerations that require special expertise. If you operate a virtual team or plan to in the future, make sure that your small-business accountant has experience with the financial legalities of a virtual set up.
Of course, these are just a few of the many factors that might make your business unique or change the needs you may have from your CPA. Regardless of your particular circumstances, make sure that your new small-business accountant will be prepared for whatever you anticipate sending their way.