Every single dollar counts for business owners, so if you don’t know where you stand on a monthly basis, you may not be around at the end of the year. And while using do-it-yourself accounting software can help monitor costs, the benefits of hiring good accountants extend far beyond crunching numbers. Potentially, they can be your company’s financial partner for life, with intimate knowledge of not only how you’re going to finance your next forklift, for instance, but also how you’re going to finance your daughter’s college education.
Accounting services can be divided into three broad categories: recording transactions, assembling them, and generating returns and financial statements. Although the first two categories require a lower skill level than the latter, many firms charge the same hourly rate for all three. This is why it’s important to determine exactly what work you want an accountant to handle.
The next step is to interview your referrals. For each, plan on two meetings before making your decision. One meeting should be at your site. The other should be at theirs. During the interviews, your principal goal is to find out about three things: services, personality and fees. Here’s what to ask in each area.
Although smaller accounting firms are generally a better bet for entrepreneurs, they may not offer all these services. Make sure the firm has what you need. If it can’t offer specialized services, it may have relationships with other firms to which it can refer you to handle these matters. In addition to services, make sure the firm has experience with small business and your specific industry.
When evaluating competency and compatibility, ask candidates how they would handle situations relevant to you. For example: How would you handle an IRS office audit seeking verification of automobile expenses? Listen to the answers and decide if that’s how you would like your affairs to be handled.
Realize, too, that having an accountant who takes a different approach can be a good thing. Just be sure that the accountant doesn’t pressure you into doing things you aren’t comfortable with.
Don’t base your decision solely on cost, however, as an accountant who charges higher hourly rate is likely to be more experienced and able to work faster than a novice who charges less.
Also be sure to ask for references — particularly from clients in your industry. Call them to find out how satisfied they were with the accountant’s services, fees and availability.
After you make a choice, spell out the terms of the agreement in an engagement letter. The document should detail the returns and statements to be prepared and the fees to be charged. This ensures that you and your accountant have the same expectations.
Also, hold up your end of the agreement. Don’t hand your accountant a shoebox full of receipts. Write down details of all the checks in your check register, whether they are for utilities, supplies and so on. Likewise, identify sources of income on your bank deposit slips. The better you maintain your records, the less time your accountant has to spend and the lower your fees will be.
It’s a good idea to meet or at least speak with your accountant every month. Review financial statements and go over problems so you know where your money is going. Your accountant should go beyond number-crunching to suggest alternative ways of cutting costs and act as a sounding board for any ideas or questions you have.
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