In this article, we look at the role accountants play, and how to ensure you choose the right firm for your business.
Of all the professions in the UK, accountants can face some of the worst criticism.
Rightly or wrongly, anyone who chooses accountancy as a profession faces being labelled as “grey” or “dull”, or being called a “bean counter”.
And if you run your own small business you might have a few choice words to say too. At their worst, accountants are an unpleasant but necessary expense. You pay them several hundred pounds a year to fill out the paperwork and keep your business legal.
But for many small firms, their accountant is a positive force to help drive growth within the business. A good accountant is an invaluable source of knowledge, advice and expertise, and can cover their fees many times over with the value they bring or even in cash saved from the taxman.
Questions to ask your current or prospective accountant
Here are a number of questions to ask your accountant, to ensure they will help you drive your business. Use this list while you are “interviewing” prospective accountants for your new business, or to see how your current accountant measures up:
‘Are you fully qualified?’
A no-brainer. You want to hire the most up-to-date qualified person you can get to advise your business. The leading professional accounting organisations in the UK are the ICAEW, and the ACCA.
‘How big is your business and how does that affect me?’
For a small business, choosing a very big accountancy firm isn’t necessarily the smartest move. The smaller you are to the accountant, the less attention they may pay you (who can blame any firm for lavishing its attention on its big clients?)
At the same time, a one man band may struggle to dedicate enough quality time to your business… do you really want your accountant filling out vital tax paperwork at ten at night? Try to find the balance that seems to fit your business best.
Look out for signs that you will get great service from an accountant. For example, you could look to choose an accountancy firm set up in the last couple of years by a dynamic pair of partners. A new accountancy practice with eager support staff may work harder to keep you as a client in the long-term.
‘What experience have you got with other businesses like mine?’
If you sell widgets, it makes a lot of sense to find an accountant with other customers in the widget industry. They will know all of the quirks, short cuts and pitfalls. You will benefit from experience your competitors have already paid the accountant to find out!
‘Who will be looking after me day to day?’
Some firms wheel out the ‘boss’ for new client meetings only, with the actual work being done by junior staff. This can be OK, but it’s essential for you to meet the person who will actually be handling your work. You need to ensure you can build a great working relationship with this person.
‘How proactive are you?’
The worst accountants seem reluctant to get in touch. They send you a generic newsletter after the budget, and maybe email once a year to request your accounts. Whereas the best accountants send you details of how the budget has specifically affected your business, and keep in touch on a regular basis, even if that just means ringing for a chat.
Every business is constantly evolving, and your accountant should be there with plenty of advice to help you make informed decisions. Ask for the names and numbers of existing clients so you can check how proactive your accountant actually is. Remember they will give you the details of their happiest clients, so think of these as “best case scenarios”.
‘How else can you help my business?’
You are aiming to establish a relationship with your accountant where they are more than a number cruncher. Because they spend all of their time examining businesses, they may be able to spot long-term trends and problems in your business before you do. So give them permission to ask you questions and quiz you on your plans. The more they know, the better advice they can give.
For example, if your accountant realises you are not very good at analysing figures, they may provide you with monthly management accounts and a guide to what they mean.
Any decent accountant will appreciate being given an opportunity to get more involved, as it means they have a better chance of maintaining you as a client for longer. As you grow, so their fees will get bigger… and everyone benefits.