Steven Mugglestone

The more I learn, the less I know

14 Questions to ask your Accountant

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Trying to compare anything can be difficult, but when it comes to your business and personal finances, you need to make sure that you have made the right choice.

An Accountant can save you a lot of time and money, which you may needlessly spend on the Taxman. But, more than that, a good Accountant can oblige you, for your own benefit, to face up to issues which you may otherwise have been tempted to ignore. A good Accountant can provide solutions to help your business succeed.  That’s another reason to find one you like.

Whatever you do, ensure that you interview several. You can start by asking family, friends or colleagues if they know of a good Accountant. Failing this, you will also find lots of ads on the Internet, in Yellow Pages, or in your local newspaper. Never forget though; a personal recommendation from someone you trust carries a lot more weight than an ad from someone you’ve never heard of.

It is vital that your Accountant understands all of your goals; short, medium and long-term, so outline any ideas or dreams you have for the future. For example, if you are planning to buy new office premises, or set up a new company in the near future, make sure you say so. The reason for this is that your Accountant may be able to save you a lot of money. They may also have good advice to offer based on previous experiences of other clients and if you are lucky they may have work for other accountancy businesses or as a Finance Director within a business and so can bring a wealth of experience to you.

So; let’s get to the point of this post; I want to help you choose your Accountant, and to do that, I am going to give you 14 questions that you should ask before you hire.

Question 1) What are your professional qualifications?

Astonishingly, anyone can call themselves an Accountant. Accountancy is not like being a Doctor; to call yourself an Accountant, you do not have to have any qualifications. Only consider an Accountant with a recognised professional qualification, such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales or a Chartered Tax Adviser. At the very least, this gives you some protection or an avenue for complaints if needed.

Question 2) Can I speak to a couple of your Clients about you?

Ask the Accountant if you can speak to someone in a similar position to yourself. When you speak to this Client, you want to know things like how reliable, prompt and proactive your potential Accountant has been; whether they explain things clearly, seem good value for money, and have produced any good ideas. Keep in mind though; you are only likely to get the names of friendly Clients!

Question 3) Who will be my point of contact?

Make sure you meet the person who will be dealing with your work. It is important to ensure that you can establish a good working relationship, as you will be in contact with them regularly. If more than one person will be involved with you, ask to meet the others,

Question 4)  Can I visit your office?

This should help you judge the quality, nature and scope of the Accountant’s practice. Be wary of an Accountant working from serviced offices or their offices are very run-down. Then again, you should enquire closely about the fees of someone with conspicuously lavish premises!

Question 5)  How long have you been in business?

Unless your affairs are very simple, you need someone with experience. Don’t just take their word for it; make sure you ask for evidence.

Question 6)  How many directors are there in your practice? And other employees?

If you employ a one-man band, there will obviously be problems when illness occurs or they take holiday at a time when you need help. Also, there could be problems at the busiest times of the year, like January, when many Self Assessment returns have to be submitted. Check if there are other people around to help. Solo operators may well also lack easy access to expertise in specialist areas, such as VAT, PAYE, Capital Gains Tax and Inheritance Tax planning and Corporate Finance if that’s what you need.

Question 7) Can I see a portfolio of your work for Clients?

An Accountant cannot give you detailed information on other Clients for confidentiality reasons. If you ask in advance, however, it’s not difficult for them to prepare a case study, but black out the confidential details as well. You should be looking for someone who is regularly dealing with other Clients that are in the same position as yourself. This is important because you want to make sure that they are accustomed and experienced in dealing with someone like yourself. For instance, there is a big difference in the sort of work the Accountant needs to do for an actor, with fluctuating income, and an employee, with a steady, constant income, or a retiree who is living off their pension and investments. Finding an Accountant who already works with Clients in a similar position will save you a lot of explanation and should stop your Accountant having to learn at your expense.

Question 8)  Do you have specialist knowledge of areas which are important to me, or do you have in-house specialists?

If you have complex problems, ensure that there is someone in the company who specialises in dealing with them. It’s no good employing an Accountant to help you simplify your financial matters if they don’t know what to do about them either!

Question 9) What is your fee structure?

Accountancy can be split into two different types of work. The first is compliance; work like filling out a tax return, which can usually be done by someone quite junior. The second is giving more sophisticated advice, which can only come from an experienced director. If you want the latter, you shouldn’t have to pay them high rates for merely filling out a tax return for you, which a junior could do. Therefore, check that the work is handled, from your point of view, cost effectively.

You want your costs to be as controlled as possible, so find out if a fixed fee is available for compliance work, as the more sophisticated advice will more likely be charged by the hour.

Question 10) How far does your advice extend when it comes to investment?

By law, an Accountant can only give you a certain amount of investment advice unless they are registered with the FSA(Financial Services Authority) as an IFA (Independent Financial Adviser). However, your Accountant should either have an IFA in-house, or be able to recommend one.

Question 11) How pro-active are you?

Ask for some examples of how your prospective accountant has made pro-active suggestions to Clients, beyond the routine requirements of what was asked for. You want an Accountant who’s going to walk that extra mile, not sit and wait for a bus.

Question 12) How accessible are you?

Ask how long it usually takes for your Accountant to respond to emails, telephone messages, a letter, etc. If you need urgent help suddenly, having your Accountant available on a mobile or via email can be essential. Ask if this is available – but find out if you will be charged for having a short conversation or reading an email.

Question 13) I am thinking of starting a business, can you help me?

A good Accountant should be like a business adviser; analysing problems and offering solutions, helping with advice on financial management, cashflow forecasting, etc. They should always be on the look-out for new ideas and innovations that can grow your business.

Question 14) How many Clients do you have?

While they may not tell you the exact number, it is important to have a rough knowledge. The reason being for this is that if you ever urgently need help, or your tax return is going to be late, in a big company, your work could be near the bottom of the pile. In a smaller company, however, there will be less work, and therefore should be completed quicker.

To find out how we can help all SME businesses with this real pro-active support, experience and background or to even help you source a part time FD for your business, feel free to contact me at steven@mcgregorsbirmingham.co.uk or call me on 0121 236 3317.

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Written by Steven Mugglestone

April 13, 2010 at 11:32 am

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