|Accountants have long-since shrugged off their ‘bean-counter’ image and now deliver a raft of services essential to business planning. But how do you select an accountant that’s right for your business and have a successful ongoing partnership? Glenn Baker reports.|
So you’re looking for an accountant? Someone who’s just right for your business and will prove to be a real asset?
Let’s start by considering some compatibility issues – personality for instance. Gone are the days when your accountant was a disengaged ‘book-keeper’ whom you only caught up with once or twice a year.
According to Rachel Farrant, a partner with BDO Wellington, specialising in business advice, it’s crucial that you first find someone whom you like as a person, who you feel you can trust and are comfortable discussing all issues with.
“Your accountant needs to know everything about you and your life that affects your finances – from health and personal relationships through to how much you spend on shopping. For example, if you are sick your accountant may need to know, as this could have an impact on your business and possible succession planning issues,” says Farrant. “So that sense of personal fit and open communication is essential.”
Find someone who matches your budget and business too, says Farrant. “If you own a corner dairy, for example, you may not gain anything extra from going to a ‘Big 4’ firm and paying someone over $500 per hour. Your accountant needs to have the right skill-set and experience with your type of business.
“Don’t be afraid to meet a few accountants before you choose one,” adds Farrant. “And make sure you ask them about their fees.”
Tom Davies, director – professional support at the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA), has a long-list of warning signs to be aware of. In addition to the state of the firm’s premises, both inside and out, what are the attitudes of the principals and staff? “Are they really interested in your business or is there an over-concentration on talking about themselves?”
Don’t just meet the principal responsible for the engagement, adds Davies, also meet the staff who’ll be doing the ‘grunt’ work, and form your impressions of them.
“Before you meet with a firm, draw up a list of the things you think you want them to do, the outputs you want and when you want them, and see how they react to that – as opposed to their trying to impose a regime on you. And ask what other services they provide which might be of interest to you.”
One big ‘no-no’ as far as Davies is concerned is using a friend or relative as your accountant – or even a close friend of a close friend.
“Unfortunately it happens occasionally that there is a difference of views between accountant and client, and it’s much harder to deal with when they are friends. You can end up losing both your accountant and your friend and perhaps polarising others who are mutual friends.”
Catriona Knapp, principal – business advisory at WHK, agrees that you must feel comfortable around your accountant. “Find someone who understands your immediate needs as well as your future aspirations.”
It’s also important that they’re interested in your personal and business goals and can talk in a language you can relate to, she says.
“All too often people will say to me ‘going to our accountant is like going to see the school headmaster’, or ‘my accountant doesn’t seem interested in explaining these things to me’ and the list goes on. It is also important that your accountant is willing to work with you in a way you are comfortable with, rather than imposing a series of ‘you must dos and don’ts’.”
Accountants should also be open about their fee structures too, says Knapp. “You get what you pay for but you want to pay for what you need.”
Provide as much information as you can up front around the level of service and support you’re looking for too, adds Knapp, as well as how much you’re willing to pay.
“The more your accountant knows about your business, the better value they will add. Just like a good doctor will ask the right questions about your health, know you and your family and provide the best advice for you.”
Mutual respect and clear service expectations are the keys to a successful partnership with your accountant, according to John Haylock – and he should know. Haylock is practice performance manager at BankLink and author of Absolute Certainty (reviewed in this issue’s ‘Biz Books’) a book that teaches service businesses ‘how to give your clients exactly what they want’.
“Your accountant needs to respect you and your ability to run your business while also being prepared to help you improve. In turn, you must respect the advice and recommendations that your accountant gives you. He or she will most likely have considerable experience that you can take advantage of.”
Haylock says many accountants act as if being technically competent is enough to keep clients happy and appear to forget about the many other aspects of providing great service. “Research shows it is shortcomings in the service experience where most frustrations for clients occur.
“The common mistakes include confusing clients about what information is required and when, taking far too long to complete jobs, not responding quickly enough to calls or emails, passing on jobs to inexperienced staff without letting clients know, not explaining issues in language the client understands, and surprising clients with the size of the bill.”
He says to look for an accountant who is proactive, not just reactive.
“An annual strategic planning session where you set your goals is a great idea, as are regular monthly or quarterly meetings where you review your performance.”
Finger on the pulse
Good accountants don’t just tell you how much money you made or how much tax you’re up for. WHK’s Knapp says a successful partnership is also one where you see your accountant as an extension of your management team – someone who you will pick up the phone and discuss issues with as and when they arise before taking action.
“A good accountant will have their finger on the pulse of your business. From working with you to develop strategies for purchasing and capital investment through to succession planning and building your wealth – your accountant should be your experienced right hand man.
“When you use your accountant in this way you benefit from their past experience and the knowledge they have obtained from working with a variety of businesses,” says Knapp. “Accountants are often in touch with bankers and other business associates and receive a great deal of information on the current state of the economy and market opportunities, including investment opportunities – this general business knowledge can be invaluable to you when making decisions.
“Personally, a successful relationship means knowing what my clients are up to throughout the year. This means I can provide them better advice and be a sounding board for any issues or opportunities as and when they arise.”
BDO’s Rachel Farrant believes a relationship also centres on how much interest the accountant takes in their clients’ businesses.
“Recently I took a half day out and visited my client’s premises. Seeing the machinery and work in action gave me a hugely different perspective of his business – and he was thrilled.”
Setting the boundaries
So just how heavily should you lean on your accountant? Of course there are limits.
“Book keeping is much simpler and more accessible for people these days thanks to accounting software packages,” says Farrant. “So you should expect good accountants to be providing core services other than bookkeeping, such as management accounting, budgeting, forecasting, managing cashflow and tax-planning, valuations of your business and succession planning.”