Finding (and keeping) that perfect accountant
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.”
Get as much business advice as possible says Farrant. “Your accountant should be looking at where your business is going in the future, not just in the rear vision mirror, and they should be one of your first ports of call when you have business issues.”
However, this type of business advice is very different to financial planning she says. “Your accountant certainly shouldn’t be telling you where and when to buy your next shares or what finance company to invest your money in.”
NZICA’s Tom Davies points out that chartered accounting firms provide a whole raft of services, from health checks on the business to internal audits – but they are not provided for free “so you will need to balance the cost of the service against the value you perceive coming from it.” Before adding a service, get an estimate of the cost in writing he says. “You should instruct the firm that if it appears the estimate will be breached for any reason then the firm must come back to you immediately so you can discuss it.”
Be clear on your goals
Good accountants have the knowledge, experience and network to add significant value to a business relationship, says Knapp.
“If the bank is the food for your business then the accountant is the dietician and fitness instructor. They will ensure your numbers are right; that you are able to spend where you need to spend in order to achieve your business and personal goals.
“Any advice should be in line with what you are trying to achieve. If your fitness instructor was trying to prepare you for the world champs when all you want is to lose a few inches then clearly the advice is not in context with your goals. You must be clear on your goals or work with your accountant to help you set them.”
Good advice comes from good understanding and good communication, Knapp continues.
“Such an achievement isn’t hinged on the number of services a firm can provide. Instead it comes from the depth of experience that exists within a firm and the ability of its people to collaborate and combine their specialist knowledge and expertise, for the greater good of the client.”
David Searle, president of CPA Australia in New Zealand and a partner at Staples Rodway, reminds us that a lot of businesses that fail don’t fail because they are bad at what they do – but because they don’t anticipate what they’ll need to do in the future.
“For example, an expanding business may take on additional staff to enable them to fill orders, but forget to ensure that they have sufficient cashflow to meet the additional expenses.  A good accountant will help you think through the financial implications of what’s about to happen in your business and plan accordingly. 
“Similarly, small businesses don’t usually have the time to keep up to date with everything in the external environment that could impact on their business, but a good accountant will understand the way that changes such as updates to tax legislation may impact on your business, helping you to manage those changes. 
“A good accountant, thinking for your business, will also bring new ideas to the table and come up with options that hadn’t occurred to you.” 
Your accountant should challenge you, says Searle, rather than just tell you what you want to hear. “You may not always like what they tell you, but it should always be a relationship where the information enables your business to do better.” 
Extracting best value
Accountants love clients who are well-prepared and proactive. “Clients who come to us with their accounts ready to go will get much better value for money than those whose accounts are a mess,” explains Rachel Farrant. “Use technology – software packages are great for helping you keep your accounts up-to-date and easy to use. Ask for assistance, or even better, get some training from your accountant in how to use your software package – and don’t be afraid to ask the small questions, they may save a lot of cost later.”
Like many things in life, says WHK’s Knapp, you get out of the relationship what you are prepared to put in. “Therefore if you invest the effort in communicating your expectations with your accountant up front it is highly likely you will have a successful relationship. The best accountants will become more of a business partner rather than someone who simply tells you how much tax you need to pay each year!”
Looking forward
So will the relationship between owner-manager and accounting firm change in the years to come? We put this question to BankLink’s Haylock.
“A couple of years ago I wrote an article on what it would be like if Richard Branson entered the accounting profession. I speculated that if he did, ‘Virgin Accountants’ would revolutionise the service experience by eliminating those common areas of frustration and introducing a sense of fun to a staid occupation.
“While Branson has stuck with planes, trains and phones, there is a growing focus on the service experience in the accountancy profession. You can now find accountants providing guaranteed turnaround times on their annual accounting jobs and providing comprehensive fixed price agreements including free phone calls during the year. This new way of operating is being adopted by increasing numbers of accountants and looks set to spread further,” says Haylock.
“New technologies are enabling quicker preparation of jobs and better communication with clients.  However those technologies are not fundamentally changing the work most accountants do. It remains focused on preparing annual financial statement and tax returns.
“The greatest impact on the relationship will likely be if tax simplification occurs. Currently most accountants have more than enough work to do from traditional ‘compliance work’.
If some of that work is lost through tax simplification then it will force accountants to do other work for their clients such as business planning and coaching. Tax simplification might seem unlikely but late last year NZICA and Tax Management New Zealand put forward recommendations for a comprehensive tax simplification programme (
www.smetax.co.nz). “The government has also signalled the goal of aligning the trust, company and top personal tax rates which is another form of simplification.”


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