What are you looking for in an accounting firm?  Every business owner is different, and has different needs.  YOUR needs are different than every other business owner, so take the time to choose an accounting firm that you feel comfortable with, and can provide you the services you need.

Here are 10 questions to ask a prospective accounting firm:

What type of firm are you?

Accounting firms generally fall into one of four categories:  Public accounting firms, tax specialists, forensic accountants, and bookkeepers.  Public accounting firms normally hire Certified Public Accountants (CPAs) that specialize in tax, auditing, and management consulting.  Tax specialists focus on tax preparation and tax planning for companies and individuals.  Forensic accountants investigate financial records to uncover fraudulent and illegal activities, and often work with federal and local law enforcement.  Bookkeeping firms provide fundamental accounting that most people know – accounts receivable, payroll, financial statements, bank reconciliation, tax preparation, loan document preparation and related services.

Level of Service

Exactly what services are you interested in?  Full service outsourced bookkeeping, or someone to check your records as you enter your information?  If you need complete bookkeeping services, look for a full-service accounting firm that employs bookkeepers who handle day-to-day client transactions. An accounting firm that does not employ bookkeepers will charge more if a CPA handles routine bookkeeping tasks.

Availability

How often do you want to meet with your accountant?  Once a year, once a quarter, once a month, or on call for every question you may have?  Some clients are content to meet with their accounting firm once a year for tax-filing purposes. Others clients have frequent business questions that require timely answers. Find out if your accountant is a phone call away or if you’ll have to schedule a time to come into the office and talk in person.

Fees

Some firms charge a set rate for each task they perform, such as filing a 1040 individual income tax form, balancing a monthly bank statement, or compiling a statement of net worth.  Other firms charge by the hour or the minute, meaning each phone call, meeting, or activity will cost you money.

Certifications/Education

There are over 40 different certifications for accountants, depending on the specialty.  The most widely known is the Certified Public Accountant (CPA), the Enrolled Agent (EA), and the Personal Financial Specialist (PFS).  Education for accounting professionals is normally a Bachelors or Masters degree in Accounting or Business Administration.

Advice

Some accounting firms are quick to offer advice on when to purchase equipment and how to keep financial records, while other accounting firms compile the necessary financial reports but offer little feedback. The amount of advice you need or want depends upon your financial knowledge and experience. If you need a lot of help, select a firm that offers in-depth financial counseling.

Personal Connection

In my opinion, this is the most important decision you must make when choosing an accounting firm.  You can hire the highest-priced accounting firm in town, but if you don’t feel comfortable discussing your finances, you aren’t getting the service you need. If the accountant talks in terms you don’t understand or if you feel intimidated, look for a different firm.

Goal Setting

Some accountants offer to help clients set goals and monitor financial progress, which can be very helpful if you’re just starting out in business. Find out the firm’s policy on goal setting and if you’ll be charged an additional fee for the service.

Audit Support

When the Internal Revenue Service comes knocking, it’s reassuring to know that your accountant will be right by your side. IRS audits are a way of life for some small-business owners and individual taxpayers, but facing an audit is a stressful situation. Some accounting firms offer their own offices for audit purposes and provide an accountant to represent your interests.

References

Old-fashioned word-of-mouth is as valuable a reference today as it ever was. Talk to friends or business associates to find out what accounting firm they use and if they would recommend it to others.  One note on references – a new accounting firm may not have references (just like you didn’t have references when you started YOUR business).  While references are important, don’t make your decision solely on them.  In the end, you must be comfortable working with your accounting firm.