A new SMB has many choices to make such as selecting an office location to picking bank accounts and finding a good accountant. It can often become overwhelming and the temptation is to take shortcuts.
But choosing the right accountant can make a huge difference to a business. BoxFreeIT asked several accountants for their advice in match-making a business to an accounting firm.
1. Check their qualifications
First let’s take a look at the definition of accountant. In both Australia and New Zealand the title of an accountant is not regulated which means anyone can call themselves an accountant irrespective of their educational or professional qualifications.
A key difference is whether the practitioner can prepare and lodge income tax returns. An accountant must be a Registered Tax Agent and belong to a professional association such as Institute of Public Accountants (IPA), Certified Practising Accountants Australia (CPAA), the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Australia (ICAA), or the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA).
2. Must be multi-skilled
For an accountant to be an asset to an SMB, the accountant needs to have a combination of genuine passion to help clients, tax law knowledge, a willingness to improve their skills and be able to communicate advice in a simple and clear way, said Timothy Munro, director and CEO at Change Accountants and Advisors.“When the going gets tough, you’ve got to talk to someone whose able to roll up their sleeve and work out the business issues. You’ll find that your chartered accountant has a bag full of options for you rather than a standard accountant,” said Langlands.
“I often get my best relationships with SMB owners who have had a previous accountant who underperformed and they come along and they experience our service and its like night and day.”
3. Must offer reporting and analysis – not just tax
Accountants can do much more than sign off on year-end reports and prepare tax returns. They help businesses with cash flow analysis, finance applications and succession planning, Triffit said.
“Real time reporting and access to software that is now available via cloud based applications means that your accountant can be involved in all the financial aspects of your business on a real time basis,” Triffit said.
4. Must have technical knowledge
There is a general consensus that practitioners need to possess a high level of knowledge in accounting and business software to ensure clients obtain the most from their software packages. The level of technology knowledge has risen as conventional tasks such as data entry into a general ledger have given way to analysis, reporting and advice.
“I believe all accountants should have at minimum a basic knowledge of cloud accounting related software and how it can be used by their clients. The leading accountants in the future will be able to quickly design a combination of cloud accounting and business software tools and link them together to create exactly what their client needs,” Munro said.
5. Must understand the options in accounting software
There are more than seven accounting software companies active in Australia. Accountants disagree on how many programs a firm should support, but no single package suits every business. “It is necessary for accountants to be knowledgeable about multiple products. Accountants can then assist a client to select the most appropriate package for their needs,” said Deloitte’s Tania Triffit.
There is no right or wrong to have be certified or knowledgeable with only one or multiple accounting software programs, Langlands said.
“We’re a smaller firm and all of us need to have a good understanding of the different options out there. I think it important to know more about one program, especially when you’re talking and working with people in business,” Langlands said.
On the other hand, Change Accountants and Advisors only accepts clients willing to use or switch to Xero. “This strategy has worked brilliantly for us and there’s no way I’d change it. It’s interesting that more and more accounting firms are making this same choice and becoming a Xero-only accounting firm,” said Munro.
6. Must be organised
An accountant must also have time management skills and know where their time is best invested across its range of clients. “If you do a little bit for everybody, you would probably miss the boat,” said Langlands.
“There’s a natural tendency to work with people you can help the most. Tax is huge but really, it’s about those who can help people structure their affairs and financial reporting.”
7. Must give the best advice, not the easiest
Some accountants only tell clients what they want to hear and avoid the difficult conversations. Clients sometimes need to be pushed into considering better ways to increase and protect their business wealth, Munro said.
“A bad accountant just focuses on tax returns and financial statements and GST matters. In business, you always have to ask yourself all the time ‘is this the best way of doing things or is there a better way to do this?’” Munro said.
8. Must consider alternative payment schedules
Accountants have typically charged hourly rates like most professional services. However, the move to cloud accounting software has kicked off a trend towards fixed-price billing.
Firms have convinced clients to pay half or all the fee up-front for a specific service before work starts.
“Accountants should provide a clear explanation of fees via their engagement letter and frank and upfront discussions with their clients,” Langlands said. “It’s courses for horses. Some people like to know exactly what they’re paying for. Others just say, hey, I assumed that’s what you do so just bill me every month.”