Finding a Contract Accountant

If you run a small business, you are probably an expert in your chosen field, and not a financial expert.  This holds true for me as well. I’m just an average joe that wants to improve his financial standing while delivering what my customers need.  Because I do have an interest in personal finance, many of my friends approach with questions, and I always recommend they do what I did…find a contractor accountant.   After all, I don’t answer legal or health questions…but I can point people to a doctor or lawyer that I trust.

Of course, just saying “find yourself an accountant” sounds a little rude, right?  It’s much better to offer some concrete advice on how to find a decent CPA that will work on a contract basis.

At a high level, here’s the 3 top rules to find someone great:

  1. Don’t use Google to find yourself a CPA
  2. Don’t use the phone book either
  3. DO ask someone you trust.  Perhaps a family member, the business next door to you, or someone else you know that runs a successful business.

Referrals are always the best way to ensure that you get an accountant that’s made at least one person happy. In fact, if you ask a CPA, most of them will tell you that the bulk of their business comes from referrals.  It also instills a little trust on their side as well.   If they trust the person that sent you their way, they’ll be more likely to take you on without hassles like a retainer.

Contrary to what most people think,  accounting goes beyond just doing your taxes once a year. Whether you are looking for help with individual or business finances, keep in mind that a good CPA can also help you with financial planning and strategy.   And, just like a lawyer or doctor, a CPA tends to develop expertise in a specific niche.   Make sure your CPA has some experience in the type of work you’re bringing them.   For example, if you’re trying to get help for your Limited Liability Company, it’s probably best not to select someone that mostly does personal tax returns.  At the next level down, there’s a huge difference between doing books and taxes for a services based company versus a inventory and sales based company.

Make sure you define your needs well.  Are you looking for tax planning? Or are you looking for help with an audit or IRS review? Or, are you considering selling your business and need someone to do a little internal due diligence and a business valuation?

Once you’ve narrowed your choices down a bit, be sure to ask questions.  Make a list of the topics that are top of mind for you, and sketch out a few questions on each topic.  One way to tease a little more information from a prospective CPA is to ask them for some examples of how they solved a challenging problem for a business like yours.  Generally, because of confidentiality concerns, they can’t share client names or other specifics, but they should be able to share enough of their general approach to help you gain some confidence.

Once you’ve got a few candidates that seem to be a technical fit for your needs, you’ll need some way to narrow the list and make a selection.   An excellent way to do this is to figure out which one has a “bookside manner” that best fits your needs.    Perhaps you are an exacting person, and would prefer someone that communicates in a high level of detail.  Or, maybe you prefer to do most of your communication over email.  If your CPA doesn’t like to communicate the same way that you do, it could present a barrier in the future.