How to find a good accountant
September 13, 2019 12:44 PM   Subscribe

How does one find a “good” accountant, how do you know if they’re good, and how do in-person ones compare to companies like Bench?

This is a follow up question to the one I posted yesterday.
I got some advice about how important it is to find a good accountant. How do you know if your accountant is good? How do you find good ones? Side note, I love in Seattle, and my company’s field is in fitness/recreation.
Also, I’ve heard of companies like Bench that do accountant work, but I get the impression local accountants would be best. Does anyone have any thoughts about Bench, or ways of finding good small business accountants?
posted by Autumn Willow to Work & Money (4 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Well, you kinda want to be clear on what you need them to do. There is a difference between the skills you need to churn out tax returns or do bookkeeping and what you described in your question. Bookkeeping and tax returns are formulaic and repetitive. You can get quite inexperienced people to do a lot of the work and have a more experienced person bringing things together at the end.

What you want is a much more personalised service. You want an experienced person who will spend time talking to you to understand where you see your business in the medium term and what you want them to help with. Then they can look at your figures and identify patterns. Ideally they will understand your industry and the local economy and business community and can bring that knowledge to the analysis or any plan of action they help you to develop. That requires a certain amount of experience. You have to understand businesses like yours, you have to understand the industry, you have to be able to look at a unique business such as yours in that context and come up with relevant information and guidance for you. That’s not a purely mechanical exercise and only so much of it can be done by inexperienced helpers.

So what you should be looking for is probably an individual who at some point left a larger accounting firm to do their own thing. Ideally not a very large firm because they don’t work with small businesses like you. But experience in this context means having seen a lot of different things over a period of time and that’s easier to get if you work across a reasonable client base as opposed to as one (wo)man shop. You’d want to understand their background a bit and their current clients. You also want to make sure that they understand what you want from them. If they are any good they should ask lots of clarifying questions and should offer different levels of service. If you think you have a meeting of minds there you should also ask them for a clear estimate of time and cost. They may well offer to do a bit of a project - first an analysis and then develop a specific plan as a second step. That’s a good thing. Ask for separate estimates. That way you can choose not to proceed to the next step if you find the analysis is all you need after all and change your mind or it doesn’t go well. Be prepared for them to understand that may happen and to be offered pricing that reflects the risk you may stop after the analysis.

How do you find that person - recommendations and research. They should have a website with their background and services they offer. They should be willing to talk to you on the phone to understand your general requirements for free.
posted by koahiatamadl at 1:37 PM on September 13, 2019

You’d be hard-pressed to find a better answer than koahiatamdl’s thoughtful response, but I’d just note in addition that finding a good accountant or lawyer is not (generally) like finding a good ER doc. You never should just show up at their door and say, well, I guess I’m working with you. Interview them, at least by phone, about how they will meet your needs, how they work with clients, their fees, availability, other service providers they have relationships with who can assist, etc. if they won’t sit down to have a meaningful conversation with a potential new client—who could be the source of potentially years of fees—how much time will you command when you’re an existing (sticky) client who’s unlikely to walk due to inertia?

If you don’t command attention now, if you don’t feel like they respect you, or have some solid familiarity with your industry*, that’s a hard pass. The only way to suss that out is by interviewing them. (* you don’t need a “fitness” accountant in the same way a medical practice might need a specialist, to be clear.)

I’ve had better experiences cold calling service providers based on a Google search and then interviewing them than when I’ve gotten a personal recommendation and then judged relied on the referral without interviewing. Live and learn!
posted by Admiral Haddock at 2:23 PM on September 13, 2019

Well, you kinda want to be clear on what you need them to do.

Truth. My accountant is amazing. He mostly does my taxes but also offers advice. I found my accountant through word of mouth from friends who had a slightly similar tax profile to me (self-employment income, running a small business, some investments). He did my taxes and that was all fine. The things that were helpful to me at the time were: reasonable prices, contactable solely via email if I wanted, and LOW KEY.

This turned out to be a big deal because when I got audited, multiple times, for things that were absolutely not his fault (my tax situation is complex and the state of Vermont is not set up to deal with certain complex situations) he was super helpful with advice and information, didn't charge me extra for advice and information, and was very much like "Eh this is a thing that happens, this is what is going on, and this is how we're dealing with it"

Over time I have dealt with a number of complicating situations (death of both of my parents, various knock-on effects from that, started another business) and he's just right there, being useful. I can email him a question and I'll get an answer and not an invoice for a simple Q&A.

That said, even though we do 95% of our interactions over email, I do like that he's local so that if there is some wrinkle, we can talk it over over coffee and I don't have to hang on my email all day waiting for a response and then another response. He also knows other people so he can suggest a person I could talk to for lawyerly stuff or financial planning stuff.

So, some of this will really depend on what you need and what sort of person you are.
posted by jessamyn at 3:00 PM on September 13, 2019

All the accounts will be CPAs etc and certified to do accounting work* competently and effectively.

A good accountant is one that you’ve met in person and trust, one who understands your needs and one who you find easy to communicate with.

Call some, chat with them. They are looking to be hired by you, you have the power here.

*that other question asked for things well beyond what we traditionally call accounting, so be aware of that.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:23 PM on September 13, 2019

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