With interest rate rises on the horizon; HMRC constantly changing taxation regulations and businesses receiving relatively little financial support from banks and building societies, it can be argued that having a top quality accountant is of paramount importance to all small to medium sized business directors across the UK. However, with so much competition within the accounting industry, it can often be difficult to determine who the best person for the job is, particularly when they all appear to offer similar benefits and promise your passage to a financial utopia.

As such, it is important that you as a director have a clear judging criteria set out when undertaking a search for an accountant, so that you filter out the mediocre candidates and place the finances of your business into the hands of an individual who you believe is responsible, innovative and at the top of their profession.

Below is our guide to achieving this, with key tips and clear advice on what to look out for in a prospective accountant, who to avoid, as well as which long term elements to consider when deciding who to give control of your company’s financial future to.

When you first set-out looking for a new accountant, it would be beneficial to devise a list of what it is you exactly want from an individual functioning in this role for your business, so you can then systematically assess how well any potential candidates matches up to what you are looking for. Here are some measures and a few questions worth considering when meeting a potential candidate for the job:

Are they officially qualified? This is hugely important, and you will want to look out for firms that have ‘certified or ‘chartered’ in their names, or on their website.

  • Are they part of a professional accounting organisation such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants (ICAEW), the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA),  the Institute of Financial Accountants (IFA), or the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA). Checking this should ensure that you acquire the services of a firm that is held in high regard and are bound to a strict policy of quality. 
  • Question them about the capital allowances that they believe you could be able to qualify for, as this is an excellent way of gauging how adept they are on money saving matters. 
  • Enquire about the availability of any client testimonials and any evidence that illustrates how they have saved past clientele money with their accounting service. 
  • Ask on the spot questions about how they would go about saving your business money and reducing its costs on initial reflection of your account books. This can be an excellent way to measure the expertise of a candidate.
  • Ask them whether they have any suggestions about how you can optimise your bookkeeping practice, and imply that you currently utilise a very basic system-even if you don’t. The best accountants will point you toward the cloud and detail you in about how to use it, all others are likely not up to scratch. 
  • Ask them if they have ever participated in forming the shape of a company’s business plans, and if so, to what success?
  • Enquire about whether they are capable of undertaking audits, as not all accountants are able to do this.
  • Make sure that you will only be dealing with a maximum of two accountants within the firm, as this will improve the efficiency and transparency of the service they offer. 
  • Importantly, you must ask how they intend to bill you, as this can be done by-week, by-hour, by-minute, by-project or by-year. Often, the optimal way you should look for is on a fixed rate, yearly charge, so you can utilise them as frequently as you desire. However, by-project could also be a beneficial way of payment as it will grant you flexibility if your cash flow situation changes and you can no longer afford an accountant. 
  • Avoid any accountant who alerts you they will bill you by the minute, as this tends to be the most expensive payment method and is suggestive of the nature of their practice.
  • Ask how they would value your company in the event of an acquisition, merger or sell out.
  • Ask if they can provide you with an investment appraisal report so you are aware of how to acquire further credit to expand your business. 
  • Assess the methods they disclose to you when you ask how you should manage your working capital without overstretching your finances or garnering the attention of a receiver. 
  • Have they got experience dealing with clientele whose businesses have undergone liquidation? If so, how successful were they at preventing the director from wrongfully trading, do they understand this area well? Did they ensure the process went smoothly? It may sound strange, but this can be an important question to ask in order to make sure that you have the right accountant working for you if the business experiences the worst case scenario during insolvency.

Key points to consider:

Now that you have an idea of the sort of qualities you should assess in an accountant, it is worth keeping in mind some other measuring criteria that will ensure that you not only choose one of the best accountants in the profession, but also one that is best suited to your unique company.

  1. Choose an accountant who is highly knowledgeable in the industry you work in, and ideally is a specialist in your field. This is because you want an accountant who is aware of which HMRC rules and regulations you must abide by, and what you should do to avoid breaking them. Analysing their past work on companies such as yours is also an advised strategy to adopt, as it will help you acquire the optimum accountant for your type of business. 
  2. Enquire whether any of their other clients work in your industry, and if so identify if any of them are your direct competitors. The last thing you want is your accountant having a conflict of interest that may lead to a prioritisation of one business over the other. 
  3. Find a specialist, but of the diverse kind. Whilst it is important that your accountant is a specialist in your industry, it is nevertheless important that they are multi-capable and can deal with the larger magnitude and scale of tasks that will likely be incurred when your business begins to expand. In cases such as these you might wish to ask them for help about whether you should hire more employees, take on a higher number of investors, authorise new acquisitions and keep your cash flow stable, and you will need to be confident that the person charged with doing this can do so at a universally high standard. 
  4. How will they go about keeping your books, and what system will they adopt to alerting you in situations where you might be in financial danger or at risk from a letter from the HMRC? These are things you should keep in mind, and the reality is that an accountant who does not utilise digital software on the cloud is probably not worthwhile using, as this is the direction that bookkeeping is moving at present. 
  5. Clearly assess how they will bill you, how much they will charge, whether it is at a fixed rate and whether they are any hidden charges. The manner in which you wish to be billed will be dependent on your businesses cash flow situation, though it might be beneficial to pursue a yearly, fixed rate contract if you believe that you will require the accountant’s services frequently in the upcoming 12 months. However, the cheapest choice is not necessarily the best, and you will want a qualified accountant who is registered under a professional body so that you are confident you have a high quality individual at your service. 

Even remembering to ask just a few of the key questions above can help to future-proof your business and contribute towards making sure that you are engaging the right accountant for you and your business.