Choosing the Right Accountant

As an accountant serving clients for the pass twenty years, and having worked in banking and the stock market for several more years, I sometimes think about what my answer would be if asked by a friend what to look for in choosing an accountant. This is not a light choice; the accountant will probably get to know more of your intimate detail than any other person in your life with the possible exception of your spouse. He is your confidant!

So how do we choose? Here is what I would look for, and I have purposefully not set them in any particular order because in my mind there qualities overlap considerably:

  1. Knowledge: it is important that your accountant has a broad knowledge base not just debits and credits. The first step in accessing this quality is whether the person is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). Now this is just a start, there are many capable and wonderful accountants who are not CPAs, but in your search, the CPA designation will tell you a few things right up front. It is almost a certainty that the CPA has a broad knowledge base. They must at some point have been familiar with accounting (duh), taxes, entity selection, and business law in order to pass the CPA exams. They must also have earned a college degree or its equivalence in work experience. But even more importantly, the CPA is required to be current with the new developments in their field; this is ensured by mandatory continuing education courses that they must take to maintain the CPA designation.
  2. Experience: Knowledge plus experience equals wisdom. Not only must the accountant have the knowledge, they must know how to apply it. This takes time. One size does not fit all. As individual as we are so are our finances. Having spent time in practice, the accountant is much more useful to his client. They will have experienced enough to know what works and what doesn’t in a particular situation. A good accountant is part artist part janitor.
  3. Integrity: If I had to choose only one quality, it would be integrity. Without integrity, your accountant is the biggest liability you have on your books. Remember, he knows a lot about you, he has all your confidential information. If he lacks integrity and discretion, he is a dangerous time bomb running around loose in your backyard.
  4. Reliable: The accountant must be reliable. He must complete task on schedule or give adequate warning when he will be late. He must be accurate in his work and quick to take responsibility for errors and even quicker to fix them. Stuff happen to the best, but the best keeps the client informed. He has nothing to hide, his integrity demands it.
  5. Reachable: Your accountant should either answer his phone or get back to you pronto. The rule is 24 hours, but in practice it should be within the hour. If you need a copy of a tax return that you paid to prepare, he shouldn’t charge you to email or post you a copy.
  6. He should ask questions: a good accountant will usually ask question about you family, your job, your health, your plans and hope for the future. This is not to shoot the breeze, if the accountant knows these things he is better equipped to serve you. They will be able to find a lot more tax deductions that others would miss and will be able to advise and guide you in areas that you might have overlooked or neglected.

If I was looking for an accountant, he would have to possess all these qualities, not just be able to count to ten.