Vetting A CPA - Guest Post By Alicyn McLeod
Business associates and prospective clients often ask me similar questions that can be summed up into “How do I vet a Certified Public Accountant?”
This is a crucial question to ask – whether you’re a novice or experienced when it comes to working with CPAs, and whether you have a narrow or a wide range of needs of your external accountant. In the best scenario, your accountant is a reliable, resourceful, and responsive problem-solver. At a bare minimum, he should be able to assist you with routine compliance matters in a timely and competent manner.
The CPA-client relationship is a high-risk one that clients are reluctant to abandon even if they aren’t being sufficiently served. It is important to take due diligence seriously to select someone who is a good fit for you.
Years ago, I was given a piece of helpful and easy-to-follow advice about hiring employees. When interviewing and selecting, ask yourself three questions:
Can they do the job?
Will they do the job?
Will they fit in on the job?
When I’ve come across an employee who doesn’t work out, the issue can generally fall easily into one, if not more, of these three categories. These are the same questions you should ask when vetting your next accountant.
Continue reading to understand why these questions are important, how to obtain the answers, and also to gain some insight into how the public accounting industry operates.
Part 1 of the series discusses the first question.
Can they do the job? (Competency & needs fit)
A practitioner’s technical abilities and level of quality should be high on your list of criteria during the vetting process. You want to be confident that this person and his firm are able to handle the majority of your current and short-term future needs.
A good way to determine this is to ask the prospective CPA to describe his ‘sweet spot’ client. Your situation and primary needs should fall within this range. For example, if the bulk of his work is with individual taxation, your multi-state distribution company might not find the level of technical expertise it needs. Alternatively, a firm that could competently serve such a company might not be focused on providing significant customer service to a stand-alone individual client.
Tread carefully with someone who says she ‘can do it all’. There’s such a broad range of needs for individual and business clients alike that it would be pretty tough for one person to possess the ability to competently and timely take care of all circumstances. If this person is part of a firm with multiple partners and employees to support her, then such a claim may have merit. If you do find a firm that truly has a wide range of offerings, be sure that you need a good number of them or you may find yourself in a situation in which the expertise is available, but hard to get to because you’re a ‘small fish’. Ask about the firm’s target market to see if you’re a fit.
The person with whom you establish the relationship should have adequate license and experience – so should those who work for her. If your needs are fairly sophisticated, it does you little good if the business development person is highly qualified to assist you, but delegates the majority of the relationship management to a green associate.
CPA licenses in Georgia are issued by the Secretary of State. A quick and free license verification is available here . Licenses, however, are bare minimums and not necessarily hallmarks of expertise or sound professional judgment. They merely mean that at some point in that person’s career, he had sufficient interest, time, and persistence to pass a test. Inquire about the experience of the firm in general and of the person(s) with whom you will be working specifically.
Be wary of sole practitioners who haven’t had significant experience working at other reputable firms; the tools and expertise necessary to help you are acquired overwhelmingly from on-the-job experience as opposed to knowledge gained in college and studying for credentialing. On the other hand, don’t necessarily shy away from a professional who hasn’t worked with someone in your exact situation. If she is intelligent and interested, she can likely quickly get up to speed to assist you well.
Takeaway: Your CPA should be, or readily be able to be, technically proficient in handling your current and short-term needs, as well as have solid connections with qualified individuals who can assist you with one-off issues outside of her area(s) of expertise.