The web is layered with generic advice on how to choose an accounting firm, so we at The Prequal have prepared some deeper experiential factors to consider. Add these to the basics and you will have a shrewd and thorough process for making your decision.
The delicate nature of what you will entrust to this partner means that this will be the most intimate relationship you have with any vendor, so the choice of firm requires a corresponding level of care at a deeper stratum of understanding. These five scales are meant to function as an assessment tool. Whether you are just starting out or moving on to a new vendor, this will enhance your process.
Areas of Expertise (Generalist to Specialist)
Where do your complexities lie? Mergers and acquisitions? Investments? Massive payroll demands? Do you need the full spectrum of services? Use a scale of 1 to 10 from “Generalist” to “Specialist.” Place your ideal choice on that scale, then rank each firm you’re evaluating. Observe how they compare.
The Question to Ask: Is there an area of accounting you do better than others?
This is a plain and simple way to uncover the firm’s strengths. Be wary of firms that claim they do everything well. Not only is this NOT a helpful answer – it also might reveal that they either don’t know what they do well, or they are uncomfortable with the truth, which might be that they are not confident enough in any area to claim a “strength.” That doesn’t necessarily take them out of the running. It simply tells you that they fall in the middle of the scale and are in a growth phase, which might be okay.
Reputation (Fledgling to Esteemed)
References give you reliable verification of a firm’s performance. Ask for a list and let your contact know that you won’t necessarily reach out to all of them. Use this exchange as an opportunity to understand their portfolio of references. This gives you an honest assessment of their performance across clients and sectors, which might tell you more than any one reference. Again, use a 1 to 10 scale of “Fledgling” to “Esteemed.”
The Question to Ask: Which reference do you most want me to call and which do you least want me to call and why?
The answer to this one will be revealing. The firm that only wants to paint themselves in the best light will choose references that sing their praises. The firm that genuinely wants to help you will identify which will give information relevant to your business. The “why” of this answer will help you distinguish between the two.
Communication and Expectation (Improvisational to Structured)
What you want from your accounting firm is something you must know and be able to articulate at the start. Even if you must ask for their help in determining what you should want in the first place, this is the initial step in launching your working relationship – establish frequency and method of communication and express expectations with clarity and sufficient detail, and the work will meet expectation on both sides from the beginning. On a scale of improvisational to structured, where do you stand?
The Question to Ask: How often will I hear from you and what will be a typical reason for reaching out?
The answer to this question will tell you what it will take to get your accountant to pick up the phone. Listen to the answer carefully and picture yourself in the scenario described. How does it feel? Did it inspire your confidence?
Your Company’s Ranking on Their List (Nominal to Vital)
What will you be to this firm? A major partner or one of thousands? Your market share, annual revenues and reach as a brand will mean different things to different accounting firms. Understand where your company’s requests will appear on their list of priorities. Just because you are one of thousands doesn’t mean you won’t get the service you want. You are more likely to have a longer-term partner in your accounting firm, however, if the two of you are nearer in size and scope. This will give you both the opportunity to grow and weather storms together. That kind of intimacy between firms can’t be bought – only cultivated – it enables you both to anticipate the other’s needs before they arise.
The Question to Ask: Where do we rank in relation to your other clients?
Most firms will insist that all clients are served to an accepted level, and when they say it, they are not misleading you. The goal with this question is to gauge how much you could mean to them, now and in the future. Of course, their response will be to reassure you of their commitment to level of service no matter who you are. Stick to your guns. Know where you stand with them. This will tell you how seriously they will take it when you’re in crisis and you really need them.
Problem Solving (Reactive to Responsive)
Fulfilling predictable client requests is all fine, but when things don’t go according to plan, a firm really proves its talents. Know how your accounting firm performs when the shit hits the fan.
The Question to Ask: Can you tell me a story about a recent surprise or crisis you handled for a client?
Listen to this story carefully. Identify the client’s problem in the story, its urgency, complexity, and severity. Watch the storyteller when he or she describes the client. Is this how you would want to be described in a similar story? How did the accountants solve the problem and what did that solution do for the client? Did the situation give the accountants a chance to truly be accountants and do what they were trained to do? Can you picture yourself in that client’s shoes? Would the results make you as happy as it made them? Rank the answer on the scale: reactive, 1 to responsive, 10. Go back to your other scales and find the firm nearest to your ideal on each.