There are many reasons to partner with a CPA firm – whether it be for accounting, auditing, tax, or advisory services – but the underlying purpose is to propel your business to the next level of success.
To reach that next level you need to find the partner that’s right for you. Whether this is the first time you’re looking, or you’ve decided to make a change, here’s a list of five things to explore before engaging a CPA firm for your business.
1. What is the firm’s reputation in the local business community and how long has the firm been around?
Look for a CPA firm that is established, integrally connected with the local community, and is known for building client relationships. Find out how many employees are on staff and how long the firm has been in business.
Be wary of newly created “boutique” firms that focus on specific tax credits triggered by the COVID pandemic, such as the Employee Retention Credit. Proper due diligence is required for tax credit filings and these new, narrowly focused firms may not be trustworthy.
2. Check on the basics.
Pricing structures should be discussed upfront. How do their fees compare to other firms? Will a detailed fee structure be provided? Ask how the firm handles ongoing consulting, separate from project work.
Many accounting firms act like law firms when it comes to billing. Will you get dinged for every email and call? Find out so you’re not taken unaware.
3. Don’t be a large firm’s afterthought.
Talk to existing clients for a realistic report on the firm’s responsiveness – for clients both big and small. Do even the smaller accounts warrant prompt attention? Are emails promptly answered?
Larger firms sometimes tend to focus on large legacy clients and simply don’t have the time needed to help their small business clients. And if you’re with a firm and you’ve had several different advisors, it might be a red flag. Frequent turnover can be indicative of a workplace culture issue.
4. Do they offer comprehensive services?
Is the firm centered around just doing tax returns, or are they truly full-service? If you engage with a “one stop shop” that offers accounting, assurance, auditing, business advisory, etc., you are covered for present and future needs.
Your CPA firm should function not just as your tax advisor but as your general business advisor. Should you need year end planning, fixed asset maintenance, succession/exit strategy planning, advising on a company sale or assurance services, you’re covered.Here's a sampling of offerings from a full-service firm:
- Business Tax Planning & Compliance
- Individual Tax Planning & Compliance
- Family Estate Planning
- Trust Taxes
- Tax Preparation (federal, state, local)
- Tax Consulting & Advisory
- Attestation Services
- Financial Reporting Assistance
- Employee Benefit Plan Audit
- Internal Control Reviews
- Business Planning
- Capital Planning
- Businesses Repositioning
- Cash Flow Planning
- Succession Planning
- Bank Financing
- Asset Management
- Tax Minimization
- Estate Tax Reduction
- Wealth Planning (tax vehicles & trusts, estate taxes, gift taxes)
- Choice of Entity
- Structure for Transactions & Deals
5. Is their tech up to date?
Does the firm you’re considering make use of the latest IT infrastructure and software applications? The days of the 10-key number cruncher are long gone. The accounting profession is very IT-oriented and continually evolving to better access and integrate data in real-time and cloud-based scenarios.
Without the proper tools and technology, the firm may not have the capability or bandwidth to handle complex filings or issues. There’s also the issue of keeping your financial information secure. Ask if they employ the latest encryption technology and two-factor identification.
The goal here is to find a CPA partner that goes beyond accounting and tax compliance to become a valued business advisor. This must be earned by taking the time to understand your business and by being responsive to your needs.
When clients leave firms, it’s most often due to unresponsiveness, lack of knowledge about their specific industry, or concerns about high fees.
As you explore the five areas outlined above, don’t be misled by the following misconceptions about working with a CPA firm:
- Accounting doesn’t have to be a foreign language.
- Hourly billing isn’t the only option that you have.
- CPA firms are only needed at tax time.
- The quality of customer service correlates to account size.
All clients, regardless of size, deserve prompt answers and expert guidance, and the best accounting firm for you is likely not located in a high rise.
Todd Abel, CPA, has been with Thornhill since 2015, where he provides tax compliance and tax planning advisory services.