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How to Choose an Accounting Firm

Now more than ever, an accountant is indispensable to the success of every business. But there's a daunting array of accountants and firms to choose from — from sole practitioners to huge national firms, from generalists to highly specialized CPAs.

The Industry itself is changing rapidly. Tax returns, financial statements, and other compliance items have become mature services — they have become commodities. Quality, timeliness and the physical end product are given.

So how do you choose the right accountant? Start by considering your needs and preferences:

Size: Is the one-on-one contact typical of a smaller firm important to you? Or will you feel more comfortable dealing with a team dedicated to your account, which is more common at mid- to large-size firms? Larger firms may subcontract out your work or assign it to junior staff. You may not be getting what — and who — you think you're paying for.

Specialization: Small firms may not have access to the expertise you need. Accounting is a wide profession, so most accountants narrow their range of specialty. It is nearly impossible to handle all areas well. Find out which areas a firm concentrates in or has access to. Some firms belong to nationwide networks of similar firms, to whom they can turn for help on specialized issues.

Complexity: Do you need a firm just to prepare a tax return and year-end financial statements? Perhaps you also need tax and financial planning advice, help with your business plan, or retirement planning. Do you need employee benefit plan design, computer system installation and support, advice on re-engineering your operations for maximum efficiency and tax advantage?

The big picture: Develop a picture of your needs to ensure that your accountant cannot only meet those needs but also expected — and unforeseen — future needs. Accountants able to deal with only one piece of your financial picture may fail to see the forest for the trees.

Reputation: Talk to your friends and business associates. Does their accountant contact them throughout the year, not just at tax time, with proactive advice and recommendations? Real value from an accounting firm means superior service, a forward-thinking attitude and a relationship you can rely on.

If your friends and business associates had to choose another accountant, whom would they choose? A firm's reputation among non-clients is almost as important as its track record with existing clients. Finally, consider the "relationship fit" — do you get along with the individual? Do you share a similar outlook and philosophy? Does he or she show a real interest in your business?

Qualifications: It's uncommon, but some people who offer "accounting services" are unqualified. They are unlikely to carry any liability insurance, nor is there any supervisory body you can complain to if things go wrong. The apparent savings in fees, if any, could prove costly. Accountants who have the certified public accountant (CPA) designation must adhere to certain accounting standards. Check also for appropriate educational background and membership in the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) and the Pennsylvania State Society of CPA's. These organizations require continuing professional education of members throughout their careers — approved courses to stay current with the latest accounting and tax changes. Certain industries also require compliance with further accounting standards and additional industry specific CPE.

Firms belonging to key practice sections of the AICPA also go through peer review to maintain membership in those sections. Peer review requires a firm to submit to an inspection periodically, where other firms check their work and verify adherence to standards. Look for a firm with a history of "unqualified" peer reviews, indicating full compliance with quality standards and practices.

Final thoughts: Above all, your primary factor in choosing an accountant should be the value he or she can bring to the relationship. Why would clients underestimate their CPA's value, unless they can't identify the value a CPA brings to a relationship? Evaluating such elements as a proactive approach to your total financial picture, the ability to bring specialized expertise to your situation, and superior professional credentials will help you make an informed decision on the CPA's skills and ability to address your unique needs.

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