The Questions You Need to Ask Your CPA
All accounting firms are not created equal. Having a CPA look over all your work is important, and a great benefit of hiring an accounting or tax and business firm. But every CPA is different, and it’s important to get information before you jump in. Some accountants will be more conservative, some will be more aggressive, and others are just completely focused on the task at hand. Here are important questions you need to ask your CPA.
Question #1: What services do you offer beyond the usual reporting and number-crunching?
A CPA needs to be more than a data entry clerk. It’s their duty as an advisor to make sure the information they receive makes sense. If it doesn’t, they should ask questions and seek clarity.
Question #2: How can the accountant help you make more money?
It sounds like a wise-guy question, but the answer will help you find out if candidates are interested in your business. Did they review the financial information you provided prior to the interview? Did they make sure you understood the accounting concepts, instead of tossing off a bunch of jargon?
A proficient CPA’s goal to save you more in taxes—it is in his best interest that you succeed.
Question #3: Am I paying the right amount of tax right now, or do you think I’m over- or under-paying?
You don’t need a CPA to just give you a speech to say “everything is great.” Your accountant ought to be a key part of your business planning all year long. Your tax strategy could start with a tax review at the beginning of the year.
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Question #4: How tech-savvy are you?
There are all kinds of powerful accounting tools available today thanks to various small business accounting packages (think QuickBooks). But they are only as useful as the person who sets up and uses the program. Look for a CPA who can help you install and set up your accounting software, while also requesting them for review. Someone who is unable to help with these technologies is a liability.
Question #5: Do you have any creative tax advice?
A proficient CPA does a lot more than just preparing tax forms; they should be able to give clients advice on business growth and goals, and the potential obstacles and issues you might face. A CPA also ought to be able to talk about alternative tax strategies, including tax credits, shelters, deferrals, and pre-tax strategies.
Question #6: What’s your approach to professional education?
The tax code (and its interpretations) change every year. A CPA can’t just pass the test and settle in for a career; they need to pay attention to continuing their education every year. Each state has its own requirements for CPA continuing education, usually a certain number hours within a two or three year period. There are no guarantees, but a tax professional who goes above and beyond the minimum requirements for continuing education is a better bet. One way you can test this is to ask about new strategies and approaches they’ve learned this year.
Question #7: Can I work with you outside of tax season?
Your business likely needs access to tax professional at various points all through the year, not just at tax season. But many tax preparers are seasonal, popping up for the first few months of the year, and then disappearing into other jobs after that. Find a CPA who is available all year long, to help with critical business strategies and things like year-end tax credits.
Question #8: How do you calculate your fees?
It might be uncomfortable initially, but you need to discuss the CPA’s fee structure. It will save you a lot of friction and frustration later on. Some tax professionals charge hourly rates, others by how many (and what) forms they work on, overall returns, or various combinations of those things. I recommend getting an engagement letter and some flat fee, to avoid any possible conflict between billable hours versus the needs of your business. A CPA ought to be able to give you a good-faith estimate of their costs by reviewing some of your previous financial information and interviewing you. If you do hire a CPA who calculates billable time, get clear information beforehand about the hourly rates, overhead expenses, and what counts as billable time. If a 2-minute phone call is an hour of billable time, run!
Question #9: Are there any potential conflicts of interest?
This question is important for business owners. A CPA will work for a large number of businesses (and even more individuals). Find out whether the firm represents any of your direct competitors, and find out how they will handle that conflict.
Question #10: How long have you been a CPA, and do you hold any other licenses?
Find out whether the CPA will simply be a form preparer, or if they can also take on other business needs like bookkeeping, due diligence, transaction work, business valuations, and part-time CFO services.
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