Business expert Adam Bernstein discusses how to select the right professional to look after your books
Every business needs to be careful over how it conducts itself, accounts for proﬁts and keeps tabs on how well it’s doing. While it’s perfectly acceptable for a business owner to undertake these tasks themselves, the harsh reality of what follows from a very complex tax system is that an accountant is an absolute must.
From dealing with PAYE and VAT, through to preparing accounts and statutory returns, a good accountant will help keep the taxman at bay. Choose poorly, and your business will suﬀer – you’ll either pay over the odds with your tax or you could miss deadlines and incur automatic penalties from HMRC.
So how do you choose?
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As with any business, the best advert that an accountant will ever have is the one that its customers pass on through word of mouth. So, ask friends and colleagues, and even competitors, for the name of their accountant and quiz them for their views on the service they receive.
If no one can recommend an accountant, or the names that you are given prove to be unsuitable, you could turn to the several organisations that exist to help and protect the public, as well as regulate the accountancy profession.
The main two are the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW), and the Association of Chartered Certiﬁed Accountants (ACCA). For Scotland and Ireland, there are two separate but associated bodies to the ICAEW – the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS), and the Chartered Accountants of Ireland (CAI).
It will surprise you that to practice as a doctor, lawyer or a pharmacist it is necessary to study for professional qualiﬁcations, but to be an accountant, you need only set up in business and call yourself an accountant.
So, make sure that the person you go to is professionally qualiﬁed – check they are on the oﬃcial register of the body they claim to be a member of as this will oﬀer some protection and comfort knowing they have reached deﬁned standards.
In narrowing down your choice, prepare a shortlist with a minimum of two, and a maximum of six accountants that you want to call – contacting too many will only serve to confuse your decision. At the same time as drawing up your shortlist, make a note of those things you want an accountant for.
Do you want a practice that is large or small? Generally, the larger the accountancy practice, the greater the range of services. On the other hand, the smaller the practice, the more personal will be the service.
Do you want them to help with PAYE and VAT or more strategic planning? The next step is to meet the accountant to see if they specialise suﬃciently for you to be happy. But before you go for a ﬁrst meeting, check to see if there are any charges for this.
Also, ask if the person you are seeing will actually be your accountant. Gauge how much interest the accountant shows in you.
How many questions do they ask of you? Test to see if they understand your business. If they do not, how can they help? Does the accountant seem to agree with everything you say, or are they willing to point out when you are wrong? This is important – `yesmen’ will not help in the long run.
A good accountant will be able to help you manage and control your business’s ﬁnances. However, you should guard against giving any one person, whether an accountant or an individual within your business, sole control over the company cheque book or online banking details.
Before committing yourself, you should check on the billing arrangements. Some ﬁrms will want you to pay a regular amount on a monthly basis, others may only bill you when your accounts are produced. While you are at it, check to see how the bill is worked out – ask for the ﬁrm’s hourly rate and an itemised bill.
You might ﬁnd it useful to ask a set of questions at each meeting so that you can compare the results. For example, what is their minimum charge for audits? And will they give you help on how to keep the bill down?
If you should have any issues, it is always worth telephoning the body that your accountant belongs to ﬁrst before formalising a complaint. The procedures vary from organisation to organisation, so you ought to ring for help in determining your next step.
Choosing an accountant is like choosing anything else your business needs – it is just another commodity or service that you are buying. Only in this case if you are not careful, a poor choice might be ﬁnancially catastrophic.
Remember – you are responsible in law for your tax aﬀairs so choose your accountant carefully!
For anyone about to set up in business, the ﬁrst port of call must be an accountant. Tax law and accountancy matters are a total mineﬁeld. A good accountant will be able to advise on what type of entity – sole trader, partnership, limited liability partnership, limited company or plc – you should trade under.
They will also be able to help with the process. Accountants will be able to help with funding, too, whether for new or existing businesses. They will not only have experience of the various funding methods, they may well have links with those that can supply the ﬁnance required. At the minimum, they should be able to help with a business plan and costings.
Legal compliance and form ﬁlling, although technically your responsibility, can be devolved to an accountant. Whether it is guidance on how to set up or maintain your business records, completing and returning VAT, PAYE and other tax forms, an accountant will be able to relieve you of the burden.
Further, some businesses are required to have an annual audit. For this you will need an accountant. Accountants have the experience to help with future planning – the ratios of business, budgeting, cashﬂow analysis as well as ﬁnancial targets.
When acquiring assets for the business, accountants can help you work out the best method of funding and acquisition considering your circumstances and the tax consequences.
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When it comes to buying another business or selling yours, an accountant can help with the sale or acquisition process. It could be help with ﬁnding potential purchasers, working out valuations of the business in question, or looking at the tax implications of which ever method is chosen.
Finally, your accountant can deal and negotiate with the HMRC for you. A trusting relationship between you, an accountant and HMRC is worth a fortune.
If you found this helpful why not read our piece on making funding simpler