How to find an accountant

A small business guide on finding the right accountant for your company.

Published on

January 31, 2020

Accountant working to finalise the year-end accounts for a small company
Accountant working to finalise the year-end accounts for a small company

Introduction

If you have a company, or are starting one, then you will need an accountant. Though you could do all your accounts yourself, in practice few business owners have the time. 

An accountant also checks that you are doing everything correctly, and is a useful reference for both HMRC and financial institutions should you ever need to apply for a loan.

The trouble is that finding the accountant who is right for you is never easy. You do not want to pay more than you have to, but are low-cost, self-service, internet-based accountancy packages really the best fit for your business needs?

In this article we shall break down that option and its alternatives for you, as we answer the key questions that are occupying your mind right now:

  • Do I need an accountant?
  • What should I look for in an accountant?
  • How do I find the best accountant for me?

The purpose of this article is to give you the context and background you need to ask the right questions-especially when you may not yet know what those questions are. 

Do I need an accountant?

The simple answer is that there is no legal obligation to hire an accountant if you are a sole trader or a limited company.

However, when you combine the time you have available with your other responsibilities as a business owner, this question normally answers itself. 

Consider these questions for yourself:

  • Do you understand enough about tax regulations to pay the right amount of tax, balancing tax efficiency while avoiding (potentially costly) mistakes?
  • Is it a productive use of your time to create and submit your end of year returns, self-assessment tax returns, quarterly VAT returns, payroll, and more?

Yes, you probably do

For the vast majority of people it is probably a better use of your time to focus on growing your business, and not spend hours doing (and likely, second guessing) your accounting.

Accountants can bring two primary benefits

  1. They save you time. It will take a considerable amount of time to understand and complete your tax and filing obligations.
  2. They (almost always) save you money. Your accountant will ensure you avoid potentially costly mistakes all the while reducing your tax liability because they understand how to optimally structure your earnings (for example, what to pay yourself in a salary, dividends, what can be expensed etc.) 

In addition to the above, there are other benefits that might apply including: 

  • Peace of mind from knowing that a qualified professional is focusing on an area that may be entirely new to you, and directly impacts your take-home pay.
  • Accountants can act as an advisor when it comes to both financial and strategic issues. For example, my accountant helped me structure launching a start-up while doing contracting ‚Äì all of which was incredibly helpful.
  • They can help you set up your limited company.
  • They can provide support during an audit or through other tax issues.

But if you don't

Then you are yourself an accountant, or have a lot of experience.

With the quality of freelancer-focused accounting software (e.g. FreeAgent, Quickbooks, Pandle) it is certainly possible to go it on your own and get some help along the way. However, I would strongly recommend only doing this if you have an accounting background, or have many years under your belt running a limited company.

Small business owner writing an accountant checklist

What should I look for in an accountant?

There are a few different factors to look out for when choosing an accountant.

1. Service level offered

Broadly speaking there are three types of accounting firms:

A. Online self-service accounting firms

These firms generally use as much technology as possible to streamline the accounting process. 

You input your income and upload your expenses to their site, and their software does the rest. In theory at least. In practice many people experience difficulties, especially when it comes to more complicated operations like part payments when you need to do your bank reconciliation. 

These difficulties are often mainly due to underdeveloped or inelegant and obscure software and other glitches, rather than the inexperience of the individual using the service.

Whilst these services naturally tend to be lower cost, you do lose out on tailored advice. Also, you will normally have to solve every problem yourself, which often means reading your way through the relevant help articles.

B. Firms where you have a dedicated account manager 

A dedicated account manager is someone you can go to when you have questions about your accounts. However, he or she is likely handling communication with hundreds of accounts and has a team behind him/her doing the accounting, so there are some limitations. 

This is the service I initially signed up with. If you are just starting out but have some experience, this is probably a much better option for you than a full self-service package.

C. A dedicated named accountant 

Here you get a specific individual that knows your business inside and out and is someone that you build a relationship with over the course of months and years. While they will likely have a team behind them, they are much more involved in managing your accounts and can provide you with more in-depth and nuanced support and guidance. 

This level of service generally comes at a slight premium but provides a much richer experience. I opted for this service after my first accountant made a big tax blunder, and I have not looked back since.

2. Relevant experience, competence and qualifications

Experience

It goes without saying that an accountant with more experience will, other things being equal, be better than someone with less. 

Every accountant should be able to do the basics, complete monthly payroll, complete your tax filings etc. but someone with specific experience related to your business will understand your needs better. 

I'd recommend going with an accountant that specializes in limited companies if you have a limited company, whilst if you are a contractor choose one that specializes in contractors.

Competence

It's not easy to directly assess how competent a potential accountant is. I'd recommend assessing a few things:

  • Recommendations from friends (most important)
  • Online reviews
  • Create a list of important questions. Call a few different accountants and benchmark their answers against one another. We've provided a template for you below, under the section: 'How do I find the best accountant for me?'
  • Look at their professional qualifications 

Qualifications

To be considered a professionally qualified accountant in the UK, you need to have graduated from and be a member of one of the 5 professional bodies, namely:

Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)

Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland (ICAS)

Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI)

Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)

Association of International Accountants (AIA)

There are also some qualifications that are considered lower-tier, and members of such bodies, such as the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), are not considered professionally-qualified accountants.

3. Costs

Most companies will charge you a fixed monthly (or sometimes annual) fee. The fee will largely depend on what is included within your package, the reputation of the firm, the level of service and the effectiveness of its sales process.

Be sure to benchmark what is included in each package against each other. For example, some packages include an annual self-assessment, while others can charge anywhere from £95 to £300+ for a self-assessment depending on its complexity.

4. Communication

When doing your due diligence, look for signs of good communication, such as timely responses, clear and professional language and good rapport.

Good communication is critical to ensure things run smoothly and will give you peace of mind when questions and issues inevitably crop up.

Even if you are signing up to an online accounting service you can also assess the quality of communication by doing some tests. How long does it take to get a response to your emails? 

5. Trust

At the end of the day, you have to be able to trust your accountant, given that they'll be handling such a crucial and sensitive aspect of your business.

A good way to go about this is to get personal references where possible. Online reviews certainly help, but these days many are fake. Having said all of this, trust is a bit subjective, and you might need to go with your gut when trying to make a final decision.

Small business owner researching accountants on laptop

How do I find the best accountant for me?

While a good accountant is crucial for your business, the good news is that finding one can be simplified if you follow a structured process:

Step 1 Identify your needs. 

Step 2 Scan the market and grade some accountants against the needs you've identified. Make initial phone or email enquiries.

Step 3 Create a shortlist of three or four accountants and have detailed calls with them to fill in any gaps  in your understanding of the service they offer.

Step 4 Pick a firm that best suits your needs, and if possible negotiate to get the best value price.

Let's break that process down into greater detail for you:

Step 1: Understanding your needs

Making the right choice always depends on your own needs and priorities. 

The two most important factors to think about are what cost you are comfortable with and whether you are comfortable going with an online service or want the attention of a dedicated named accountant. 

If you are new to running a limited company, I'd recommend opting for a dedicated named accountant. You can always switch to a lower priced option once you become familiar with how everything works. 

Step 2: Scanning the market

Now that you have a cost level in mind and know what kind of service you are looking for, scan the market to find about seven to 10 accountants that fit these criteria. 

A few suggestions are:

  • Referrals: These are the absolute best way to find a good accountant. I found my new accountant through a referral, and now actively refer him to everyone I can.
  • Internet search: Check reviews on Google and other sources.
  • Face-to-face: If you want to meet your accountant in person, check your local directories.
  • Awards: Look out for any accounting awards.

Have a list of questions ready based on the priorities you set out before to make sure you're covering all the important points. 

You can even put the results into a spreadsheet to compare answers side-by-side if you want to be more methodical. Below are some suggested questions to get you started:

Costs

How much and how do they charge? What is included in the service and what is extra?

An hourly fee is more common amongst 'mom-and-pop' accounting businesses, and is also more likely to be offered by freelancers. 

Pretty much all other accountants charge a fixed monthly or annual fee with a defined list of services. If you decide to go for such a package make sure to drill down and cover all the terms.

A firm might market packages with low prices but charge hefty additional fees for essential components such as a self-assessment (which every limited company director needs). Make sure you clarify these points so you're comparing packages like for like.

Here are some questions which will help you to do this:

  • What exactly does your package include? 
  • Are there any hidden fees or extra charges for things such as self-assessments or VAT returns?
  • What is not included in your package that I might need?
  • What happens if I have a question or problem with the software?
  • Is there a minimum term or extra costs if I decide to leave your plan in the future?

The last factor is much more likely to happen if you're buying a fixed-fee package. Understand the costs that would be involved and try to negotiate them down or have them removed.

Availability of services

How big is the company and what are their response times like?

While you cannot expect a one-man accountant to always be available, you should still expect a reasonable response time from whoever you work with. 

Pretty much all accountants will tell you they will promptly respond, but the true test is the feeling you get from your various interactions with the accountant. How long does it take to get them on the phone, and how quickly do they respond to your emails?

If you have time-critical requirements, you should look for a firm with extended availability, which is generally one of the larger firms.

Do they offer any accounting tools and resources?

See if your accountant offers any tools or resources to help you, such as software to record transactions and issue invoices, spreadsheet and document templates or access to guides and knowledge databases. 

These are more likely to be offered by larger firms, especially online firms that depend on a lot of automation to offer affordable packages. 

The advantage of these tools is that they can reduce the amount of time you need to spend providing your accountant with what they need to carry out their service. Software can also give you a view of your earnings, payroll, and taxes in real-time, which is a nice bonus.

Who will you be dealing with?

When dealing with large firms, check if you will have a dedicated account manager, as it can be frustrating trying to deal with a different person every time you need some support. 

Ideally your dedicated point of contact will be your actual accountant as opposed to just a liaison, but this is generally only the case at smaller firms.

Can they also handle/help with your personal accounting?

There are big advantages to using your business accountant for your personal finances since they will have an accurate picture of your financial situation and can help you make the right choices to avoid paying unnecessary taxes. Also, you may save on costs by bundling services with one provider.

Do they offer any other related services that you may need?

If you also need some other services, such as company registration, a virtual office or receptionist services, it might make sense to get them from the same company, so that you're not managing multiple accounts. Make a note to see if these are available.

Competence

Do they have professional qualifications? It's difficult to judge a potential accountant's abilities yourself, which is why it's a good idea to look for professional qualifications.

Do they have experience relevant to your specific industry/circumstances?

Every accountant should be able to file tax returns, complete legal documents correctly and so on, but someone with relevant experience will understand your needs and the finer details of relevant laws and regulations. 

Definitely choose an accountant that specialises in limited companies, and assess if they have experience in your industry. The more help you want with tax planning, the more relevant this is, as accountants with specific experience will know the intricacies of what can and cannot be expensed in different industries.

Once you've gone through seven to 10 options, and collected most of the information you need, stop and take a breath! You will probably be ready for a long nap or a strong whiskey – whatever your guilty pleasure is! At this point you will be unlikely to find any offerings that are wildly different to what you have seen already, so now focus on making a selection.

Step 3: Shortlist and drill

Keeping in mind the priorities you set at the start, use the information you've collected to create a shortlist of three to four options. 

Now is  the time to pick up the phone to fill in or clarify any missing information and more generally, get a better feel for the person/company you will be working with. 

Do they seem excited to work with you? Are they responsive? Are they knowledgeable about your company, industry and specific situation?

At the very least, you should be able to get a better idea of the kind of responsiveness you can expect in the future. If something feels “off” at this stage, it's usually a good idea to trust your instincts and go with someone else.

Step 4: Hire an accountant

Congratulations, you've just done your due diligence to select a key partner for your journey running a limited company!

Once you have settled on someone, have a further conversation to decide on the specific arrangement/package. At this stage, it never hurts to try and negotiate for the best deal possible. 

Make sure you're both very clear on the terms and expectations from each other and seal the deal! And remember, you're not obliged to keep the same accountant forever—so if it's not working out down the line, you can simply switch to a better option.

Can we help?

At Forma we take the hassle out of running a business so you can focus on what matters. 

We offer a range of high-quality and affordable accounting packages with dedicated, qualified accountants who know your business inside and out. 

They aren't just your accountant-they are also an advisor, enabling you to run your business as efficiently as possible. And we use technology in the background to lower our costs, which enables us to provide a premium, personalised service at a competitive price.

Check out our packages if you'd like to know more.

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