Choosing an accountant

how-to-choose-an-accountant

What to look for in an accountant

The right accountant can get you out of a mess, keep you out of trouble, simplify your life, and keep you on track toward achieving your financial goals.  Whether you just need help once a year with income tax preparation or are looking for a trusted advisor to help you with complex financial decisions. you should choose your accountant with the same care you would give to choosing a business partner.  Here are some qualities to look for:

Communication skill

Communication is the most essential quality of a good accountant-client relationship. If an accountant and client can't communicate, the accountant can't do his/her job, no matter how impressive his/her credentials are. If you cannot communicate with your accountant, you shouldn't be doing business with that accountant.

When you are interviewing prospective accountants, make sure that you ask about their communication preferences.  Will they want to meet you face-to-face?  Do they prefer phone conversations or email?  If you prefer a particular approach, are they interested in accommodating you?  Do they make an effort to work with your schedule?

Pay attention to how they listen.  Do they ask good questions?  If an accountant doesn't listen to you, understand you, or take your concerns seriously, find one who does. 

Pay attention to how they talk.  Do they answer your questions?  If an accountant cannot speak to you respectfully in language you understand, find an accountant who can. 

About our staff

Education & credentials

If you want to work with an accountant who is serious about doing high quality work for you, begin with someone who has made a serious commitment to his/her education.  Whether you select a single accountant or an accounting firm, be certain that there is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA) at the helm. 

Yes, we at McGee CPAs are biased, but our bias was formed by our principles and our years of experience.  There are good accountants who are not CPAs, and there are CPAs who are not good accountants.  Your chances of finding an accountant educated to handle your accounting needs and committed to professional excellence greatly improve if you select a firm headed by a CPA.

An accountant with a CPA license is one who holds him/herself to high enough professional standards to have:

  • Completed an extensive, 150 hour, education program in accounting from an accredited college or university
  • Obtained professional experience by interning at least one year with a senior CPA
  • Studied for and passed the AICA's comprehensive Uniform CPA Examination, which tests knowledge in the accounting process, reporting, ethics, and taxation
  • Committed him/herself to 120 hours of continuing education every three years

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an individual who has made a serious commitment to his/her education. The credentials earned by a CPA authorize him/her to provide high-level auditing, tax, and financial services for their clients, from analyzing financial records to recommending tax strategies to guiding a company's financial decisions.  A CPA license authorizes an accountant to issue an opinion on bookkeeping reports and represent his/her client before the IRS.

Ask every accountant you interview whether s/he holds a current CPA license.  If s/he doesn't, make sure the individual has a college degree in accounting, works under the supervision of an experienced CPA, and is on track toward earning his/her CPA credentials. 

Knowledge & experience

Look for a CPA whose accounting background has both depth and breadth.

Depth

Make sure that the accountant you select has expertise in the right areas. 

  • How well does s/he understand state and federal tax codes? 
  • What does s/he do to keep up on changes in state and federal tax codes?
  • How much experience does s/he have with clients like you?
  • What experience does s/he have with situations like yours?
  • What is his/her experience with businesses in your industry? 
  • What is his/her experience with organizations the size of yours?
  • What is his/her understanding about the unique problems a business like yours faces?

Breadth

If you want a CPA who can offer a variety of perspectives that lead to better decision-making, look for a good generalist, one with a network who doesn't work in a vacuum. A CPA with broad experience is one who can see beyond the task at hand to the big picture. 

Ask the accountants you interview about the different types of clients they have worked with.  Ask how they might approach a particular situation, and listen to whether their answers indicate that they are good strategic thinkers. 

Trustworthiness & reputation

Your accountant's job is to look out for you and guide you to good decisions -- decisions that help you achieve your financial goals and decisions that keep you out of trouble.  So, the accountant you choose should hold him/herself to a high standard of integrity -- and hold you to a similarly high standard.

Does the accountant you're interviewing have any conflicts of interest?  Is s/he licensed to sell financial products, which might influence the kind of advice s/he offers you? 

Is s/he in good standing with the professional organizations s/he belongs to?

Has s/he had any complaints filed against him/her, or are she under investigation?  You can find out by checking with the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services.

Ask the accountants you interview to connect you with some references you can contact.  Ask those references if this accountant...

  • Keeps promises
  • Is open and honest
  • Charges fairly
  • Admits mistakes

Nobody is perfect.  Just make sure that the CPA on your team one who is committed to your financial health and who puts head and heart into providing you with ethical, high quality service.  

Accountant versus CPA

About accountants

Anyone can call him/herself an "accountant." An "accountant" with no college degree and no CPA license is permitted by law only to do the same work that a bookkeeper does. Accountants who pass the IRS's tax preparation exam can call themselves "tax advisers" and may prepare tax returns and represent clients before the IRS and other taxing authorities, but they cannot give their clients advice about tax strategies.

About CPAs

A Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is an accountant who has made a serious commitment to his/her education. The credentials earned by a CPA authorize authorize him/her to provide high-level auditing, tax, and financial services for their clients, from analyzing financial records to recommending tax strategies to guiding a company's financial decisions.

To become a licensed CPA in Wisconsin, an individual must:

  • Earn a college degree in accounting
  • Work at least one year under the supervision of a licensed CPA
  • Pass all four parts of the Uniform CPA Examination
  • Complete the Ethics Examination of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants
  • Commit him/herself to 90 hours of continuing education every three years

About the CPA exam

In order to earn a CPA license, an accountant must pass all four parts of the Uniform CPA Examination administered by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants. The exam covers:

  • Auditing and attestation
  • Financial accounting and reporting
  • Regulation
  • Business environment and concepts

Read about the difference between accountants and bookkeepers.