23 Critical Questions to Ask When Hiring a CPA

Question #1: Is timely service delivered?

Accounting information can get out of date quickly. Except for annual information, most accounting information should be no more than 10-30 days old. You should be able to access your up-to-date information and your CPA quickly and easily.

A proficient CPA makes it a habit to get back to clients as quickly as possible. Phone messages should be replied to the day they are left - or no later than the following day.

Question #2: Do the same people always service your account?

Ideally the same person should work with you -- not whoever is available at the time. That way a relationship can be built where the accountant and you are comfortable with each other.

Question #3: What services beyond the usual reporting and number-crunching are offered?

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 #4: 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 also in his best interest that you succeed.

Question #5: Do you believe I'm paying too much, too little, or just the right amount of tax?

Beyond simply preparing tax forms, an accountant should be involved in business planning throughout the year. Typically, a quarterly review should be scheduled to ensure books and records are in order. This also allows the CPA time to advise clients about their businesses so they function with peak tax efficiency.

Because most business owners pay too much in taxes, a proficient CPA will analyze the tax situation from the form of entity to all legal means to plan and minimize all taxes paid.

Question #6: Do you consider yourself tech-savvy?

Small business accounting software has made powerful accounting tools available to everyone. But these accounting packages (most notably QuickBooks) are only as useful as the person who installs and runs the application. For this reason, a proficient CPA will help you install and set up a set of books, while also requesting them for review.

Question #7: Who are your other clients?

Imagine this scenario: You hire an accountant based on the assumption he understands the basics of your business. Then, you find out he's never had a client like you before. Instead, he's only prepared tax forms for wealthy individuals who don't own businesses.

Avoid this disaster by asking about the accountant's clients. If they are businesses similar to yours, that's a good sign. In asking about clients, you will also want to understand the CPA's work schedule and whether he has the time and resources to support you adequately.

Question #8: What kind of creative business advice will you offer me?

Advising clients on what they can do to grow and set goals, as well as discussing issues, are all part of a proficient CPA's services. Together, this allows you to discover what works for your business so funds are used wisely.

Question #9: Why should I use you?

Ask the question and just listen for the answer. You should feel like the CPA really cares about your success.

Question #10: What kind of credentials do you have?

Tax professionals are usually certified public accountants (CPAs), enrolled agents (EAs) or unenrolled preparers.

Question #11: How much professional education do you get annually?

Just passing the test to be a CPA or an EA isn't enough. With the tax code and interpretations of the code changing every year, continuing education is really essential. EAs are required to have 72 hours of continuing education in a three-year period; each state sets its own requirements for CPAs. In Oregon, for example, CPAs must take 80 hours of continuing education within a two-year period.

Many tax professionals take more than the minimum requirement for continuing education. Although more training doesn't necessarily mean the tax pro will be superior, it's certainly not a bad sign.

Question #12: Who will I be interacting with?

Many tax firms assign more than one person to a client's return. You probably don't need to know how the "back room" operates, but you want to know if the person you're interviewing is the one who will be able to answer your questions about your return.

Question #13: What's your policy on returning phone calls?

A common complaint often heard from consumers about their CPAs is about long wait for returned phone calls. CPAs aren't famous for their communication skills. It's not unreasonable to ask how long you should expect to wait to have a call returned. Asking also lets your CPA know you do want your calls returned promptly.

Question #14: Are you available outside of the tax season?

Some tax preparers are seasonal. They are available only the first four months of the year, or their offices are close for a few months each year. If you expect year-round access, you need to make sure the tax professional is available.

Question #15: Are you a corporation of CPAs or an individual CPA that has their own business?

If you opt for the corporation, find out if you'll be dealing with one particular person, or will it be whoever answers the phone when you call. It's best to have one person to build a relationship with.

Question #16: When do you work?

What are the CPA's hours of operation? Make sure that you can call him at hours that are convenient for you.

Question #17: Do you conduct your own business and personal affairs in a reasonably efficient and sensible way?

Ask questions about the CPA's approach to getting and serving clients, the role of staff, the use of technology - including computers, communications equipment and the Internet -- as well as ways of keeping current, research methods, management of files and records, etc.

Question #18: Will my computer and/or I be serviced by you, a partner or junior accountants?

Many CPA firms train new associates at the client's expense. Be sure you get what you pay for.

Question #19: How are your fees calculated? Will you be charging me for every phone discussion?

To avoid friction later, it is essential to discuss the CPA's fee structure. Tax professionals may bill by the hour, form, overall return or some combination. After reviewing your previous returns and interviewing you, a tax professional should be able to give you a good-faith estimate of costs. If the CPA uses a time-based system, discuss the hourly rate of the accountant and staff, overhead expense reimbursement (what is the cost of a fax?) and whether certain time is not billed.

Find out now whether a simple two-minute phone call or a one-page fax means an hour of billable time. If that's the case, run for the door.

Question #20: What can I do to help you with your work and keep your fees to a minimum?

A great deal of your accountant's time can be saved by preparing information beforehand. Find out if your CPA is willing to work with you to offload this work to your firm.

Question #21: Do you perceive any conflicts of interest?

CPAs work for dozens of firms and scores and sometimes hundreds of individuals. You should inquire if any of your direct competition is represented by the firm. If so, inquire as to how this conflict is handled.

Question #22: How long have you been a Certified Public Accountant, and what other licenses do you hold?

You should inquire with the state CPA organization to discover if there have been any disciplinary actions entered. Some accountants also have credentials as financial planners (PFS), securities representatives, business valuation experts, even lawyers. Check web directories and websites (e.g., http://www.CPAdirectory.com)

Question #23: How well have you integrated computers and the Internet into your practice, and has it enabled you to do more for the clients at less cost?

Integrating your computer files with your CPA's files can save time and money -- and increase accuracy. Doing so over the Internet makes it even simpler. Find out how your CPA uses the Internet. Does he have his own website? If so, check it out and ask questions about the resources available on it. Find out how you can interact with him and his computer systems to make work flow more efficient, while enabling both of you to stay in touch.

Contact us today for your free, no-obligation consultation. Any information discussed will always remain confidential.