Tax time is right around the corner and with the March 15 and April 15 deadlines on the horizon, this is often a time when many small business owners are doing one of two things:
- Scrambling to find a good CPA to prepare their taxes; or
- Reconsidering their current CPA.
If you find yourself in either one of these categories, here are a few key points to consider when searching for your next tax professional.
A licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) is generally considered the highest qualified professional to help business owners with their tax planning and compliance needs. They can project future tax liabilities, update you on changes in the tax code, and protect you from making costly errors in strategic decision making. However, there are a spectrum of tax preparation solutions to choose from and not all CPAs are well-matched to work with a small, growing business.
Vet Your Referrals
The first place many people start is a referral from a colleague or friend. A person’s willingness to help should always be appreciated, but never hesitate to dig a little deeper after you receive a referral. Consider asking the following questions:
- Does the referral source have a strong familiarity with your business and industry?
- Do they have first-hand knowledge of the client experience you should expect?
Asking these and other questions will save you valuable time and energy during your search.
Consider the Complexity of Your Tax Situation
Start-up firms with little financial data from the previous year may be better suited for a more automated service (think H&R Block) to handle a simple business tax return. Other fledgling business owners may prefer to work with a professional who is willing to provide a baseline education in tax regulations. As a firm grows and accumulates revenue, owners will greatly benefit from expanding their budget and finding a qualified CPA to serve in an advisory role, providing year-round tax planning and preparation services. In these situations, it is best to work with a professional dedicated solely to tax planning and compliance. Some smaller CPAs may offer task-based services such as bookkeeping and payroll, but their capacity will be limited and communication can break down when they become swamped with administrative work.
Set Expectations for Consistent Communication
One of the biggest complaints clients have about CPAs is their lack of communication. This is in part due to the highly cyclical nature of tax preparation work. Long hours of client activity, meetings, and phone calls tend to cluster around tax deadlines such as April 15, making it difficult to respond to every phone call and email at certain times of the year. These logjams can be unavoidable, but a good CPA should have a track record of consistent communication and plan accordingly to timely respond to client questions. Set expectations from the beginning, asking your prospective CPA how often you can expect to hear from them and their preferred method of communication. Consider any adjustments that need to be made to account for especially busy times as it applies to your business and theirs. Your relationship with your CPA will evolve over time but setting expectations early will allow you to hold one another accountable to your goals.
Get Your Books in Order
One of the biggest and most costly mistakes small business owners make is confusing their tax preparer with a bookkeeper. Consider the following scenario: A brilliant attorney has a passion for law and starts his own firm. He brings a portfolio of clients with him and has plenty of work, but HATES keeping track of finances. He feels assured he is making enough money and for that reason, simply hands off his bank statements and a shoebox of receipts to a CPA to prepare his tax return. If you don’t do any bookkeeping ahead of time to properly organize your revenue and expenses, your CPA must do it for you to prepare your tax return. The same holds true for a firm who has some bookkeeping but missed a few months out of the year when things got especially busy. Why is this such a problem? The average CPA charges between $200 and $400 an hour for their services. A low-level member of his or her staff charges around $100 an hour. The average bookkeeper charges less, regardless of the level of experience, and can get your information organized at a much lower cost. Additionally, an independent bookkeeper can provide faster, more consistent service since their work does not concentrate around tax deadlines. No offense to those who still stockpile receipts in a shoebox, but your CPA is not the person to hand it off to.
Consider Their Fit with Your Advisory Team
Many small and growing businesses fail to utilize their “external board of advisors”, generally comprised of their CPA, bookkeeper, banker, attorneys, etc.. Your CPA should recognize their integral role on this team and be willing to collaborate with other service providers. None of these individuals will maximize your bottom line individually, but they can optimize results by coordinating tax planning and preparation with proper record keeping, cash flow management, capital investment, human resource needs, and other strategic business decisions. Your external advisors are also great sources for referrals, since they are more likely to know tax preparers they work well with.
Tax season may be here in full force, but there’s no time like the present to make a change for the better. Consider these strategies and take advantage of the late spring and summer when CPAs have more time to consult with new and existing clients. Remember a good CPA can help you save money on taxes, but they will not have all the answers to your financial challenges. Be ready to engage in an ongoing dialogue and collaborate with your entire team to achieve your personal and professional goals.
ABOUT FIRM NUMBERS
Firm Numbers provides small business owners bookkeeping and financial reporting designed to help you make better management decisions. Firm Numbers offers flat-fee monthly service packages to address the pain points of law firms and professional service providers nationwide.
- Weekly bookkeeping to ensure timely delivery of your numbers
- Enhanced reporting to provide additional management insight
- Service teams lead by former law firm CFOs and Business Advisors
Our goal is to help you be the boss, not the bookkeeper. We pull you out of reactive decision-making based on emotion and provide the necessary tools to objectively run your business.