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HOW TO FIND A GOOD ACCOUNTANT

Finding an accountant

So you need an accountant for your SME in South Africa? Let’s look at the various ways that you might find one:

Appoint a friend who is an accountant

If you are lucky enough to have a practising small-business accountant in your circle of friends, that might be a good place to start. For one thing, you will have more intimate knowledge of their history and character compared with another accountant. You could also assume that your friend would always look after your best interests.

However, you need to be aware that there are also disadvantages to consider. For one thing, the friend, although they may be an excellent accountant, might still not be the perfect fit for your exact business requirements. You need to also be prepared to consider how you are going to handle disagreements and errors (because over the long-term these are likely to crop up from time to time). How do you “reprimand” your friend without derailing the friendship? There is good reason for the adage “Don’t mix business and friends”.

Finally, your business finances (which in an SME are invariably tied up with your personal finances), are not always something you want your circle of friends to know every detail about. An independent accountant would offer a more private accounting service.

 

PROS

CONS

  • Full knowledge of their background

  • Trust already established

  • May not be the perfect fit for your unique business needs

  • Awkward problem situations

  • No privacy of your financial affairs

 

Word of Mouth

The advantages and disadvantages of appointing an accountant based on a recommendation from somebody you know has similarities to appointing a friend  (see above). There are certainly more reasons for trust if somebody you know has used the accountant before (although not the same degree of trust as if the accountant were a personal friend). Bear in mind, however, that you would still know very little about the accountant, other than that a friend said they were good. You may know nothing about their experience or what kind of accounting they focus on.

On the positive side, the business relationship would be more of an “arm’s length” relationship, and it would be easier to be authoritative and firm than you would be able to be with a close friend.

The big disadvantage remains though - the accountant may not be a good fit for your business. Your friend that used the accountant previously might have used them for an entirely different purpose. Maybe they did your friend’s personal tax returns, whereas you are needing an expert in cost accounting for a small manufacturing enterprise.

 

PROS

CONS

  • More reasons for trust than if you have no connection at all with the accountant

  • May not be the perfect fit for your unique business needs

  • Limited info on the accountant

 

 

Paper-based directories and local hard copy publications

Thirty years ago this was the default method for finding the right professional for your needs. It is easy to forget how far we have come. Here are some of the drawbacks of paper-based publications:

They are often out of date, as directories that are published annually still include accountants that have moved location, changed contact details, and some that are no longer looking for clients.

Even when the details are current - what do you get? An email and a phone number. Usually (but not always) the advert might list a website address, in which case there is a fair chance you would head over to their website to find out more about the accounting firm. Which means that you might as well have started on the internet in the first place (this is exactly why so many paper-based directories are now extinct).  

To be fair, there are some people who find having a phone number in print in front of them, and picking up a phone and to speak to someone at the accounting firm is a much quicker, easier process (not that you are always guaranteed of getting past the receptionist…) Obviously, if you are in a situation where you do not have access to the internet, this option would make sense.

 

PROS

CONS

  • Phoning could be quicker than getting onto the web

  • Best if no internet connection

  • Very little info

  • Info often out of date

 

 

Facebook

“Anybody know a good accountant/ dentist/ painter?” is not an uncommon post to find in your Facebook feed.  

Facebook, in many ways, is the digital version of word-of-mouth. However because of the platform’s structure, Facebook has a far more self-promotional nature when compared  to a conversation that you might have with friends at a braai. Because everybody’s relationships on Facebook are lumped together - friends, family, business colleagues - recommendations have all sorts of underlying motivations. Invisible rules abound like: “my friend promoted me, so I must promote them.”

When you do find an accountant on Facebook, invariably the first thing you do is go to their Business Page, where you may look at comments in their feed and the number of followers and likes they have garnered. Choosing an accountant based on this info is never foolproof. Once again, the “I will like your page if you like my page” culture pervades.

We won’t even go into the fact that there is a thriving industry in the buying and selling of Facebook and Twitter followers and likes.

Linkedin may prove a better online network to find professionals, but it seems more geared to corporate professionals and job hunting than finding a local accountant for your small business needs. Unfortunately, even Linkedin is not immune to the aforementioned “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” undercurrents. The Old Boy’s club lives on in the digital world.

 

PROS

CONS

  • More reasons for trust than if you have no connection at all with the accountant

  • May not be the perfect fit for your unique business needs

  • Endorsements may not be genuine.

 

 

Google

Okay, now you are heading in the right direction and taking a proactive approach to finding the accountant you need. But the search engine experience is not always optimal either. You get presented with a page of blue links - some to accounting jobs pages, some to accounting institutions and some to actual accounting firms. And when you actually get to an accounting firm, how do you compare one firm to another? 

People rarely go past page one of the search results, so the selection you get invariably depends on which accountant’s website did the best SEO (Search Engine Optimisation) or which accountant is prepared to bid the highest on Adwords for your particular search keyword.

Locating each accountant’s contact details can also be tiresome, invariably involving a hunt for their “contact page”.

However, if you are prepared to put in the time and effort (which in many cases means going past page one of the search results), you stand a better chance of finding the right accountant for your unique needs than leaving your fate in the hands of your friend’s recommendations.

(Obviously, all of the above applies equally to Bing and other search engines).

 

PROS

CONS

  • You are looking for an accountant based on your own pre-determined needs

.

  • You may have to wade through many non-relevant search results to find exactly what you need

  • Not always easy to compare accountants

 

 

General online business directory

There is no shortage of business directories on the net (indeed you might have come across some in the aforementioned Google accountant searches). The advantage here is that you have all the accountants in one place which makes it easier to draw comparisons. All of the pertinent contact information is readily available too (no click, click, click to get to the contact page).

The drawback of using general business directories is that they are built with a one-size-fits-all mindset. Accountants, florists and motor mechanics all get jammed into the same standard listing format. The information that is key to choosing an accountant (for example what qualifications they have, or what software they support) cannot be catered for in a directory that lumps all business services together.

Another pitfall to watch out for is that many online directories start out by offering free listings. Many businesses take up the freebie, and, because they are not paying for the service, they don’t bother updating their records. Spend any time actually trying to contact listed businesses on free business directories and you will see what we mean.   


PROS

CONS

  • All accountants listed in one place

  • Contact info easy to get at

.

  • One-size-fits-all business listings - you may not get info specific to the accounting industry

  • Free listings often out of date

 

Specialist online accountant directory

One of the best places to find an accountant is on a specialist accountant directory. Specialist industry directories are built from the ground-up and designed to showcase the type of information you need to be looking at in choosing somebody in that particular industry. Invariably they are operated by (or have considerable input from) an industry insider. In order to find the perfect accountant for your business it would be extremely useful to know upfront what area of accounting the accountant focuses on. Industry-specific experience is also key. For example, if you are a property developer, an accountant with experience in property development accounting can surely give you expert advice.

However, specialist directories often require more of a time investment.Because there is more comprehensive information listed, you will need to put in extra time and effort into your research and selection process. In a society where effortless convenience seems to trump all other considerations, putting in a little extra time and effort can seem appear to be a hurdle. The payoff is that you are making meaningful comparisons between accountants and therefore much more likely to appoint the right accountant.

When you make a rushed decision with insufficient information, the chance of hiring the wrong accountant increases and this is definitely somewhere you don’t want to go. Getting a new accountant in to mop up the shoddy work of the prior accountant is an all too common phenomenon. It is costly, you then need to go through the entire “search for an accountant” process again, and the time and effort expended is ultimately way more than if you had made the right decision in the first place.


PROS

CONS

  • All the right information you need in choosing an accountant

  • Easy and meaningful comparisons between accountants

  • Comprehensive information

  • You will need to put a little more effort into your research, as there is more info to consider