How to Select a Business Accountant, Attorney, or Consultant
The selection of a business adviser, whether accountant, attorney, or business consultant, who can be a long-term asset to your and your company can be an over-whelming task. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 104 thousand self-employed CPAs and a million+ licensed attorneys in the country. There seems to be a business consultant on every corner. With so many candidates from which to choose, how can be improve the odds that you will make the right choice?
One benefit of this plethora of choice often overlooked is that you don’t have to work with jerks, blowhards, snobs or other distasteful personalities. You can and should find a candidate who you like and respect that has all of the qualifications you might seek from a person in that position. The best relationships – the ones that bring real benefits to the table – are built upon trust. It’s very hard to create and nurture a personal connection with someone you dislike.
I’m presuming, of course, that you’re neither a jerk, over-bearing, or constant complainer. If you fit one of these categories, a personal relationship with an adviser may not be important. You’re probably searching for a person who is capable of performing a specific task and the only thing that matters is the his competence and billing rate. Your association with him – the accountant, attorney or consultant – will be short-term, limited to the time taken to complete the specific task for which he or she was hired. Keep in mind, however, that professional fees usually include a “jerk” factor when the adviser feels the client will be or is hard to satisfy. As a practical matter, you might want to restrain your anti-social tendencies until after fees have been negotiated and agreed upon.
A more probable situation is that you share a personality similar to the rest of us – you want to be liked if possible and you want to succeed with a minimum of hassles. Your tendency to accept people at face value, a trait that is usually a real asset in personal relations, unfortunately can lead to the wrong choice in an adviser. In order to avoid a mistake, I recommend that you ask the following questions of any candidate before you settle on a choice:
What are your credentials?
Advisers are fond of acronyms, specializations, licenses, and other accoutrements intended to make them “unique” and different from the average practitioner. In most cases, their credentials are perfectly valid and identify a real benefit for their clients. However, some initials after a person’s name mean nothing or have been issued by a “bogus” organization for the payment of a fee.
Be sure you understand what any credentials mean and if they are relevant to the tasks you anticipate the adviser will be implementing for your company. It is likely that an adviser with a recognized specialization will charge higher fees; be sure that the specialization is necessary for your work.
What is your experience?
Have you been there and done that? A great many business advisers have never owned a business or worked as a manager with profit and loss responsibilities. Accountants tend to specialize in specific industries and may not understand the nuances of your industry and company. Attorneys also specialize in particular areas of the law – personal injury, litigation, corporate finance – which may not fit your needs.
Imagine the likely results of a retail service company whose advisers consist of an accountant with oil and gas experience, a lawyer who specializes in divorce, and a business adviser who graduated from college two years previously. I would imagine that you would get some thinking “outside the box”, but I wonder how relevant their advice would be to that business.
Working with someone who has previously encountered and dealt with the problems you are likely to face can be a source of valuable information. By understanding where specific past decisions and actions are likely to lead and the impact they might have, you can avoid costly experiments and dead-ends. Even the experiences of failure are useful; often tweaking a particular element in a failed formula results in success.
Who are your references?
Most small business owners would hire an employee without checking their references and previous job history. It is likely that an adviser, accountant or attorney will have significantly more impact and influence on your company than the majority of your employees. It is only common sense that you exercise the same due diligence in checking the “bona fides” of an adviser as an employee.
When speaking with a reference, you should get as much information about the potential adviser and his work with the reference as possible: What was the scope of work in the engagement? How long did it take? What deliverables did you receive? What were the benefits you received from the adviser? How did the adviser work with your employees? How did the adviser work with you? do you still work with the adviser? Would your hire the adviser again? If not, why not? In retrospect, what would you do differently?
Some businessmen don’t check on referrals, assuming that any information provided by the referral is biased or the referral’s contact information would not have been provided by the adviser. Even though that may be the case, a conversation with a previous client can lead to unexpected information, even dissatisfaction unknown by the referer.
Your satisfaction with an adviser/consultant is generally proportional to the effort you make to identify and select him. The right choice will ease your work load, strengthen your confidence, and accelerate you on the road of success. Don’t be disappointed or dissatisfied; take the time to find the right adviser that best fits your needs.