Searching for a Super CPA

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted January 01, 2001
by Michele Marinnan

They'll automate an accounting system, help file clients' taxes electronically, and even log into systems remotely to update general ledgers. They're tech-savvy accountants, and you'd better have one if you want to maintain and grow your business.

Even if you're up on technology, it's important that your accountant is as well. Using financial software in your own office is one thing. But if your accountant can't turn your financial data into concise monthly profit-and-loss statements, general ledgers, and income projections, you're missing out on the real benefits.

"Most small business owners think of their accountants as the quarterback of their professional team," says Ted Byer, a partner in Mintz Rosenfeld & Co. LLC, a CPA firm in Fairfield, N.J. "He's the one who's most intimately familiar with the owner's business and finances. So, it's incumbent upon the CPA to make sure he's giving the best advice that will help the business owner achieve his goals. In today's day and age, that involves the use of technology -- no matter how small the client is."

So, how do you find one of these super accountants? That's no easy task, but here are a few questions to ask prospective accountants. How they respond will speak volumes about their technology know-how.

ARE WE COMPATIBLE?
The first thing you need to know about accountants -- beyond their knowledge of accounting -- is what software programs they use for client data. Most accountants can handle Peachtree and Quickbooks, the two most popular accounting software programs for small businesses. Many can also run higher-end, customizable software packages like Mas90 and Great Plains.

Find out if the accountant knows systems specific to your industry, or whether she can build a customized solution when you outgrow the current one. If you're still on a manual system, ask the accountant what she would recommend, and what reports she would run for your company.

"What's important is how the client is going to utilize the data in the business," Byer says. "Make sure the accountant knows how to use the tool to help the business owner make money."

SEEING IS BELIEVING
Actions speak louder than words, even in accounting. Make sure a potential accountant has signed his own company onto the tech revolution. "Accounting is an information business," says Glenn Gopman, a director at Rachlin Cohen & Holtz, L.L.P. "If the accountant isn't maintaining a current level of technology in his own practice, then he's not able to advise a client who's more advanced."

But remember, tech is only part of the equation. "I think it would be a big mistake to evaluate an accountant solely on his technology skills, when you really want his tax and accounting skills," Gopman says. "The technology skills are just to help advise business owners in areas of technology."

Accountants who work with new-economy businesses are a good bet. After all, most techies are going to insist on accountants who are just as hip on the latest gizmos as they are. "Tech-savvy people expect a tech-savvy accountant," says Judith E. Dacey, CPA and president of Small Business Resources Inc., an Orlando, Fla., consulting firm that incorporates small businesses and helps them implement technology. "Look for one who services Internet Service Providers or Web programmers."

But don't stop with a few names; ask for references. Current clients can tell you what systems they're using, how long the implementation took, and how much support they receive. And make sure some of the clients' knowledge has rubbed off on the accountant. "Just ask general questions, like who do you use for an ISP? If he says, 'What's that?', that's a good indicator that he's not very tech-savvy," Dacey says. "Ask if he encourages tax filing over the Internet."

DO YOU COMMUNICATE VIRTUALLY?
Because business moves at a fast pace these days, it's important to be able to get in touch with your accountant quickly. The fastest way to stay in touch is through e-mail. Look for an e-mail address when evaluating an accountant's marketing materials. If she doesn't have one, cross her off the list. If she does, test her response time by e-mailing an inquiry and then see how long it takes her to respond.

E-mail is important for several reasons. It's a fast and easy way to ask your accountant questions, such as what reports to print out and where certain expenses belong in your general ledger. E-mail can also be used to send and receive data -- a much faster and efficient route than snail mail, overnight delivery, or faxes.

HOW WELL DO YOU KNOW E-COMMERCE?
If an accountant has his own Web site that shows a certain level of technology know-how and sophistication, it's more than an online brochure. What is more important, however, is his understanding of doing business on line.

"The accountant should know enough to help the business owner use the Internet in his or her business," Byer says. That understanding had a major effect on the growth of Jam Paper and Envelope, a specialty paper company based in Tenafly, N.J. Two years ago, the company was using a manual accounting system to run its three retail stores -- two in New York City and one in Tenafly. Today, it is a global company with a successful e-commerce operation (Jampaper.com) and such clients as MTV, Conde Nast, and CBS. Mintz Rosenfeld & Co. converted Jam to Peachtree, and is now in the process of developing a customized solution for the growing 23-person company.

Some CPAs really leverage the power of the Web. Rachlin Cohen & Holtz in Miami sells an integrated business-to-business Web store called Foresight B2B. It enables customers to search through inventory, check pricing, order products, and arrange for shipping -- all while the back-end accounting information is automatically updated.

Other firms have added tax organizers to their Web sites. Clients can log onto their accountant's site to input and e-mail their latest financial information. Miami-based Morrison, Brown, Argiz & Company is exploring NetLedger, an online accounting system. Stuart Rosenberg, the firm's head of computer and information services, says an online solution enables your accountant to view the system at any time. The automatic program updates save you the headache of upgrading it every few months.

"Ask your accountant how she sees your business succeeding on the Internet, and what process she would use to develop an e-commerce strategy," Gopman says. "The goal of every business is to grow. You grow or you die. And in today's marketplace, the Internet is the big growth portal. If you don't have a strategy for doing business on the Internet, you will lose business."

No matter how you plan to grow the business, finding an accountant with tech smarts is well worth the effort. Who knows -- you may even find one who can train your employees to use the latest in financial software programs.

Finding a match is about to get easier. This fall, the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants began offering a technology certification, the Certified Information Technology Professional (CITP). It'll likely take some time, however, before a significant number of CPAs obtain the designation. In the meantime, stick to these simple questions, and you'll end up with one stellar CPA.

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