For many small businesses, accounting is a necessary evil.
It's often perceived by owners as a once a year, annoying commitment that consolidates old information – last year's financial results – for the purpose of finding as many legal ways as possible to lower their tax burden.
Your accountant can offer way more value than that, but small business owners have to ask for and encourage it.
Larger companies and corporations have chief financial officers and accounting departments for a reason. It is not just about accurate record keeping and related government reporting. It is also to provide a source of key information that allows owners to track results against budgets and goals and benchmark their businesses against similar firms and industries. Becoming more hands on with day-to-day accounting and more frequent reporting can create key data points that allow for thoughtful strategic planning.
To get the most out of your accountants, you need to see them as partners in your businesses, not just suppliers to whom you begrudgingly provide information to get your taxes filed on time and to submit statements to your banks.
Ask your accountant to visit your business regularly, to review your interim bookkeeping and to supply you with advice on how you can improve. While they may not be experts in your industry or completely understand your product, innovation or brand, they can offer a fresh set of eyes and commentary that you can use to improve your operations.
Entrepreneurs, by their nature, are forward-looking and aspirational. What happened last year or last month is never as interesting as the paths that lay ahead. That said, the numbers don't lie, and a good accountant can help you read your statements effectively and uncover clues to better results that often never conflict with long-term vision.
This all seems very practical in theory, but the first response I get from most small-business owners is a concern about cost. The professional fees charged by accounting firms for financial statements and corporate tax return preparation on an annual basis is already considered quite expensive. So how do you get more engagement from your accountant without breaking the bank?
Well, as with many things in life, you get what you pay for. I'd like to assume you are pleased with the work your accountant does for you and that you would describe your relationship with him or her as excellent. If your accountant is not someone you would highly recommend to a close friend, you need to rethink whether this person is the right fit for you, regardless of cost.
You should also look beyond the partner who may be managing your account and get to know the more junior person who is likely doing all the grunt work on your file. That person is often available at a lower cost and may be highly enthusiastic about working with your business more closely. In my experience, a junior accountant can add tremendous value for about $100 an hour compared with partners who often charge $300 an hour or more.
For many small businesses, $100 an hour will still sound pretty expensive but you should get a junior accountant more involved as an experiment. Invite your accounting firm to send him or her to your business for an exploratory meeting. A four- to five-hour conversation that allows for questions related to finances and operations would be a great starting point. For $500, this is pretty low risk, and some firms may offer to split the cost with you or even offer the service for free, hoping to drum up extra business.
After this initial meeting, both you and the accounting firm's representative will have a pretty good handle on opportunities for continued, regular engagement. Make it clear that for every hour you invest in, you expect a return. That's a challenge any good accountant should be inspired to achieve.
No matter what your approach is, until your business is large enough to have a controller or a chief financial officer, there is a cost-effective way to get that knowledge and experience. It might be an important ingredient to take your business to the next level. So why wait?
Chris Griffiths is the Toronto-based director of fine tune consulting, a boutique management consulting practice. Over the past 20 years, he has started or acquired and exited seven businesses.