By Jessica Bown Career What makes a great accountant? 23 Nov 2018 A friendly welcome, quick response times, specialist knowledge… Clients want different things from their accountants, but there are some mainstays that all accountancy firms should strive for if they want to provide a high level of service. Here, finance professionals and business owners tell us what qualities they believe elevate a good accountant to greatness. Specialist knowledge Some accountants specialise in providing tax advice to large corporations. Others work primarily with smaller businesses and start-ups, or concentrate on a certain field such as construction. From a client perspective, it seems that doing one thing well is preferable to trying to do too much. Entrepreneur Sarah Neal said: “Choosing the right accountant is crucial for any small business. I learned that lesson when I took on a large accounting firm that didn’t have expertise in dealing with small businesses. “They made such a mess of my accounts that HMRC came knocking at my door.” Jeanette Delaney, who manages the accounts for a bar and restaurant group based in the French Alps, agrees that specialist knowledge is invaluable if you want to offer superlative accountancy services. “Accountancy is such a wide-ranging field, you can’t be a specialist in everything,” she said. “If a friend asked my advice about looking for an accountant I would therefore tell them to choose one with other clients in the same or a similar field.” A wide range of services While specialising in one area can be a winning formula, it’s also important to do your best to meet all your clients’ needs. Robert Sully, a senior financial adviser at Shorts Chartered Accountants in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, believes great accountants do this by offering a range of services. “At Shorts, we have Tax Managers who deal with Self Assessment, a Payroll department for clients who prefer not to manage their employees’ salaries, and a Wealth Management department for those looking for personal financial advice,” he said. “We also have a team of people with specialist knowledge relating to doctors and dentists, as well as a Corporate Finance department for clients who want to sell their businesses. “The aim is to offer a complete solution for the small to medium-sized businesses we work with.” Clearly, not all firms can have departments specialising in a range of different areas. However, offering at least some personal tax services will allow you to provide clients with a more global analysis of their situation. “I would always choose an accountant who can help me with my personal affairs as well as my business,” said environmental consultancy owner Catherine Conway. A pro-active approach Generally speaking, an accountant’s main role is to help clients ensure their tax affairs are in order. However, going above and beyond that by offering advice on how to pay less tax is one way firms can stand out from the crowd. “As a small business owner I have a lot on my plate,” Neal said. “So being more tax efficient isn’t on my mind every day. “That’s why I appreciate my accountant taking the time to ask questions and use my answers to work out the best way forward for me.” Conway too likes her accountant suggesting ways she can pay less tax without overstepping the mark. “The most useful service my accountant provides is undoubtedly telling me what needs submitting and when,” she said. “That said, it is also great to have someone to offer you advice to ensure you are not overpaying tax unnecessarily.” Availability One of the most common complaints made about accountants is that they are difficult to pin down at short notice. So availability is key if you want the service you provide to be exceptional. After all, specialist knowledge and pro-active advice is of little use if you are not available when your clients need you. “You have to be available for your clients,” Delaney said. “Failing to return a call within a reasonable timeframe, for example, is sure to frustrate them. “Having regular contact is also important to ensure they keep on top of any regulatory changes.” Staying in regular contact with your clients is also the best way to maintain a happy relationship with them. Neal said: “As a business owner, I expect my accountant to communicate with me regularly and show interest in what my company does. “I do my own accounting entries and reconciliation using the software Xero, but I find it so important that when I have a question about an entry, my accountant is readily available to help.” Friendly service Trust is essential when it comes to choosing an accountant, so offering friendly service is another way to make sure your clients both stick with you, and recommend you to others. “Some clients prefer a purely professional relationship, but the vast majority like to receive a friendly welcome,” Sully said. “Many of our clients have been with us for 20 or 30 years and I believe it’s the close client relationship that keeps them loyal. “They like being able to pick up the phone and speak to someone they know and trust.” And the good news for smaller accountancy firms is that this is one area where they really come into their own. “Big firms don’t always offer personal service,” Delaney said. “So smaller firms can play to their strengths by specialising in a friendly approach.” Jessica Bown is an award-winning freelance journalist and editor.