Working with accountants, bookkeepers and tax agents

An accountant, bookkeeper or tax agent can manage a range of financial activities for your business. Learn about what to look for and the key questions to ask for when engaging a professional to help you with your tax and financial requirements.

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    Some advisers are bound by certain laws and registration requirements. Always check their licensing or credentials before you engage an adviser.

    When to engage an accountant

    Accountants can support you and your business and guide you to make the right financial decisions.

    An accountant can give you advice about:

    Consider contacting an accountant:

    • before you start, buy or sell a business
    • before you buy or change property, plant or other assets
    • to plan before the end of financial year (between January and June 30 each year) if you're planning to grow your business
    • if you have concerns with creditors, debtors, finance, expenses or stock.

    Aim to speak with your accountant at least every quarter or when your BAS is due.

    If you're not sure if you can afford the services of an accountant, consider how long it would take you to complete each step without their help or advice, and the quality of success you will achieve on your own. You may find that you only need a couple of hours of their time.

    When to engage a tax/BAS agent or bookkeeper

    Professional bookkeepers, tax agents and BAS agents work alongside the Australian Taxation Office (ATO) and the Tax Practitioners Board (TPB) to ensure your business is compliant and operating professionally and legally with financial reporting and employee-related finance activities.

    A bookkeeper can help you with a range of activities including:

    • frontline accounting needs
    • payroll
    • payroll tax
    • BAS lodgements
    • lodging superannuation reports
    • business obligations advice
    • single touch payroll (STP).

    Choosing a financial professional

    Engaging an experienced financial professional to handle your business's finances will ultimately save you time and money.

    Consider the following criteria:

    Many financial professionals will be able to meet both online and in person. If face-to-face meetings are important to you, or if you're a new business owner who needs a more detailed understanding of your finances, you may prefer to meet in person.

    Digital platforms such as video conferencing can also be an effective way to communicate and will broaden your choice.

    Accountants

    Your accountant should belong to a professional accounting body such as:

    Chartered accountants are qualified professionals who have completed degree-level study along with workplace experience and a professional competence program. A chartered accountant will have greater experience and knowledge and be able to add value to your business from the start. They can help you plan for growth and manage tasks such as getting a loan or audits.

    Tax accountants must be registered with the TPB. Search the tax practitioner register to make sure your accountant is registered.

    Accountants who aren't certified, chartered, or registered can do basic bookkeeping, tax preparation and general financial management, but you should be aware of their limitations. Ensure you do your research and choose an accountant that meets your needs.

    Bookkeepers

    Bookkeepers must be qualified and registered with the TPB to provide BAS agent or tax agent services. They must maintain their skills through continuous professional education and be a member of 1 of the following professional bodies:

    • Australian Bookkeepers Association
    • Institute of Certified Bookkeepers
    • Association of Accounting Technicians.

    Find a registered bookkeeper using the TPB register.

    Financial advisors

    Financial advisers are registered with the Australian Securities and Investments Commission's financial advisers register and require an Australian Financial Services Licence.

    When choosing a financial professional consider whether they:

    • are experienced in preparing tax returns and financial documents for businesses of a similar size and revenue
    • have worked with businesses in similar market sectors so they understand the unique needs of your business
    • understand cloud computing, especially if you use cloud-based software for much of your business
    • have worked with larger clients so they are equipped to handle your growing needs over time.

    Find out who else they work with to get a sense of the type of work they are doing. Speak to existing clients to source recommendations.

    An accountant can help grow your business by providing expert advice in areas such as business planning, budgeting and cash flow.

    Consult with business networks, Chambers of Commerce, associations and other business owners to help you choose the right person or service for your business. Make use of your networks, as their advice is usually free and can give you the confidence to make a decision.

    Ask other small business owners for recommendations. Keep in mind that your business needs may be different to another business. For example, the ideal choice for a sole trader may not be suitable for a larger company with employees.

    Social media, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, can be an excellent source of information. Ask your personal network directly or join business-based groups and ask for recommendations. Remember to always do your research before you commit.

    Financial professionals can look after many tasks for you and handle almost every financial role within your business—from setting your business plan, to handling your invoicing, and filing your taxes. Make sure you clearly set out the scope of work you need from them. You may be able to handle some tasks yourself to minimise costs.

    Make sure you think about:

    • their cost and billing structure (hourly, retainer or fixed)
    • whether you are willing to pay for simple data-entry tasks like processing invoices
    • how much oversight of your finances you want
    • proactivity and ability to provide advice to save you money.

    You might choose to enter your basic accounts data in-house and then hand over to your accountant to handle the more complex tasks. This could include bank account reconciliation, filling out tax return forms, payroll and capital depreciation calculations.

    Try and use accounting software that is compatible with the software used by your financial professional. This makes it easier and more secure to share data.

    Good quality accounting software can simplify tasks such as invoicing—automatically sending invoices and keeping records. You can also easily provide secure access to your accounts.

    There is a large choice of accounting software available. Look for software that is collaborative and cloud-based with encryption built in so you can exchange data securely.

    Interview and compare financial professionals to determine which one is best for your business. Consider your options carefully, in particular:

    • whether you can easily work together
    • the processes and systems they use
    • how much they are able to support your growth
    • value for money.

    Financial professionals can charge by the hour, monthly retainer, fixed fee or percentage of turnover.

    Find out their:

    • base fees
    • additional fees (e.g. phone calls or travel time)
    • billing cycles (monthly, quarterly or annually)
    • invoice conditions.

    You may decide to negotiate to get the best rate. Learn more about negotiating successfully.

    Ask for quotes in writing to compare services. Consider your business structure—one fee structure may make sense while your business is small but could become less attractive as your operations grow.

    You could combine fee structures such as an initial flat fee followed by a sliding scale based on turnover.

    Questions to ask a potential accountant, bookkeeper or tax agent

    1. What are your qualifications?
      • Confirm their specific qualifications.
      • For accountants, ask if they are a certified or chartered accountant.
      • Check if they are a member of a professional body.
    2. How long have you been practising?
      • Ask how long they have been practising (if they haven't practised in many years you may wish to go with someone with more up-to-date experience).
      • Check how long their business has been operating or how long they have been with the business. Choosing an established accountant or firm may be more reliable than one which has just started.
    3. Who is your typical client?
      • Find out who their clients are, and what type of client needs they have experience dealing with.
      • Ask for client referrals so you can talk to a current or previous client.
    4. What is the scope of your services?
      • Ask about the scope of their services, so you can decide if 1 professional or firm can handle all of your needs (e.g. if you need broad business advice which not only covers tax, but also business and strategic planning, budgeting, and cash flow).
      • Review if they can provide advice on management accounting (e.g. can they help you set up a chart of accounts or a management reporting framework).
    5. Who will be my main point of contact?
      • If you are hiring a firm, ask if you will have 1 person dedicated to handling your business, or if you'll be dealing with multiple contacts. It's often far more streamlined, and easier for you to develop trust, if you have the same person managing your accounts, rather than your finances being passed through multiple people.
    6. How can you save my business money?
      • Find out if they are proactive about saving your business money, rather than simply filing your paperwork and doing the bare minimum.
    7. How much notice do you need and how long will you take to complete work?
      • Find someone who you can rely on to communicate effectively, and complete work promptly within your timeframes.
    8. What accounting software are you familiar with?
      • Ask if they know how to use the accounting software your business uses.
      • If they're not familiar with your systems, ask them how information should be shared.
    9. What is your preferred way to communicate?
      • Check if they prefer to communicate through email, mail, or phone.
    10. How do you handle billing?
      • Find out what their fees and charges are, and what their fee structure is (e.g. monthly retainer, charge by the hour).
      • Ask what you'll be billed for (e.g. if you're charged for every email they open, every phone call they make, or for travelling time).
      • Check how you can make payments (cash, cheque, credit card, online banking). Don't be afraid to negotiate on any of these points.

    Other business advisers

    Learn more about other types of advisers that you may need to help you with your financial, legal and other business needs. These include business bankers, financial advisers, business coaches, insurance brokers and legal experts.