Clayton Oates is founder and chief solutions officer at QA Business and a recognized thought leader in the accounting technology industry. Clayton and his team have empowered more than 25,000 businesses and their advisors to utilize accounting technology to drive efficiency and gain transparency and insights into business performance. We asked him how the right accountant can serve as a mentor for entrepreneurs. Here's what he shared.

Whether you're already in business or planning to become a small-business owner, one of your best resources may come from an unexpected source. It's not your first hire, your personal assistant or even your lawyer. Rather, it's the person who balances your budget, prepares your taxes and P&L statements, and helps you leverage technology to gain efficiency: your accountant.

Given the breadth of experience and wealth of knowledge gained from working with multiple businesses, a good accountant has the potential to be both a mentor and a partnerif you let them.

If you're in the market for an accountant, it's important to ask the right questions. Then, once that person joins your team, it's good to know what questions to ask next and which ones you should kick to the curb.

How to Choose the Right Accountant

Your accountant is potentially your most trusted business advisor. And when it comes to business, knowing whom to trust and getting the financial side of things right from the beginning is imperative.

Therefore, you need to find an accountant who aligns with your core values and goalssomeone who can be both educator and mentor. You want someone who cares about you and your future and who will deliver the truth―however painful―to illuminate both mistakes and opportunities. Forging a strong relationship with an accountant you trust helps ensure that you're aware and prepared for any upcoming challenges.

In your search, keep an eye out for red flags. If you're interviewing an accountant and thinking, "That advice doesn't feel right," go with your gut. For instance, imagine you're interviewing someone who is fixated on dodging taxes. There's nothing wrong with minimizing taxes lawfully, but you don't want to partner with someone who pushes the envelope to the wrong side of the ledger.

If you don't feel comfortable with the risks they're willing to take, they're probably not going to be good for your business. Don't let an accountant lead you down a path that's not aligned with your core values.

Another red flag is the inaccessible accountant. If they're hard to connect with, tough to schedule and disorganized in appearance or presentation, they may not have the time or necessary skills to serve you well. Find someone you can look to for leadership and who presents the customer service wow factor from the beginning.

3 Things You Should Never Ask Your Accountant

Once you've found a good accountant, the last thing you want to do is compromise that relationship by asking them to do unnecessary, dubious―or worse―machine capable work. Here are the top three things not to ask.

1. Never ask your accountant to do anything that can be automated.

Some entrepreneurs still ask their accountants to manage their checkbookto manually process payments, receipts and payroll transactions. This is an easily automated task!

Invest in technology and automated systems that will make your life and your accountant's job more efficient. For example, don't send paper time cards by mail every week when time tracking systems like TSheets can automatically track hours and PTO. Same goes for expense tracking. Why not use an app like Expensify to eliminate paper receipts? Modern technology tools are designed to minimize or eliminate the time it takes to perform manually intensive tasks.

Asking your accountant to spend time and energy manually completing tasks that could be finished in a matter of seconds (as in the case of automatic bank transaction data feeds into your accounting system) is a waste of their expertise and your money.

2. Never ask your accountant to tell you how your business is performing.

Why? Because you should already know! Some business owners abdicate their role of running the business instead of clearly delegating specific tasks. The key difference here is responsibility.

As a business owner and operator, you need to take ultimate responsibility for every aspect of your business, including the finances. Your accountant can help you plan and interpret the numbers, but you should still develop a thorough understanding of how to independently read the data.

When asked, "Where is your business, financially?" some entrepreneurs say, "Oh, my accountant handles that," or "My bookkeeper handles that." And that is a real issue. If you want your business to be successful, take the time to know your finances and implement systems to ensure this information is always at hand.

3. Never ask your accountant to bend the rules.

Not even "just this once." Never compromise the relationship by asking your accountant to do something unethical or unlawful. Always maintain your integrity. If you don't, it will eventually come back to haunt you, and you'll pay a heavy price for that act in the future, even if you don't get caught.

3 Things You Absolutely Should Ask Your Accountant

1. What experience do you have in my industry?

More accountants are niching into specialized vertical markets, like accounting for doctors or construction companies. Focusing on one group leads to an enriched knowledge of that industry and its systems.

Some accountants will become pros at using a core accounting engine or industry software solution, so they can recommend and implement these tools and technologies. Before you make any big technology investments, be sure the solution your accountant suggests makes sense for your needs.

2. How often can we meet?

To maximize the guidance this trusted business advisor can provide, make time to meet regularly, either in person or online. Remember, this is someone who has your back. As a business owner, you want a constant connection, especially if you're just starting out. The more often you connect, the more chances you'll have for mentorship and brutal honestyhopefully, delivered with empathyand to receive information you may not want, but most likely need, to hear.

3. What would you do if you owned this business?

When it comes to your finances, don't be afraid to ask what he or she would do in your shoes. Assuming they've been in the field for a while, your accountant may have experience from hundreds of small-business clients over many years. Let their hindsight be your 20/20.

Another benefit: Accountants can be fantastic connectors. Though they work with numbers and systems, they know people too. Ask, "Who else should I have on my team?" Always do your own research and rigorously interview any recommendations they give you.

Your accountant is so much more than a math wiz. An accountant can be a mentor and a leadersomeone who incites confidence. Find the right person, then make thoughtful requests of their time and experience. The partnership you'll create will be well worth the hire.

Published on: Mar 16, 2018