A Few Good Accountants

Use these guidelines to find the tax guidance your business needs.
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Editor's note: Since 1964, business-management counselors at nonprofit organization Score have given free advice to small-business clients spanning every industry. They currently serve nearly 400,000 entrepreneurs nationwide each year -- check in every week for their prudent advice.

Last week

Score NYC gave away its secret to finding a

fulfilling attorney relationship. But for true satisfaction, your business needs two people in its life.

You've Got Needs

Like finding an attorney, finding an accountant who's right for your business shouldn't be done through people you know. Chances are, your accountant friend won't be able to address your business' unique needs.

To ease the strain of the great hunt, Score sends its clients to

GoodAccountants.com. Like your bubbly matchmaker friend, these people take joy in seeing you and your accountant happy together.

A national registry and referral service of certified public accountants, public accountants and bookkeepers, Good Accountants deals with larger clients like restaurant chain

Johnny Rockets

and

AvePoint, Inc.

, a developer of backup and recovery software for

Microsoft's

(MSFT) - Get Report

Sharepoint Technology, but the company will also work with your small business, says CEO Johanna Laurent. Its referral services are free and the success fee is later worked out with the accountant.

Laurent started working with accountants because "they really want the business owner to win." But whether you choose to go it alone or with a referral service, you should know the basic rules of the accountant game.

Know What You Want

Simply knowing you need an accountant isn't enough. You need to know exactly what you will use them for, says Laurent. Good Accountants will get to the heart of your intentions as a business owner, and only then try to match you with a suitable accountant who is presented with your business and believes it could be a good fit.

Jeff Forrestall, certified public accountant and managing partner for Atlanta accounting firm

Forrestall, Savage, Galeano & LI, cringes at how many businesses don't ask if their accountants have experience in their industry or business size.

Businesses should also look for the right size accounting firm, advises Phil Politziner, CEO of

Amper, Politziner & Mattia in New Jersey. Larger firms might not have the time to serve small businesses properly. "You want someone who is going to be interested in you and playing in

your company's space," says Politziner.

CPA vs. Accountant

The two questions a small business owner most often asks an accountant are, "Is my bank balance right?" and "Do I owe money?" says Forrestall.

But after you identify the scope of your accounting needs, determine if you need an accountant (uncertified) or a CPA (licensed to do audited financial statements). "Anybody can do your tax returns," says Forrestall. Uncertified accountants can still serve your business needs, just let their experience and background be your guide.

Certified or not, it's a good idea to talk to your attorney or bank to see if they have heard of the accountant or firm, suggests Forrestall. Check the references of your accountant and see how they're treating other clients. Look at the success of your accountant's own business and "go with the ones that are making it happen," says Laurent.

And don't be afraid to switch accountants if you're not happy, Laurent adds. Like any relationship, sometimes it just doesn't work out.

Make Sure They Know Your Tech

Small-business owners often make the mistake of thinking they can pick up some accounting software and only hire a live accountant when it comes time to work on their tax returns. A good accountant knows how to operate software optimally and can give you back those hours otherwise spent pondering the complexities of

QuickBooks.

They should also be able to recommend the right software to make your business run more smoothly and act as a general adviser on issues like if it's time to go for

outside funding.

Don't Be Cheap

Finally, be reasonable, but don't be stingy, says Laurent. Always consider that you get what you are paying for. You might end up paying more in the long run due to a shoddy accountant. Focus more on who will give you the best service as opposed to the best price.

While an accountant without certification is cheaper, adds Forrestall, don't opt for one in situations where you clearly need the expertise of a CPA.