A long-term relationship Featured

7:00pm EDT February 23, 2009

Companies looking to retain accounting firms as their service providers often go through as rigorous an interviewing process as they would when hiring their own employees. Applying their own hiring standards enhances the possibility of retaining the accounting service providers that meet their specific needs and can help them immediately.

One way companies can identify the best match is to look at the standards accounting firms apply in their own recruiting programs and develop a list of questions to ask them based on those criteria. Asking those questions can improve companies’ chances of creating the viable, long-term partnerships that benefit both participants.

Smart Business spoke with Beth Baldwin of Burr Pilger Mayer to get a general idea of the criteria accounting service providers look for when hiring accountants. Those criteria are the foundation for a list of factors that companies might consider as they interview potential accounting service providers.

Should potential clients inquire about the continuity of the accounting service provider’s recruiting program and balance in the level of experience?

Successful accounting service firms experience turnaround. How accounting firms replace departing employees is important. The new employees might be experienced hires, recent college graduates, interns or a combination. If the accounting firm maintains a balance of employees at different levels of experience in its work force, that is a positive factor. Companies should look at the balance and continuity of an accounting service provider’s work force when considering it as a partner.

Should companies worry about working with newly hired professionals at accounting firms?

There are a lot of factors to consider here. Some of the issues involve the types of degrees the accountants have earned, where they obtained them, how early in their employment they got to work with partners and whether they completed internships with their firms. In the case of experienced new hires, it might be helpful to learn about where they gained their experience, e.g., at a ‘Big Four’ accounting firm or at a one-person operation. Knowing those things can provide insights into the level of the experienced employees’ technical and client-oriented skills and shed some light on whether they have track records of being successful. Companies should take the answers to these questions into account when considering which accounting service providers to work with.

Is there a benefit to knowing what types of degrees accountants at prospective accounting service firms have?

Yes. For example, it would be helpful to know whether accounting service providers prefer to employ people who have accounting degrees, rather than finance degrees. Hiring people with accounting degrees accelerates the new employees’ learning curves, since they are already familiar with the accounting principles clients do not want to wait for them to develop. Employees with other types of business degrees may take a little while longer to acquire in-depth knowledge of those principles, which inhibits how quickly they can get up to speed with clients.

Is it advisable to ask about the colleges from which the accountants earned their degrees?

The information can be helpful. For instance, some colleges in the company’s area of coverage might have better, more established accounting programs than others and better track records in placing graduates with the more prestigious accounting firms. Others might focus on general business majors, rather than accounting specifically. Accounting firms take those differences into account. Their clients should, too.

It might also be helpful to learn how long a firm has worked with a particular college. Some accounting firms form close working relationships with people in a college’s career development centers and become well known at the schools. Consequently, the students become familiar with those firms and their reputations. Those longstanding relationships create pipelines for the firms, and provide employment and internship opportunities for students. Eventually, the benefits of those relationships filter down to the clients.

How do internships influence newly hired accountants’ experience?

Internships familiarize the accountants with their firms’ cultures, areas of specialization, etc. The experience they gain in internships provides them with the knowledge they need to apply when they become full-time employees and gets them involved in the firm’s operations more quickly. They are better prepared to work with clients as a result.

How do the factors discussed above benefit long-term relationships between companies and their accounting service providers?

Once the companies realize that the service providers can offer a beneficial mix of experience and skill sets, they will feel more comfortable working with them. That is particularly true if the accounting provider employs professionals who are ready to start working at once. That saves companies time and money, and provides a good starting point for the long-term relationship that benefits them and the accounting service provider.

BETH BALDWIN is the director of human resources at Burr Pilger Mayer. Reach her at (415) 677-3300 or bbaldwin@bpmllp.com.