I recently met with someone looking to change bookkeepers. Before taking on a new client, I try to determine if my services, experience, and style of interacting are appropriate for the business and the owner. After almost twenty years working with a variety of businesses and CPAs, I have a strong background and a lot of knowledge. But that doesn’t mean I am right for every job that comes along. Thus, an in-depth discussion of the client’s business, needs, and expectations is the first step in establishing a working relationship.

The first thing I ask is what bookkeeping or accounting system is being used. I specialize in QuickBooks, and although I have used other programs, I won’t do books on any other system these days. I have several reasons for this — the main one is that I’m good at QuickBooks and feel I can offer real value in every area from implementation and training, to data entry and reporting. That is not the case with other programs. I have a strong enough background in bookkeeping and accounting principals and have a certain proficiency with computers, so that I can offer some help in even an unknown program, but in such circumstances, my advice is always to find an expert in the program. This is not always easy to do, especially with very specialized back-office programs, which is the reason I advise small business owners to use QuickBooks — there are many, many bookkeepers who are very knowledgeable QuickBooks users. This provides a large pool for a business to choose from, and it should not be hard to find the right bookkeeper for one’s business.

I am cautious about taking on clients that are dissatisfied with another service. I want to understand what it was that didn’t work before I determine if I can help. One of the things I’ve learned over the years is that often when someone complains about a service provider, be it a bookkeeper, janitor or consultant, the problem is often a two-way street. True, there are bad bookkeepers out there, and I’ve had the sad experience of helping a business owner recover from embezzlement, but that is the very rare exception. When a service does not meet the expectations of the customer, both the service and the expectations need to be examined.

That’s what I try to do in our preliminary discussions — determine not only the needs of the business, but the expectations of the owner. I am honest about my service — there are things that I can do, but which would not be a good use of my time, nor the customer’s money. For example, years ago I was hired by a wholesale business with thousands of retail stores all over the country. The owner had learned the best collection method is calling. She wanted her bookkeeper to spend a set number of hours per week making collection calls. This is not my strength, and it was a not a good use of my skills. I felt the owner was not getting good value for the money she paid me, and I suggested she find someone else. In the end, the company hired someone else to make AR calls, who was much better and more effective than I, while I did what I do best, and kept the books.

There are a wide variety of considerations that fall under the label “expectations.” Some people want a bookkeeper in their office, while others are happy to have this aspect of the business off-site. Some businesses need daily attention, while others do the day to day entry themselves and need only periodic reconciliation and reporting. Some want only the most basic of reports, while others want projections, cash flow summaries, cost center or sales analysis. Service businesses have different needs from wholesalers, construction companies differ from retailers, brick and mortar stores have different components than online stores. Some owners don’t want to think about their books, while others like to delve in deeply. Employees and benefits add a whole other layer.

All of these things should be considerations in determining the fit between a small business and its bookkeeper. But there is another element, as well. The human component. I feel a strong tie to all of my clients and take their success or failure personally. I like each and every one of my clients; they are good people. I believe they feel the same about me. This is important to me, and is the final piece that makes for a good fit, I think.