A few years ago April 15th started with a bang. We were embarking on a year-long journey of unanticipated costs, cleaning up our books, tax filings, and corporate records. The problem was, we had no idea it was coming. It started with an impromptu conference call: it was our certified public accountant (CPA) telling us that we’d need to file an extension and make huge estimated tax payments that were due by the end of the day.

But this was only the beginning: it took the next several months for the full extent of our CPA’s malfeasance to become clear.

Today we are in a completely different place thanks to our new accountant Regina O'Keefe (CPA, CVA) at the firm Gable Peritz Mishkin, LLP.

Looking back at the journey we took in 2014 from that shocking call to finding Gable Peritz Mishkin to setting things straight holds a number of important lessons for anyone looking to grow a business or clean up from a failed professional relationship.

No business is an island and any growing business can benefit tremendously from the hard work and pertinent expertise of the right professionals. But the stakes are high because choosing the right professional can be tricky and getting the wrong professional can serve the equivalent of a punch to the gut.

Here are some notes on how to find the best professional and avoid what I now refer to as a "Bumbler.”

Get To Know Yourself

This is the place to start. Make a short list of things that are important to your organization and will be absolutely necessary for a successful business relationship with a Professional. This might be as fundamental as mine were: “highly responsive and proactive” or as practical as “is comfortable with Google Docs.”

If you are very proactive maybe you can successfully work with a more reactive firm but it’s important to know for sure so that you don’t end up in a reactive/reactive relationship.

Defining the key requirements helped me narrow in on exactly who would be best for us. The two firms we shied away from had only part of the equation. The first was technically savvy but was not proactive and ignored several follow-up e-mails and phone calls. The second was proactive but was clearly uninterested in the fact that our firm doesn’t use paper fax machines to share documents.

Both looked great on paper -- well recommended, professional, and easy to talk with: But by knowing ourselves we avoided getting swept up in those things and could stay focused on finding the best possible match for us.

Do Your Own Research

We got burned by a Bumbling CPA that was/is very well-respected and enjoys glowing references from many businesses in our industry. They even market themselves as cutting-edge specialists for small, tech-savvy organizations. A seemingly perfect fit. A quick scan showed every indication that we should have been treated as well as everyone else. (And, to be fair, I’m sure there are clients who did not have the same disastrous outcome as us.)

But not only were we not treated fairly -- we were actively harmed. So how does one avoid being underserved (or even worse, sucker punched) by a Bumbler?

By the time we were again searching for our next CPA I knew to hold recommendations loosely and (once I had someone whom I felt met our personality well) was prepared with the following key questions:

  • How big is your client base & firm? (What’s the fish-size/pond-size ratio?)
  • What are your specialties? (Familiarity with our filing status, states, and industry?)
  • Who will be handling your account primarily? (Will we be quickly relegated to the lowest-paid team member?)

I asked these question and outlined the background of the damages we were trying to repair. Instead of a slick-talking sales approach or lofty corporate goals the answers I received from Regina were no-nonsense and pertinent to our unique situation -- and without ego. This is, I realized, the hallmark of a true professional: actually listening and responding.

Avoid Billing Conflicts

I doubt many CPAs do blanket use-it-or-lose-it style monthly retainers. Our Bumbler did. We signed up for a monthly retainer that included a defined list of online software and a number of tasks and quarterly meetings. This pricing plan seemed progressive at first but, in retrospect, it created a clear conflict of interest because we were committed to making the same high month-after-month payment without clearly defined deliverables associated with the cost. This pricing approach itself is fine but when combined with a lack of structure and definition it provides too much incentive to under-deliver. That is, the firm’s character must be strong or the relationship can become a money grab.

Pricing structure is often the clearest window into the heart of an organization.

Deposits and retainers are normal; don’t get me wrong; but unless you have a high level of trust, it’s important that billing is transparent, detailed, and is tied as tightly as possible to work actually performed. Billing that makes little room for accountability is a clear warning sign.

Be Sensitive to the other Warning Signs

If you are worried that you might already be working with a Bumbler, here are a few warning signs we ignored until it was too late:

  1. The fees were growing and increasingly tied to gimmicks like secure file vaults and overkill processes that we didn’t ask for and never used. Worse still, they should have known this or inquired after a year or so. At some point we became a billing item and not a client.
  2. Meeting schedules spelled out in the contract never materialized. Our Bumbling professional was not interested in leading the conversation or, it seemed, helping at all. This is critical because the passive approach was the opposite of how they characterized their service in the agreement. They weren’t being honest with themselves or us.
  3. In the few meetings actually held the questions raised demonstrated a lack of basic knowledge of our business... even years (and a pile of money) into our working relationship. We had made a significant financial commitment which wasn’t being reciprocated.
  4. Missed deadlines. We leaned on our CPA to be proactive and deal with legally-required deadlines without hand-holding. When several early tax deadlines were flagrantly ignored we should have taken decisive action.
  5. There is a saying, “All style and no class.” One thing that irked me early on but that I couldn’t articulate until it was too late was the amount of effort Bumbler put into things other than doing the work we hired him to do. Beware when you see a lot of style but no class.

I hope that these tips will help you avoid a year like our in 2014. It’s always hard work to find the right partner and it’s often tempting to take the easy road (after all, you’re paying money to create less work not more, right?) but, in the end, a long term relationship that works will be worth the upfront cost of the search.

Have you ever had a Bumbler that hurt your organization and learned something important from the experience? Feel free to help future readers by adding a comment.