This article originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of Smart Business Philadelphia magazine.

Here’s a litmus test to determine whether your accounting firm is providing the level of service and expertise your business needs to grow and succeed. Ask yourself: Are you a better company today than you were a year ago?

"The right accounting firm will provide your business with proactive solutions, including tax saving, performance improvement and financing ideas," says Stephen W. Christian, CPA, director, Kreischer Miller, Horsham, Pa. "When you partner with a true adviser, accounting services become an investment in your business’s future success."

However, all firms are not the same, and you must choose wisely.

Smart Business spoke with Christian about how selecting the right firm can bring tangible results to your organization.

What is the significance of working with the right accounting firm?

The right accounting firm will support your business as a trusted adviser and serve as much more than a provider of tax services and financial statements. All firms can prepare financial statements and tax returns, but what else are you getting for your money?

Your accounting, tax and advisory services should be viewed as an investment rather than the cost of a commodity. The reality is that many organizations that have not utilized a sophisticated accounting firm do not realize what they are missing: business advice and strategy based on company goals. The right accounting firm visits your place of business, gets to know the operation inside and out and can provide you with valuable insight to make your organization stronger.

What should a business consider when looking for an accounting firm?

That depends on what you’re looking for in an accounting firm. If you want to hire a transactional provider focused on preparing tax returns and financial statements, and cost is a key factor in your decision, you’ll find plenty of firms that perform these basic services.

But if you’re looking for more — a relationship with an adviser who gets to know your organization and can advise you on critical business decisions — then you’ll need a high-value firm that focuses on comprehensive client service. You’ll benefit from a firm with a consultative approach.

So first, identify your needs: audit, tax, consulting, low-cost and value-added. Then, interview firms and select one based on your priorities.

How can a business identify potential firms?

Talk to your advisers and professionals who know your business, including lenders, lawyers and colleagues in trade associations. Ask them for referrals. Review accounting firms’ websites to see how the companies are represented. Do their priorities match with yours? Personally interview the team of professionals you are considering and not just the partners.

What type of value can a business realize when partnering with the right firm?

Your business will be stronger and in a better position to succeed by engaging the right firm. A good accounting firm can provide an outside perspective that will sharpen the performance of your organization.

An accounting firm works with many diverse companies, and experiences what works and what doesn’t. Communicating mistakes to avoid can steer your company toward success. And it can share best practices from successful companies and help you execute those ideas at your organization.

Also, a good accounting firm is proactive and solution based, providing an abundance of advice on such matters as financing, compensation and benefits strategies, and risk mitigation. In addition, the firm can provide meaningful benchmarks against other similar companies and share ideas on optimal tax structures, beneficial technology initiatives and succession issues.

What are the keys to selecting the right firm?

Now that you have determined your priorities, be sure the firm’s service offerings are compatible with your needs. The team of accountants should be passionate about serving you — and team is the operative word.

Many businesses are disappointed when they select a firm based on one individual who works there, then later learn that they will be working with other associates that are not comparable. Find out who will service your needs, and make sure you meet the other players serving you. And be sure you can gain access to the firm’s leadership and decision makers. This is a common complaint among businesses that are unhappy with their accounting firm relationships.

You want a firm that recognizes the importance of your time and a firm that is respected in the community and has a philosophy of personal development. The right firm is forward thinking, not just a score keeper. This firm will spend the time to get to know all aspects of your business and your industry.

What if a business is reluctant to cut ties with its current accounting firm?

First, ask yourself why you might be looking to make a change. Do you feel you are not getting the personal service you deserve? Is it difficult to reach the firm’s management? Do you want more from the firm that it is capable of providing?

Next, determine in an unemotional way which firm best fits your needs. Remember, this is an important business decision for your organization. You could consider maintaining your current firm for personal tax work while hiring a new firm for corporate work. And there are other creative ways to maintain the relationship if you must.

A firm that truly has your best interests at heart will partner with you to find a solution.●