How to interview a bookkeeper

By Patrick Bonnaure, founder of ProLedge Bookkeeping Services

Let’s assume that you decided to hire an independent bookkeeper as opposed to a bookkeeping firm like ProLedge (the arguments for such a decision can be hotly debated of course!). How should you interview and select such a bookkeeper?

Recruiting in general, whether it is for a bookkeeper or any position, is more of an art than a science, so there is no simple recipe that will ensure that you get the best bookkeeper in the door, but there are criteria that will enable you to mitigate risks. Here’s a short checklist and I’ll cover each item in more details below:

  • Professionalism
  • QuickBooks knowledge
  • Accounting knowledge
  • Price
  • Availability
  • Reference and background checks

Professionalism
Why do I start with this criteria? Because it is the single most efficient factor to trim your list of candidates down. If you are reviewing a long list candidates and you test them first on their QuickBooks knowledge, you’ll shrink your list by 50% pretty quickly. If you test them on professionalism first, you’ll shrink the list by 80% right from the get go and you’ll save yourself a lot of time. What do I mean by “professionalism”? That’s the whole package of people skills that the bookkeepers expose to you. How crisp and well written are their emails? How friendly are they on the phone and in-person? How punctual are they to the interview? How well dressed are they? How well do they listen? Did they prepare for the interview by researching your company? A bookkeeper who doesn’t score high on this dimension will cause you problems down the road, because good bookkeeping is not only about the accuracy of the data that you get into QuickBooks. A bookkeeper is a consultant and as such, the bookkeeper needs to know how to interface with you, understand your needs and adapt his/her work to your needs.

QuickBooks knowledge
There is an enormous difference between being knowledgeable in QuickBooks and knowledgeable in accounting. QuickBooks appears simple to use if all you need to do is reconcile bank accounts, but as soon as you start pushing the envelope (job costing, sales tax, inventory management, integration with 3rd party apps, etc…), it’s a whole new ball game. Having majored in accounting in college won’t help at all. Case in point: most CPAs cannot be called QuickBooks experts. They know how to pull reports out of QuickBooks to prepare your taxes, but the number of CPAs out there who would be able to fix a “broken” QuickBooks file is very small. That’s not their area of expertise.

Accounting knowledge
This one is a no-brainer and you have to test for it. However, you’ll be surprised how few candidates will fail on this dimension, because the accounting knowledge required to keep clean books is actually easy to acquire. This being said, let me stress that this holds true only if all you are looking for is a bookkeeper. If you are expecting your candidate to play a controller or CFO role, it’s a very different story, but then, the job description should not be “bookkeeper”.

Price
Like in any market, you get what you pay for. The lower the cost, the lower the expertise. If you plan on giving your bookkeeper primarily data entry tasks and you will be verifying every detail of his/her work on an on-going basis, you can afford to go lower on the price scale. However, if you expect your bookkeeper to be self-sufficient and you won’t have time to quality control the work, you will be forced to pay more. Keep in mind that the hourly rate is not necessarily a good representation of cost. Jane might charge twice the hourly rate as Joe, but if Jane works twice as fast as Joe and she provides higher quality work, you will end paying Jane less than Joe at the end of the month.

Availability
Supply and demand doesn’t only affect price. It affects availability as well. The better bookkeepers are busier. Make sure that the bookkeeper you hire still has available bandwidth for you and will be able to turn your work around quickly and be responsive to your questions during the week. That’s one of the key differences between independent bookkeepers and firms. When an independent bookkeeper is maxed out, there is no safety valve. You can’t move work around or assign different resources. You just have to wait for your turn.

Check references and perform background checks
Last but not the least, don’t skip on the reference checks and criminal background checks. You’re about to give this bookkeeper a lot of sensitive financial information. Better be safe than sorry!

Comments

  • 1-12-11

    Great article. I have been an office manager for over 13 years and it is unbelievable the situations in new employment I’ve walked into to “clean up” after the old bookkeeper. It’s unfortunate that many small business owners don’t know the value of a professional bookkeeper, or office manager until after they have had to deal with a unskilled one or waited to long to hire someone.

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