Accountants have various ways that they bill their time, depending on the type of service performed. An hourly rate is commonly used, although flat fees are often used as minimums and for types of services performed on a regular (monthly or quarterly) basis. Familiarize yourself with the type of billing used for the services that you are requesting assistance with.
Find out what the rate is for the services that are in fact billed this way, if you will be billed in 10 or 15 minute increments, and when the clock starts. Similar to attorneys, accountants will sometimes provide the initial consulting session for free as a way to estimate services (usually about 1/2 hour). Ask first, however, because if you go in with a problem that needs immediate attention, you should expect a charge for the services.
This is commonly used with payroll services, sometimes monthly reports and tax returns, depending on the accounting business, when the amount of time is similar each month.
Tax returns billed by form
This is a common practice among tax preparers, and often is adopted by accounting offices as a way to simplify billing for tax return preparation. You can often get an estimate based on this type of billing practice if the accountant can see a prior year return, and knows what the changes have been for the current year.
How you can keep costs down:
Any time you are being billed on an hourly basis, the easier it is for the accountant to read and understand the information that you bring in, the quicker the requested service will be performed. Find out what you can prepare first to make the work easier, and if it will make a difference on your total bill. Even if you are being billed by form for tax preparation, you may be able to negotiate a lower rate per form if you agree to provide information in a form that the accountant can easily use.
Choose an accounting system, either manual or computerized, that you can understand and that enables you to do as much of the bookkeeping work as you have time for. You will need less work done outside of your office, and you may be able to contract for technical assistance as needed. Finding an accountant that will return your phone calls or e-mail will obviously be critical for this to work well.
Talk to your accountant or tax professional prior to making major decision so you will know the tax implications ahead of time, and make sure that you set up the deal appropriately for your tax situation; it will save your professional time later if all of the documents are in proper order.
Write down as many of your questions that you can think of to keep your visit organized and flowing smoothly. Taking time to prepare for your visit can save money and time. Take notes when you are talking with the accountant so you will not have to ask the same question again on a subsequent visit.
Ask for a detailed bill that specifies what you are being billed for each type of service that you receive, including time and billing rate. This will help to give some clues about what you can do to help save money. Remember that contracting out services that take you a lot of time to learn can actually save you money.