The Ultimate Guide to Finding Accounting and Tax Services in Canada

Finding Accounting and Tax Services in Canada

We hear you’re looking for an accountant. Yes, you will be met with hundreds of options online and offline, but the challenge is determining which one of them suits your needs the best.

So let us (a team of accounting professionals) guide you and help you find the right accountant for you. This will be a behind the scenes guide and we’ll walk you through exactly how we would look for any tax, financial, or accounting related services for ourselves or our families to help you make the best possible choice.

How to Find the Best Accounting and Tax Specialists for You – 5 Things to Consider

What are your needs?

Step one of any search is to have a good idea of what your needs are. Canadian tax and accounting services are broad, so let’s narrow it down. Do you need a personal tax accountant or small business accountant? Do you need help with personal financial planning and tax preparation or small business accounting and a corporate tax year end? Something else entirely?

If you strictly need data entry or bookkeeping services (coding and recording simple transactions), then consider a bookkeeper. If you need monthly or quarterly bookkeeping, then a good bookkeeper can provide great value as they generally charge less than accountants. But anyone can call themselves a bookkeeper and they have a much more narrow scope of practice so don’t expect them to be signing off on any financial statements for you.

Mind you, if you are a small business owner, then you’ll generally need an accountant since you’ll either need to file a corporate tax return or report the business activities on your personal tax return (depending on how your business is structured). Business taxes are a complex area, but corporate tax in particular is notoriously complicated and the Tax Act grows every year so this is one area where we would always advise you to tread carefully and hire an expert.

Now you hopefully have a clear idea of your needs in your search for an accountant. So how do you select accounting services? The next step is to look for three all-important letters…

Look for the “CPA”

    You probably wouldn’t get your annual physical from someone who never graduated from medical school. The “Dr.” in front of their name indicates a baseline level of competence and experience. The same is true for your accountant and the “CPA” after their name.

    Find an accountant with the CPA designation. Your accountant achieved a certain level of technical proficiency in order to earn their letters so this is the easiest way to start searching for accounting and tax specialists. In addition to a baseline level of technical proficiency, you can also rest easier knowing that designated CPAs performing public accounting are required to hold professional liability insurance that covers you in case of errors or omissions.

    An infographic that shows the three separate accounting designations in Canada: Chartered Accountant (CA); Certified Management Accountant (CMA); and Certified General Accountant (CGA)
    Fun Fact: There used to be three separate accounting designations in Canada – CA (Chartered Accountant), CMA (Certified Management Accountant) and CGA (Certified General Accountant) – all of which were amalgamated under the CPA (Chartered Professional Accountant) banner in 2014. In the past, you may have tried to find a CA firm or CGA firm, but now they’ll all say CPA. Just in case you see some of those CA, CMA or CGA letters floating around!

    Professional Standards – The Benefits and Challenges

      Accounting is a self-governing profession, which means accountants are bound by professional standards. This is good because it promotes ethical conduct and sets all sorts of rules accountants must follow, with the intention of protecting you as a client, potential client or member of the public.

      However, one consequence of these professional standards is that certain rules can make differentiating among accountants more difficult and therefore looking for an accountant who is the best one for you can take some serious work.

      For example, the guidance for Alberta CPA’s states that:

      • Since any registrant may be able to offer services similar to those offered by others, it is not appropriate for any registrant to claim superiority with respect to the competence or integrity of any other registrant. (Guidance – Rule 217, CPA Alberta Rules of Professional Conduct with Guidance Sept 2020)

      This means that accountants are limited in what they can advertise. An accountant’s claim to be skilled in one area could imply that their peers are less capable and this statement could run them afoul of the rules and result in possible sanctions (which can be public and very costly).

      Thus, it’s unusual for an accountant to claim they are a “specialist”, and they will often default to advertising something more general like a “tax and accounting service,” especially considering guidance like this:

      • Registrants designating themselves or related businesses or practices as specialists must be prepared to substantiate the claim. Failure to provide advice to a specialist standard after accepting an engagement to do so may have serious legal consequences. (Guidance – Rule 217, CPA Alberta Rules of Professional Conduct with Guidance Sept 2020)

      For this reason, you can see why the market for accounting and tax services is somewhat opaque. Accountants can’t directly tell you how they differ from their peers, so they rely on indirectly demonstrating their expertise through education-based marketing. We’re talking all of those newsletters, blog posts, videos and anything else meant to educate you while simultaneously signaling the author’s expertise.

      So that means to find the best accountant for you, you will almost certainly have to go deeper than a Google search or perusing their website and social media profiles. Yes, this means having a real conversation with them and playing twenty questions to explore if they are a good fit; this is why looking for the right accounting provider for you can take some time and effort.

      That being said, markets are markets. Inevitably accounting services have a range of prices and accountants themselves do range in expertise and experience (we’re only human).

      Communication skills

        Besides having accounting knowledge and skills, it’s crucial that a tax accountant is also a great communicator. This might seem less important, but it plays a key role.

        Accountants with good communication skills have the ability to explain complex tax matters in simple terms, making it easier for you to understand. They can guide you on ways to save money and highlight any potential financial risks. Regular conversations build trust, which is necessary when dealing with confidential financial details, and clear, timely communication aids in making informed financial decisions. 

        Most accountants communicate via email, phone calls, or video calls like Zoom. It’s important to consider their working hours, particularly if you’re paying by the hour, as out-of-office calls might cost more. For those on a fixed rate, the details about communication should be clear in your agreement. 

        The frequency of your discussions with your accountant may vary depending on your needs. Regular check-ins, perhaps monthly or quarterly, can help keep your financial plans in order. 

        Additionally, during busy periods like tax or audit season, or when making significant financial decisions, you might need to communicate more often to ensure you’re making the best choices.

        Firm size

          Choosing an accounting firm depends on what you need. Big firms have a lot of resources and offer many services, so they’re great for large businesses or complicated finances. They work fast because they have a big team, and their work is typically high-quality. But, they can be pricey and might not give you as much personal attention.

          Small firms or single accountants usually have a closer relationship with their clients. They’re good for small businesses or individuals and can often charge less. They might specialize in your industry and can give advice tailored to you. However, they might be slower and offer fewer services because they have a smaller team. The quality can vary – some are really good, and others might not keep up-to-date with the latest rules and technology.

          So, your choice between a big or small firm depends on what you need, how much you can spend, and if you want more personalized service. It’s a good idea to look at different firms before deciding.

          And speaking of firm size, we will discuss the two different types of accounting services providers in the next part.

          Now let’s break down good ways to differentiate between accountants to help find the best one for you.

          READ MORE: 10 Questions to Ask Your Accountant Before You Hire Them

          How Accountants Differ – 2 Types of Accounting Services Providers

          When it comes to the basics, like simple financial statements and tax year ends, you’re likely to get fairly similar range of services from any qualified accountant (as you would rightly expect). These are core services that make up the bread and butter of most accounting firms.

          You might encounter sole practitioners and firms that offer tax and accounting services when you are looking for an accountant. Basically, there are at least two types of accounting service providers. These are:

          • Sole Practitioners – Accounting firms owned and operated by an individual accountant, often through a professional corporation. They may have support staff to assist with administration or bookkeeping.
          • Partnerships Accounting firms owned and operated by multiple partners. This can vary all the way from small partnerships with two people all the way up to large partnerships with many partners, typically each with their own specialization.

          5 Things To Check When Looking For An Accounting Firm

          Sure, any accountant may cover the basics, but the client experience and value added services can differ widely, even more so if you introduce any whiff of complexity or unique accounting issues.

          Here are a number of factors that you may want to consider when looking for an accountant that’s right for you. None of these should be deciding factors on their own, but may indicate when an accountant could be a good fit for you.

          1. Experience

          This includes both the type and years of experience. Yes, while all accountants must meet professional standards in continuing professional development hours and education, and must meet a qualification program, the type of experience – where they worked and what sort of clients/experiences they’ve had (both in accounting and if they bring any other general business experience from outside accounting, like operations, tax advice, and business consulting) will affect how good of a fit they will be for you and their ability to add value to your unique situation.

          1. Clientele

          Who would you trust with your hip surgery – the general surgeon who does a couple of hip surgeries every year or the surgeon who focuses on hips and does a couple every day?

          You increase your chances of getting more value and insight from accounting and tax specialists who not only are intimately familiar with the type of issues you need help with, but also know how best to solve them. There is no more comforting phrase than “we deal with this all the time.”

          1. Location

          This may be a major issue for you or a non-issue completely. You may value the ability to drop off an unorganized  shoebox of receipts (most accountants have seen these in their careers) and pop in for a face to face meeting or you may be perfectly comfortable scanning and sending records while meeting virtually.

          1. Software

          Some accountants are exclusively trained in QuickBooks, others use Xero, while certain accountants and tax experts are fluent in both or even more sophisticated range of accounting software. For whatever software you use, it’s a good idea to check that your accountant is well-versed enough to be able to work with your data.

          1. Fees

          Each accounting service has its own pricing structure. Hence, these services may have different fees. Another thing to consider is the external factors that influence the pricing, which will be discussed in the next section.

          You Get What You Pay For (Right?) – 5 Factors That Affect Canadian Accounting And Tax Services Pricing

          Accountants are free to set their own fees, so there is an entire spectrum of fees when it comes to accounting services. Not only do the amounts vary, but also the fee arrangements – monthly billing, hourly rates, retainers, value billing…it’s a long list.

          What determines how much you pay? You’ll never see it advertised (see the discussion above on professional standards), but like any free market you naturally have higher end providers that may (or may not be) specialists or offer more personalized attention and command a higher price, along with more value-focused providers which may charge less for similar work but focus more on volume. These are market positioning decisions made by each accountant but it can be tricky to identify this at first glance.

          The rule we’ve often heard is “you get what you pay for” and in the case of professional services it’s generally true, with some nuances. Let’s look at what drives pricing:

          • Experience

          Some accountants have business experience and have worked in operations, which is often the biggest knock against accountants coming straight out of firms versus others who have experience in industry. It also may make a difference on where they articled since the type of files/clients/projects they worked on can vary significantly from high stakes mergers and acquisitions with big numbers to small shoebox year ends.

          • Firm name

          Generally the bigger the firm, the higher the fees. Sometimes, you will have to go for a larger or more recognizable firm, especially if you are a larger company and have creditors that demand auditor name brand recognition for assurance.

          • Creativity/specialization

          As we’ve talked about earlier for professional standards, it can be difficult to appreciate the range of specialization here, especially when it comes to tax planning. But suffice it to say that there is a huge range of creativity and sophistication when it comes to tax advisory work and tax planning strategies. Some accountants may stick with more standard, tried and tested tax planning arrangements, while others are more comfortable on the forefront of innovation with new tax strategies that CRA may challenge or test in court.

          • Location

          The location of the firm matters, too, when it comes to pricing. The cost of doing business varies across the country and this influences costs for accounting services, just as it does for other types of goods and services. An accounting firm in downtown Toronto, Ontario, or Vancouver will likely charge more than a firm in rural Saskatchewan for the same service. .

          • The complexity of the service

          The complexity of the accounting service also influences the cost. For example, the fees for a small business that requires basic bookkeeping and a simple tax year end are likely to be much lower than a mid-sized business in need of more specialized, strategic and extensive cross-border tax planning and audit services.

          Speaking of CRA, there are certain red flags that should have you eying the door if your prospective accountant brings these up in conversation…

          Looking For An Accountant – 3 Red Flags To Watch Out For

          By now you should have a pretty solid idea about who your prospective accountant is and how they charge. Now we have to apply another filter to weed out the bad apples from the bunch. (Not that these are “bad apples”, but we’re going for the best aren’t we?)

          1. Jack of all trades

          You struck gold! They are saying all the right things and even specialize in retail, manufacturing, real estate, medical, construction and service businesses, while focusing on their personal tax practice and they have the best financial planning expertise in town. You’ve heard the saying “jack of all trades and master of none” right? While some big firms offering the complete array of accounting and tax services can generally get away with this, if you’re talking to an accountant who hasn’t yet defined who they can best serve and add value to, then you may want to think twice.

          1. Fees that seem too low

          A rock bottom fee can look tempting and downright irresistible, but deserves a second thought. How low is too low? A fee significantly lower than any competitors will often signify that you’re just another number and will get limited attention (if at all), rather than personalized service. It may also mean that you have a surprise extra bill coming your way or that you’ll get “that’s out of scope” as the answer to most of your questions. But if you have bare bones needs and don’t mind a low touch client experience in a high volume operation, then this could be a tradeoff you’re willing to make.

          1. “Don’t worry, CRA won’t audit this”

          If you get an uneasy feeling at any time or your prospective accountant is suggesting something you don’t believe is right, then run and don’t walk! Tax is rarely black and white and CRA often changes the rules. Your accountant should always explain the risk involved in any strategy as well as any upsides/downsides so you are comfortable and fully informed before proceeding.

          An accountant who proposes breaking the law with tax issues is not worth dealing with since you’re the one on the line if you get caught; tax avoidance is legal but tax evasion is a crime so make sure your accountant plays by the rules and doesn’t do anything to bring you offside.

          An Insight on CPA Firms In Canada

          Now that we’ve gone through many a number of different considerations in choosing an accountant, how do we actually find one this 2023?

          First of all, let’s get a good understanding of licensing. We won’t bore you with the details, but it’s important to understand if we’re talking about the services of an accountant.

          While the CPA designation is granted to an individual accountant that meets the requirements, the individual must register a Professional Accounting Firm (PAF) in order to provide accounting and tax services to the public. Firms are registered with the provincial CPA body where the firm operates and will commonly operate under a professional corporation (e.g. John Smith Professional Corporation, Chartered Professional Accountant) or a partnership (e.g. Qualified Accounting LLP, Chartered Professional Accountants). So technically while the accountant is the one doing the work, the firm is the one providing the tax and accounting services. This is important to note, because you’ll usually see a number of designated CPAs working for a firm and your file will often be handled by numerous staff at the firm.

          So how do we find an accounting firm? A targeted internet search is always an option and can be a decent starting point. Trying something like “accounting firm near me” can work, but it can be a chore to filter out those tax accounting firms that could be a good fit for your needs, be it for business and personal.

          You could also use a searchable online directory to create a shortlist of the best accounting firms for you to interview, which we think is the best method. Let us toot our own horn for a minute…only a minute, we promise. We were so frustrated by how hard it was to find a good accountant with relevant industry experience to provide a specific service that we built an advanced searchable online directory of Canadian accounting firms from scratch. Try it out and search for accountants here.

          The Easiest Option for Accounting and Tax Services

          If you’re looking for accounting and tax specialists, but it seems like too much effort to get the right fit (trust us, it’s worth it), then we’ve got you covered. CPA Guide has come up with a way to match you (a very nice person with accounting needs) to a prospective accountant based on your answers to a few short questions.

          If you are looking for an accountant, give  CPA Guide a try today and let us do the hard work of finding the right accountant for you.