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You pays your money...By Simon Sweetman

14th Sep 2007
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Finding the right sort of tax advisor at the right sort of price can be something of a lottery, thinks Simon Sweetman.

One lesson I have learned over the years is that when it comes to tax there are different kinds of people. There are those who know the limits of their knowledge, and will either refuse to do anything they do not understand or will take advice, and there are those who seem blissfully unaware of how little they know and who sail on regardless. That is to leave out the ones who go all phobic at the sight of a brown envelope and stick it behind the clock or feed it to the dog. And that’s just accountants. Some people know a great deal about tax, but there are no people – and that certainly includes me – who know all there is to be knowed, like the clever men at Oxford.

For some people, I think, tax advice is like sex: they wouldn’t dream of paying for it. For others, advice isn’t advice unless it is gift wrapped in gold leaf and enclosed in an embossed folder bearing the name of one of the big four.

The top end of the profession have some odd ideas about small business. Currently I believe that one major firm of advisers is apparently offering small firms a discount rate…of £250 an hour. Another will take £100 off the price of its all day seminars, reducing them to a trifling £499 (quite apart from the productive time you lose). And you don’t even get wine with your lunch any more.

However enough of that (with perhaps a plug for the excellent value for money seminars provided by Accountingweb). Where do you go for tax advice if you are a small accountant in practice and want accurate tax advice that you can afford, but are not a member of the kind of professional organisation that offers you a reliable helpline?

There are advisers all over the place: accountants who have specialised in tax, former employees of Her Majesty, even some lawyers. Some of them, who do not operate from great shiny palaces, are affordable. But how do people know?

I get some references through my website (but people have to find that first), but mostly business comes through personal recommendation (you don’t usually find out about the ones who say “I wouldn’t go to him”). Other people I am sure mainly operate in the same way. There must be a better way of linking adviser and adverse: is it time somebody picked this one up and ran with it?

You can find Simon’s website just here!


Replies (8)

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By Sherlock
14th Sep 2007 15:25

Personal recommendation
There is nothing like personal recommendation from a friend or business colleague. This extends far beyond tax to lawyers, dentists, doctors and even hotels (home and abroad).

The next stage is to arrange an initial meeting (hopefully free). Judge what the office atmosphere is like. Does the tax professional provide a brochure of services? What are his or her charging rates? Is he or her a generalist or a specialist in one tax area? Does he or she come over as a likeable and helpful person? Does one have things in common apart from tax? Does he or she have a sense of humour?

There is no harm in asking some searching technical questions at the initial meeting in order to ascertain the reaction. In the end one has to take the plunge and instruct the adviser to act. Hopefully this will be successful, but one can always sever the business relationship if not.

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By AnonymousUser
16th Sep 2007 10:34

Big firms and small firms
One key difference between big and small firms is that the former take specialisation almost to an absurd degree whilst the latter have an inclination not to admit they do not know the answer to everything for fear of losing business ( I've worked in both). Many smaller firms would offer their clients a much better service if they could be brave enough to accept that at times they are out of their depth and it is no reflection on them in an ever complex tax world to seek advice elsewhere. I don't think it's just blissful ignorance but fear of losing clients that drives this - so clients too need to be educated that sometimes tax problems need specialist advice (in depth enquiries are an obvious example). Accountants need to grasp (as I think solicitors have more successfully) that there is a difference between having enough knowledge to spot an issue (which you then refer on) and actually having the in depth knowledge to handle in completely.

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By baseline
17th Sep 2007 12:41

Lottery or not, Tax Advisers just encourage more complex taxation systems moving us toward machine automation. At the moment such advisors are people, however its no guarantee that they will out perform intelligent machines in the future.

Lets hope that lack lustre tax advisors prove the limiting factor to tax complexity and its practice now and in the future.

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By Geoff Heron
17th Sep 2007 16:44

I agree

I fully endorse what you are saying about the specialist advisors.

We are such a Firm. For our sins we were all ex HMR&C PAYE/CIS Investigators. Indeed I spent over 9 years working for the then Inland Revenue’s Large Business Office Employer Compliance Unit. I and my business partner also served time (literally) at one of the Big 4 Accountancy Practices as Tax Managers.

When we set up our business October 2003, we identified what we thought was an opportunity to help local businesses and importantly local accountants gain access to a PAYE/CIS Specialist. Our initial aim was to try and work with local accountants, to help them provide a specialist and importantly proactive (not reactive) service that would add value not only to their practice, but their client’s business as well.

Unfortunately a number of accountants adopted a siege mentality of “if I can’t do it, no one can” or “thanks but no thanks we offer our clients this service”. The reality being yes they may offer the service but at what quality?

We recently recruited a former HMR&C Regional Employment Status Inspector. The experience and knowledge he posses is invaluable and our clients are already reaping the rewards. He appreciates now more than ever, the impact an employment status investigation has on a business. Naturally we would like to share our and his ability to a wider audience, but again we continue to be met with the closed door syndrome – why we do not know.

The majority of our work has been secured from word of mouth and whilst this has been fantastic, we feel frustrated that a significant number of businesses, unless they approach a Big 4 firm or other niche provider are not getting access to a true specialist (in our field sometimes until it is too late).

It will be interesting to see how the debate continues, at the end of the day it is the Client and the value we all can bring that counts.

Geoff Heron

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By NeilW
18th Sep 2007 09:18

Use the medical analogy.
The trick is to use the medical analogy. A GP knows a little about a lot, but you wouldn't want them to do anything other than minor operations. They always refer to specialists for anything serious.

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By pcobham
18th Sep 2007 09:44

Tax Consultants
Geoff-you and me both! I am ex Revenue and set up in practice in 1990 to offer, as I thought, a valuable tax service to small accountants. I encountered the same seige mentality as Geoff. I ended up setting up an accountancy firm to keep the wolf from the door. I do consult to a few small firms but this has always come about by personal recommendation. So good luck Mark if you manage to break down the barriers.

Cobham Day [email protected]

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By cathygrimmer
18th Sep 2007 11:21

Surprise consultancy!
I set up on my own last year intending to provide tax returns and advice to personal clients only to find myself unexpectedly providing tax advice to accountants for their clients. Almost all my business comes by word of mouth but a posting on Accounting Web's Opportunities cost nothing and brought me new accountant clients across the country. It is the perfect symbiotic relationship - the accountants can provide advice to their client's at a reasonable cost and don't risk losing them to big firms or giving them duff advice because it is outside their experience and I am able to use the 25+ years of tax knowledge and experience that I feared would be wasted when setting up on my own. It also allows smaller accountants to be proactive as they will call me to chat things through and see if I have any ideas to approach clients with. It is a shame there are not more smaller accountants' firms who see the benefit in bringing in consultants, not just because I want their work but becasue it gives their clients a better service and gives the accountants reflected glory from the tax-saving advice given. A win win situation!!

P.S. I started my tax career at Colchester tax office - working with SImon (although it was a long time ago so he probably won't remember me).

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By michaelblake
18th Sep 2007 11:52

Don't forget PTP
This is an unashamed piece of self publicity for an organisation for which I act as a consultant and that is Professional Tax Practice.

Many people will know of PTP's software and training arms but there is also PTP's consultancy arm which offers advice on tax issues to several hundred firms of accountants nationaly via a team of 20 specialist consultants. The service is offered at the very reasonable rates of £180 per hour for telephone advice and £200 for advice in writing. Time is charged in 15 minute units and fees can be agreed in advance. We can offer any level of support from say a short telephone conversation to answer a question or offer a second opinion to lengthy written or planning assignments or representation at meetings with HMRC or before the Commissioners or VAT tribunals. We match or exceed the level of expertise provided by specialists within the big 4 or medium tier firms.

For more details of the consultants, their qualifications, experience and specialisms, and the service offered see and select consultancy

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