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Accounting consulting: How to become an accounting consultant (and why)


Being an accountant can mean far more than preparing tax returns, compiling financial statements, handling technical compliance work or providing back-office accounting services. It's becoming increasing popular for many CPAs to offer their services in an accounting consultant capacity, which is a bridge to becoming the holistic trusted advisor consumers are looking for in today’s economic climate.

What is accounting consulting?

Let's examine the definition of accounting consulting and describe exactly what accounting consultants do, how to become an accounting consultant, why you should consider making the switch, and much more. 

Accounting consulting may include a wide variety of engagements that help your clients improve their financial position, enhance their internal processes and procedures, and streamline their accounting protocols. Accounting consulting jobs may involve:

  • Helping your business clients maintain efficient and accurate accounting practices
  • Providing your expertise to help clients understand the meaning behind their financial data and how those numbers affect their business
  • Examining your clients’ profitability
  • Developing or implementing consistent accounting practices for your clients   

Learn how to start an accounting advisory business in our white paper.

Chapter Two

What do accounting consultants do?

An accounting consultant can serve as both teacher and guide for a business, especially when the business could benefit from accounting services or improvements to their own accounting processes and procedures.

Accounting consulting can vary from client to client, project to project, firm to firm, or consultant to consultant. However, there are some staples of accounting consulting that seem to be widely adopted. Some of the most common services that accounting consultants offer include:

  • Financial forecasting
  • Financial health evaluation and recommendations
  • Year-end financial statement preparation
  • Financial statement analysis, interpretation and evaluation
  • Advising on regulatory compliance issues
  • Profitability analysis
  • Accounts payable analysis, including cash flow, workflow, and savings investigations
  • Accounting service needs identification
  • Accounting process evaluation and system implementation

No two accounting consulting job descriptions are the same. When you ask what accounting consultants do, there are many different answers, depending on the different needs their clients have, the areas of specialization they focus on, their geographic region, and many other factors.

Chapter Three

How do I become an accounting consultant?

If you’re wondering how to transition into accounting consulting, you’re in good company. It’s fairly common for CPAs to become part-time or full-time consultants just prior to retirement, while others enjoy the benefits of greater flexibility and control over their schedules earlier in their careers. Another option is to consult on the side, or in between permanent jobs.

No matter the timing of your transition to accounting consulting, you will need to plan your new business in advance. There may be additional training or education to help you specialize in a particular type of consulting, but there are also other considerations that require some forethought.

When starting your accounting consulting business, consider these tips:

  • Determine what type of accounting consulting work you want to do
  • Make a list of your specialized skills and areas of expertise; highlight those that you are passionate about
  • Identify any educational or technical skill gaps that you should or want to fill to broaden your knowledge base
  • Evaluate your soft skills, as you will be working closely with clients and their staff in your consulting role
  • Determine whether you are organized enough to run your own business as a consultant
  • Map out your goals – what do you want to accomplish with your accounting consulting business?
  • Take some classes or get additional certifications, if prudent to do so
  • Look through your LinkedIn connections and reach out to a few top contacts to ask them how they feel about consulting services and if they would be interested in working with you
  • Join trade and industry associations that align with your target market and areas of specialization and expertise

To become an accounting consultant, you also need to consider who you want to work with. Do you want to work with your existing accounting clients, or attract new clientele? If you’re selling your consulting services through an accounting firm or management firm, you may not have to look very far for consulting clients. If you’re putting up a new independent contractor shingle, you will need to market and sell yourself to various companies and individuals in order to bring in the new consulting engagements.

Learn how to start an accounting advisory business in our white paper.

Chapter Four

Can I become an accounting consultant and work from home?

 

Yes, you can work from home as an accounting consultant. In fact, accounting jobs have been some of the most popular remote roles available for the past few years. To become a consultant from home, consider these tips:

  • Make sure you have the proper software, hardware and tools in place to work efficiently and securely
  • Create a dedicated office space that allows privacy, yet client access as needed
  • Talk to your insurance broker about additional coverage you may need for your workspace
  • Ensure that you have security protocols set up to protect your clients’ data
  • Determine your schedule and set up specific, consistent work hours to avoid burnout
  • Set up a separate phone number for your business (consider which would be better, a VOIP or second mobile phone)
  • Get a VPN to access your sensitive client data when on the road or at clients’ offices

Read our white paper, How accountants work from home successfully, to discover specific steps you can take now, along with insights into how you can effectively manage your business remotely.

Chapter Five

What's the difference between accounting and consulting?

Traditionally, the nature of accountancy means that you collect historical information and data and report on it. When working as an accounting consultant, you can take your expertise a step further.

When you provide accounting consulting services, you do more than make sure the numbers add up. You provide additional analysis or insight beyond the compliance transaction, usually by being hired to provide solutions to a particular problem (though some consulting can look like advisory services and be more open-ended and wide-ranging). As a CPA consultant, you analyze the numbers and trends and provide thoughtful, detailed insight to improve your client's business going forward. If you succeed in forging a path to your client's growth, you also create a solid footing to continue working with them long-term as a business partner and advisor.

There's another practical difference between serving as a traditional accountant and becoming an accounting consultant; namely, it's how you get paid. Conventionally, accountants bill for time spent, whereas a consultant usually provides up-front pricing for specific consulting engagements, above and beyond the hourly billing for compliance and technical services.

Chapter Six

What’s the difference between advisory services and consulting?

Many CPAs feel that advisory and consulting are the same thing. While there are similarities, the primary difference between advisory services and accounting consulting is the length and purpose of the engagement.

A consulting gig is typically temporary, designed to help your client with a specific problem or situation, such as determining which entity type is the best for their new venture. You would consult on that, offering an analysis from an accounting and tax perspective, based on the business, the client’s goals and objectives, and specific needs. Once the client has chosen an entity structure, your consulting job is done. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have additional consulting opportunities with that same client in the future; it just means that you handle them one at a time as they arise.

From an advisory perspective, your clients may engage you for year-round advice and insights into all areas of their businesses. You work with them directly and routinely to enhance their decision-making and help their businesses grow. You teach them and guide them to make smarter decisions, identify new opportunities, make shrewder transactions, potentially expand into new markets, improve internal processes, manage staff, and improve their position in the market against competitors – all from one engagement, one pricing package, and one ongoing relationship. This type of advisory relationship differentiates you from other consultants.

Discover how to grow your accounting practice and become a next generation firm through high value advisory services with Practice Forward.

Chapter Seven

How do I know if CPA consulting is right for me?

Becoming an accounting consultant takes a special set of skills beyond your technical accounting expertise. Technical skills aren’t necessarily the divide between a great consultant and a mediocre one. Passion, drive for excellence, leadership, communication skills, and organizational skills – in addition to your knowledge – play a big role in how successful you will be as an accounting consultant.

Consider these questions when trying to determine if you want to become an accounting consultant:

  • Do you have the right attitude?
  • Do you have the soft skills needed to work closely with your clients and their staff?
  • Do you like solving problems and implementing solutions?
  • Do you have management and operational know-how?
  • Do you have the specialized knowledge to be an expert in the industry you’ve chosen to focus on?
  • Do you have insights into the day-to-day operations of the businesses you are targeting?
  • Do you know how to network, market and sell your consulting services?

Can you adapt quickly to changing environments and business systems when working with multiple businesses at the same time?

Not everyone is cut out to become an accounting consultant. It’s okay if you don’t think that consulting is right for you. There are other ways to advance your career in accounting.

Chapter Eight

Is there demand for accounting consulting services?

According to entrepreneur.com, accounting consultants are the number one most sought-after types of consultants. Why? Because every business has accounting and financial needs.

Opportunities for accounting consultants are at an all-time high. According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate for accountants and auditors was 1.4% in the fourth quarter of 2019.

Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic may affect the profession to a degree, but over the past decade, accountants and auditors have maintained higher employment rates than many other professional positions.

We may be on the brink of an economic decline. Economic disruption can magnify the crucial aspects of your advisory-centric relationships. It can also put a spotlight on how you’re managing your firm. As the economy suffers, and businesses fight to stay in business due to social distancing and quarantines, more and more business owners will expect assistance. Financial forecasting and budgeting will be critical for continuity. As clients seek more answers and more guidance, the demand for accounting consultants increases as well.

In addition, prior to the global pandemic, client expectations were already shifting. The future CPA is one who provides consulting services through an advisory lens – offering more than compliance work and serving as a more holistic business partner. 

Chapter Nine

What types of consultants are in demand?

Shifting demographics, changes in consumer behavior, a dynamic tax and regulatory environment, technology, and a multitude of other factors are having a profound impact on the future of accounting. That impact means an unprecedented rate of change. Which types of consultants are in biggest demand will likely change from year to year, as the profession continues to evolve to meet consumer needs.

Accounting consultants have some pretty diverse skills. But there are several specialties that are particularly in demand in today’s day and age. According to the Journal of Accountancy, these are the most in-demand skills for accounting consultants:

  • Audit, risk, Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX)
  • IFRS compliance
  • Policy and technical GAAP accounting
  • FASB ASC Topic 606, Revenue Recognition
  • ASC Topic 842, Leases, and new rules for lease accounting
  • Enterprise resource planning, general ledger, and business information systems support (pre- and post-implementation)
  • General ledger consolidation
  • Proficiency in specific software

Additionally, forensic accounting, internal audits and accounting system evaluation are among the more in-demand skills.

Whether you have specialized skills or are proficient in several areas, there is a niche where you can provide great value based on your experience, skills and interests. If the accounting consulting topics in highest demand aren’t your best skills, you may want to start other advisory services in your firm.

Chapter Ten

How much should I charge as a consultant?

There are many factors involved in determining what you should charge as a consultant. Some things to keep in mind include:

  • What type of work will you be doing?
  • Where will you be working?
  • Will you have a daily commute?
  • Do you need to set up an office environment?
  • Will you purchase specialty software or other tools to do your job?
  • How long will be working on each engagement?
  • Would you rather have fixed fees for consulting jobs or charge by the hour plus out of pocket expenses?

If you are wondering if there is a ballpark number for an accounting consultant hourly rate or fixed fee, keep in mind that – in addition to the above questions that will factor into the pricing structure – rates also vary by geographic region. 

Accounting consultant salary

An ongoing survey by Indeed shows that the average salary for accounting consultants in the United States is $78,960 per year (as of April 2020).

CPA consultant salary geographic comparisons

The survey also compared annual accounting consultant salaries by geographic and metro regions. For example, a CPA consultant’s average salary in New York City is $106,000 per year, while in Bethesda, MD, the annual salary averages $74,000.

Accounting consultant hourly rates

Hourly rates for accounting consultants range from $27.39 (Tampa, FL) to $44.39 (Washington, D.C.).

Generally speaking, your clients will expect a fixed fee for consulting services. Not only that, but if you stick to hourly billing, you will need to take on and maintain more clients to increase your profits. With a fixed consulting fee, you charge for your value, above and beyond your time. Your clients pay you for your expertise, knowledge and guidance, and you will likely reap the rewards of that relationship in terms of more business from them and their referrals as well.

Chapter Eleven

How do I get started as an accounting consultant?

Getting started can be as simple as merely getting your name out there to your existing clients and referral sources or as complicated as starting a business from the ground up. It all depends on where you are in your career, what resources you have available to you (for example, the backing of an accounting firm or a loyal client base), how drastic the shift to consulting is for you in your present employment situation, and how what kind of accounting consulting you want to do.

Read our white paper, How to start an accounting advisory business, to learn more about how to become an accounting consultant.

There are many reasons why a company might hire you as their accounting consultant. As noted, those reasons may not necessarily stem directly from your technical expertise. How you present yourself to the market may determine what types of consulting gigs you get. For example, you may be hired to:

  • Fix a particular problem related to accounting systems, finances, budgeting or profitability
  • Improve the workflow for accounting and bookkeeping staff
  • Serve as the catalyst for change within an organization
  • Fill in temporarily for high level finance staff, such as a CFO or Controller

Provide unbiased, third-party perspective  

One thing is certain: starting a consulting business takes gumption, conviction, confidence and drive. It may also help if you have the software, programs, tools and other resources you need to manage your business and help your clients succeed. 

Consider a strategic vendor relationship that will help you manage workflow and client relationships with integrated solutions in addition to providing the guidance and support you need to push your firm’s transition into the future of accounting.


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