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5 Traps to Look Out for When Buying an Accounting Practice

by Mar 11, 2019Buying or selling an accountancy practice

Although buying an accounting practice is a quick and effective way to propel your practice forward, a bad deal can hinder your growth plans and leave you in a spot of trouble. Here are 5 traps to look out for when buying an accounting practice.


1. Not keeping the deal confidential

Sellers can be very sensitive about confidentiality, especially if a potential buyer is taking on a large number of fees, so if this is compromised, this can terminate a deal altogether.

A big problem when buying an accounting practice over the Summer months is holidays; absences can lead to confidentiality being breached as an email meant for one staff member could potentially be seen by another covering for them in their absence.  

2. Inheriting difficult or incompetent staff

Sellers generally do not know how competent their staff are and the buyer isn’t allowed to communicate with them during the deal period, so when buying an accounting practice, the buyer runs the risk of inheriting underperforming or difficult staff members.

Problems can arise both pre and post-sale when staff ability is reviewed; such as the cost of staff equalling the turnover, the continuity of service preventing you from letting go of incompetent staff, and unsettled staff leaving and potentially taking clients with them.

3. A low quality, low fee client base

Many service-businesses were started by accountants who undercut the fees charged by their local competitors to attract a nucleus of clients; this means that a buyer could be purchasing a large client base, but these are clients who are undercharged for the service offered and this below market rate makes it hard to make a profit.

As well as suffering financially, a buyer could also suffer from very low-level work, having to work excessive hours, and having to increase fees which may impact on the retention of their entire client base. (Find out how to win bigger and better clients).

4. Clients not transferring to you

Although there is a high degree of trust involved in acquisitions, there is a higher degree of both trust and risk when buying an accounting practice as you are acquiring relationships.

There is no contractual ‘ownership’ of a client, they can walk at any time, so when a buyer buys a practice, they risk losing clients. This is especially possible if the seller built long-term relationships with clients and was “the business” or if the seller intends to continue locally as a practising accountant.

5. A clash of cultures that affects growth

As well as acquiring relationships with new clients, a buyer will also be acquiring a whole new team of staff who they will need to build relationships with; people who are used to working in a certain way.

If these new staff members have very different values or don’t support your growth plan and continue to work differently, this can lead to a clash of cultures which ultimately will affect productivity, growth, and profitability. (Find out how to get your staff to support your growth plans)

Do your due diligence!

Buying an accounting practice doesn’t come without its risks, but you can significantly reduce these risks or prevent some altogether by doing a thorough analysis of the practice being sold during the deal stage.

Here are a few ways that you can avoid these traps above:

  • Communicate using private emails, spouse’s emails, or any other suitable method to keep everything confidential.
  • Look at the hours done by the staff and the amount of the turnover.
  • If possible, interview key members of staff to ensure that they are competent and capable of doing the job.
  • Look at the number of clients, the rate they are charged, the number of free cases or pro-bono work etc.
  • Investigate client files alongside time records to ensure that they are being serviced profitably.
  • Negotiate a ‘clawback’ clause to protect you from clients not transferring to you as well as a reasonable handover period. You could even negotiate with the seller to work with you as a consultant during the transition period.
  • Educate and train all new staff members on the way you work and the growth plan for your practice, but be flexible and open to new ideas.

By working with a broker that specialises in accountancy, you can avoid these traps when buying an accounting practice and negotiate the best deal for you and your practice.