Outsourced Accounting Services: Before you hire an in-house accountant — here’s how to clarify your most important deliverables

Posted in topics: Leadership

Hiring an outsourced accounting services expert or bringing your accounting in-house is an important move for any agency or professional services firm. You want to ensure your investment pays off, and most business owners can’t afford to hire the wrong person for the role.

To help you decide between engaging an outsourced accounting services expert — or hiring an in-house accountant — we’ve prepared the following guide so you know what to expect for deliverables and salary ranges to consider. 

The term “Accountant” has a broad definition, and just like other professions, accountants tend to be specialists, not generalists. An accountant with a background in manufacturing is unlikely to understand the nuances of running a professional service firm, just like an accountant with a background in agencies is unlikely to have a depth of expertise in the oil and gas industry.

When You Say “Accountant,” Here’s What You Might Mean

Accounting services could include any number of roles, such as:

  • Accounts Payable Specialist
  • Accounts Receivable Specialist
  • Payroll and Benefits Administrator
  • General Accountant
  • Project Accountant
  • Bookkeeper
  • Controller
  • Financial Analyst
  • Finance Director
  • Chief Financial Officer

But — it’s not uncommon for an agency to need more than one of these accounting services or roles in-house. But frequently — the agency’s cash flow prevents that. And even if an agency’s budget did allow for a multiple-person accounting services team, an agency rarely has anyone in-house with the skills to recruit, train, and develop an accounting team for these various roles. 

Additionally, an agency owner may struggle to know what they need or what “good” looks like regarding accounting services. They may hire an in-house accountant with vague ideas of what an accountant is or lofty ideas of what they believe an in-house accountant should be able to deliver.

When this happens, the owner may feel disappointed when the person hired can’t provide everything envisioned by the owner.  

Before we dive into how an accountant can best deliver on your agency’s expectations, let’s iron out some of the different definitions for roles within the accounting services typically found inside agencies.

In-House Accountant Job Description Templates for Small to Mid-Sized Agencies and Service Firms

Ready to take the plunge and hire your first in-house accountant?  We’ve created sample job description templates for the most common junior and senior finance roles in independent professional service firms. And — we recommend you also review our post on “6 Questions to Ask Before Hiring an Accountant.”

General Accountant

Salary: 45-60K/year

This is a “catch-all” title for a generalist accountant. They’re essentially full-time bookkeepers who are more invested in accounting services as a career. A general accountant should have experience with:

  • Accounts payable (i.e., paying vendors or suppliers)
  • Bank and credit card reconciliations
  • Collecting payments from clients
  • Sales tax filing
  • Payroll

If you have an external resource who processes your payroll, payroll experience might not be necessary. But if this role is required to do payroll, ensure the candidates you’re considering have prior experience. While payroll is essential for any business, a general accountant rarely has that skill set. 

Project Accountant

Salary: 60-80K/year

A project accountant is experienced in managing project finances. Most general accountants don’t have this level of experience. A project accountant’s job is to ensure that:

  • Each project has an estimate
  • All sales and project-related costs are attached to a project
  • The sum of a project’s expenses don’t exceed the estimate — and if they do — the accountant should escalate it to the team member managing the project
  • All the costs associated with doing work for the project are invoiced to the client, and the project is billed in full
  • The time staff spends on projects is within the estimate
  • They know how the project performed from a financial perspective

While project accountants don’t make decisions on a budget like a project manager would, they work closely with project managers to ensure the financials are visible and accurate. A project manager needs a good project accountant to do their job well.

Bookkeeper

Salary: varies, often hourly

Bookkeepers are recordkeepers of your agency’s transactions. However, there can be misunderstandings about what a bookkeeper can and can’t do. Here is what bookkeepers should be asked to do as part of an accounting services team.

  • Data entry of all accounts payable
  • Recording payments from clients
  • Bank and credit card reconciliations
  • Pay invoices
  • Payroll, but this is less common

Here’s What Bookkeepers Don’t Do


Most agencies hire bookkeepers thinking they can do it all. You may have recently hired an in-house bookkeeper and already experienced some holes in what your teammate can deliver versus what you need for your agency.

The biggest issue with a bookkeeping-only solution is that they look at transactions that have already happened. While having this information is essential, it lacks the future-focused perspective that helps agencies plan.

Your accounting data needs to be timely.

It’s not unusual for your bookkeeper to “close” the books on a month several weeks after the actual end of the month. When you get your financials, it’s too late to do anything with the information. 

Bookkeepers Should Have Experience With “Agency Accounting” 

If you hire a bookkeeper who is not experienced in agency accounting, they most likely won’t know how to do project-based accounting. Without project-based accounting, you have little idea how well your clients and projects perform. If business is good, you can’t track those metrics back to the best-performing clients. If business is bad, you can’t see where the opportunities are at a client and project level. 

Furthermore, bookkeepers are unlikely to know how to improve your financial performance or what good financial performance looks like for an agency your size. You might find our brief blog post on “3 Common Pitfalls we see in Small Creative Firm Bookkeeping” helpful as you consider the next steps.

Controller

Salary: 90-120K/year

A controller’s focus is generally on the accuracy of financial information and compliance. They ask questions like: “Was the transaction recorded properly?” “Are the financial statements complete?” “Is the agency compliant with regulations?”

In a larger agency, the controller supervises the work of accounting services teammates performing:

  • Accounts Payable
  • Accounts Receivable
  • Payroll

Like general accountants and bookkeepers, controllers focus on past transactions. 

Financial Analyst

Salary: 70-120K/year

A financial analyst guides an agency to make financial decisions that can maximize profitability. They are generally curious and interested in the agency’s operation in addition to financial reporting. 

However, financial analysts don’t always know about the nuts and bolts of accounting services. They spend their days in spreadsheets and operations systems instead of accounting systems. Nevertheless, they are the experts who support the financial analysis and planning function.

A financial analyst’s expertise typically lies in

  • Budgeting and forecasting
  • Pricing
  • Rate analysis
  • Scenario planning and “what if” analysis
  • Variance analysis
  • Project and client profitability

A good financial analyst, while perhaps inexperienced in, say, payroll or accounts payable, can serve as a valuable advisor for making sound financial decisions.

Finance Director

Salary: 90-150K/year

A finance director oversees the other accounting services functions in the business (e.g., the controller, general accountant, etc.). They could have arrived at this role either from a financial analyst background (FP&A) or a controllership background.

Typically, positions like these are responsible for the agency’s accounting and supporting the leadership team. They use their strong understanding of how the agency makes money to contribute to the business strategy, and they can weigh in on decisions that impact the agency’s financial performance.

Most small to mid-sized agencies have a finance director instead of a chief financial officer (CFO) because the responsibilities in a small agency are similar. Like a CFO, a finance director at an agency should have an FP&A background to support a business’s planning. But they also need to be proficient in accounting, as they are responsible for the accuracy of the financial statements. 

Although nuts and bolts accounting services experience may seem like a given for anyone in this role, don’t assume all finance directors have it. This gap often happens if the finance director was once an analyst at a large corporation, where they didn’t have exposure to or responsibility for basic accounting operations.

If the agency only has a finance director who doesn’t have expertise in payroll, accounts payable, accounts receivable, and sales tax filing expertise, poor accounting practices may go unnoticed. 

Chief Financial Officer (CFO)

Salary: 120-200K/year

A CFO will likely perform the same duties as a financial director, especially in a small to mid-sized agency. You might find our “4 Metrics Every CFO Should Monitor in Creative Firms” article helpful if you’re seriously considering hiring a chief financial officer. 

Their other responsibilities include:

  • Manage banking relationships  
  • Ensuring the business has the right capital structure
  • Manage risk for the business
  • Negotiate contracts with clients
  • Participate in strategic planning for the business
  • Manage most legal issues

It’s unlikely that you need a CFO if you’re a small agency. Instead, you can acquire the same deliverables for a smaller price by hiring a finance director or engaging an outsourced accounting services firm.

Getting Clear on What Accounting Services You Need

What are the outcomes you want for your business? And which type of accounting services professional can fulfill those outcomes? If you don’t iron out your desired business outcomes, you might get stuck with an accountant or accounting services team that doesn’t have the skill sets to deliver on your goals.

So make a list of prioritized deliverables. Even though it will be a challenge to find someone who ticks all your boxes, you can recruit someone according to what’s most important to you.

Some questions to ask yourself when you create your list are:

  • Do I need someone to do my budgeting and forecasting?
  • Do I want someone to participate in the decision-making for the business, or do I just want someone to process transactions accurately?
  • Does my account or project management team do my billing, or do I want my accounting services function to do this?
  • Do I want my accountant to follow up with clients for payments? Do they have the people skills to do this?
  • Do I want my accounting services team to review transactions that have already happened, or do I want them to focus on transactions that will happen in the future? Or do I need both?
  • Who in my business will be responsible for payroll and benefits administration? How do I plan to filter applicants for the right kind of accounting services experience?
  • Will I rely on my accountant to manage cash flow?
  • Who will oversee the work of my accountant or accounting services team, and how will they know whether the work is accurate?

That may seem like many questions, but the more you hone in on your deliverables, the more likely you will find the right candidates for your accounting services position(s).

Outsourced Accounting Services: Agency Cash Flow is Best Protected by Outsourcing 

Small to mid-sized agencies need someone to take care of the day-to-day accounting services, but they also need to be future-oriented. And ideally, whomever they hire should be skilled at financial planning and analysis, business strategy, and operations. 

That’s a tall order.

And even if you can find an accounting services unicorn like that, it’s unlikely they will have the capacity to perform all those functions with excellence.

You could hire for multiple accounting services roles, but buying that combination of skill sets is prohibitively expensive.

The number one reason businesses fail is that they run out of cash and have poor planning processes. If you simply hire a bookkeeper, it doesn’t increase your odds of being successful.

The strategic question is: do you want to trade business insights for good record-keeping? 

But — what if you could have both? Without any sacrifice. 

Outsourced accounting services are more cost-effective than ever to deliver.

If you choose to outsource — you can get all of the accounting services skills that your leadership team requires without hiring multiple accountants full-time.

The right outsourced accounting services partner can afford you the same financial solutions and horsepower as a larger agency without the major price tag. 

With outsourced accounting services, you pay less of what you would pay for multiple accounting roles— and still receive the same pedigree of services.

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