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MC900303043Winning performances in sports and theater come from having the right talent, and possessing a passion to perform. The same holds true for a CPA practice. Since selecting the best and the brightest employees plays such a critical role in a firm's success, having a smart recruiting strategy in place is a must – and the first step is to improve the scouting and screening process.

 While identifying those "hard skills" that reflect knowledge and intellect is crucial, equally important is sourcing for the "soft skills" that facilitates the delivery of unparalleled customer service. It is essential to develop a selection process that identifies those candidates, who not only possess the education and expertise required, but also have the skills that make them client-focused "standouts." The good news is that the interview process provides the ideal opportunity to identify these qualities.

Following, are ten key questions to add to the "standard" interview process, in order to source candidates that can bring any practice one step closer to a "dream team."

1) What was the most challenging experience you have had? Use this question to get to the heart of what the candidate views as a challenge. Once they have answered, be sure to ask a follow-up question, such as "Why did you view the experience you described as a challenge?" or "What have you done differently since this experience?" Do not stop with a single follow-up question. Continue to probe and ask questions until the responses have moved beyond the candidate's prepared (and usually pat) first answer, to something more meaningful.

2) What would be most problematic for you? By exploring what the candidate views as a "challenge" or "problem," it is possible to uncover the candidate's confidence, attitude, humility and concerns about his or her professional weaknesses. Be on the alert for responses that consistently place people in a negative light, and reflect a preference to defer, as these are obvious red flags.

3) If you could do one thing all over again what would that be and why? The responses to this question can come from a positive or negative experience. A positive perspective would reflect something the candidate enjoys, and therefore, would want to continue doing. A negative position would relay recognition of weakness or an area to improve. The nature of the response, whether positive or negative, is extremely telling, in and of itself. If you are looking to learn more about one side of the candidate, and have not heard that response, then reposition the question to uncover the information. For a negative matter, ask if there is a "do over" you would like to experience, and for a positive matter, ask what would you like to do one more time?

4) How would you handle an impatient, demanding individual? Ideally, responses to this question will reveal actual strategies to turn unhappy clients into satisfied customers. Look for meaningful techniques and proven examples of the candidate's success in this specific scenario. Again, dig deeper to gain a greater understanding of the candidate's actual skill set. Highly effective people have specific strategies in place to handle challenges and resolve conflicts.

5) How do you advise a superior of a contradictory viewpoint? Diplomacy is an invaluable skill in a successful practice. This question can be used to determine how well the applicant can use tact to navigate what can be a challenging scenario.

6) Who would you like to be if you could be someone else? The better you can comprehend the perspective of a candidate, the easier it will be to determine if they have the kind of customer-service perspective you are looking for. The answer to this question will allow you to get a deep read on the applicant. An applicant who admires or emulates someone who succeeded completely autonomously may not reflect the team-oriented individual that your practice is seeking. A desire to be someone who is a risk taker or has a dominating personality should be an alarm, as well.

7) How would you motivate someone to do something that you do not like doing? The answer to this question can provide two very telling pieces of information, from a single response. First, it can identify the techniques that the applicant draws upon to motivate others. Second, and perhaps more tellingly, it asks for something that they do not like to do. Pay particular attention to the second part of their response. Look for anything that hints at an aversion to client-interaction here.

8) How do you like to receive constructive criticism and with what frequency? A true team player recognizes that corrective feedback is often an essential precursor to improvement. The response here should reflect openness to course-correction, when required. Be on the lookout for anything that hints at an overt sensitivity to criticism, as this can make effective employee management difficult. An employee who is overly sensitive to criticism may also react poorly to client demands.

9) Based upon the job description, what do you feel the highs and lows of this job would be for you? This can be an especially important question that will allow you to probe and dig deeper into the candidate's response. The goal of this interview is not to "trip up," or otherwise confuse the interviewee. On the contrary, the purpose is to create a real opportunity for communication, one in which the applicant gains a true understanding of the position, and the practice manager finds a candidate who will work well with the current team, and deliver great service to clients. Use this question to make sure that the available position is a true fit for the applicant's skills, experience, and interests.

10) What kind of project would you be interested in handling, as a trial experience for both of us? Too often, people will interview strong but not perform at that level. Much like a try-out for sports or an audition for the theater – seeing is believing, in an accounting firm, as well. Accounting positions may require some ingenuity to actually get comfortable with the work habits and capabilities of a candidate, before they are made a permanent part of the firm.

Adding these types of questions to the "standard" interview can help identify those individuals who possess skills that can make them "stars" on the team. The most successful practices are staffed with employees who are committed to creating a positive client experience, during each and every interaction. In the end, smarter sourcing and screening can lead to more satisfied clients, and happier owners and staff.

Ira S. Rosenbloom
Ira S. Rosenbloom, CPA, is the Chief Operating Executive at Optimum Strategies, LLC, a consulting firm focused on helping small and medium-sized CPA firms enhance business performance, profitability and foster practice continuity. Ira can be reached at: [email protected] or at (215) 694-8084
Last modified on Wednesday, 18 June 2014
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