Get the Job Jan 13 2010

Interview Tips: Six Questions Accounting Job Seekers Should Ask

By yoree koh

It's been said that there is no such thing as a stupid question. That may be so but during a job interview asking a less than stellar question could be a dealbreaker.

While your answers to their questions may seem the most obvious ways to impress the interviewer, the Q&A session can work both ways. Asking thoughtful, insightful questions can also show the company why you're the best person for the job. Be sure to have more than a blank stare ready when the interviewer asks, "do you have any questions for me?"

When preparing a list of questions you plan to ask during the interview, the age of too much information may seem like a blessing and a curse. With clicks upon clicks of industry news stories and company Web sites overstuffed with firm facts, it's difficult to decipher what is fair not to know about a given company.

Most of the Big Four accounting firms (KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Ernst & Young, and Deloitte), for example, each have Web site sections that extensively describe their services, client roster, and corporate culture. Some firms like Deloitte and RSM McGladrey even have a Twitter feed dedicated to expounding what daily company life is like.

But, used correctly, reading up on a company makes it easier to craft questions that come across as well informed and showcase your interest in the company. Below are some of the questions that, if asked, could lead to an invitation to come back for another round of interviews, or, even better, as an employee.

1. Mapping Your Career: While company Web sites have detailed career pages, the interview is a good opportunity to dig into details of how you can get from point A to point B at the firm, like moving from senior associate to managing director.

"Asking about career paths shows you that someone is forward thinking, that they are really focused on their career and able to grow and develop, especially somewhere within the firm so it's good to hear those questions come from these folks," said Mike Baron, U.S. experience recruiting leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Sample questions: What opportunities and tools are available to me at the firm as I move through this practice and expand my career?

2. Focus on the Clients: Clients are considered "our bread and butter," said John Henkel, national recruiting director for experienced hires for tax and audit services at KPMG, so showing a keen interest in who the clients are is significant. The interview process at KPMG is typically broken into three target areas: examining a prospective employee's technical expertise; soft skills such as client communication; and whether they would be a good cultural fit at the firm.

Sample questions: What kind of clients will I get to work on? What industries would I have the opportunity to cover?

3. Show then Ask: One question that stands out to Baron of PwC is just as impressive in its approach as its content.

"What we like to hear is someone come in and say, 'over the last couple of years I've generated an average of $2 to $3 million in nonrecurring revenue. What would the expectation be in regard to the dollars I need to be generating here?'" said Baron. "Being able to state that also gives you as the employer the opportunity to understand the work that they've actually been able to accomplish. So somebody who comes to the table with this, they've clearly done their thinking and their preparations in terms of what you're probably going to be asking them by coming to the table and asking you that question."

4. Understand the Everyday Culture: Corporate culture is prized at many of the top accounting firms and using the interview as an opportunity to get past the company's blanket statement about values is fair game. What is the best way to get a true sense of the company culture? Ask your interviewer why he or she works there and what keeps them there, suggests Henkel. "It is a chance for them [the interviewees] see the words on the Web site live and in action," said Henkel.

Queries about the firm's internal technology programs also shows that you are curious about the way the practice is run on a daily basis.

"Any questions from my perspective that are geared towards what these folks are going to be doing on a regular daily basis to be able to help them develop and grow are clearly going to be questions that we're going to be looking at as very positive," said Baron.

5. Display Technical Finesse: As an experienced industry player, it is expected that you will be up to speed on the latest regulatory changes. But inquiring about how those changes will affect the firm's clients and future project strategies, for example, is a question that will put you a step above the rest.

Sample questions for Auditors: How is KPMG preparing its clients for the expected transition from GAAP to IFRS? How does KPMG expect to handle the transition across industries?

6. Make a Lasting Impression: Unlike grade school when you were itching to get out of class, don't leave the interviewer hanging when he or she concludes the session with, "do you have any last questions?" and make sure it counts.

"First and foremost we're looking for the question that is 'what are the next steps?'" said Baron. "We want to understand how somebody feels about the opportunity and when somebody asks what the next steps are or what is the next step we know that we have them interested in us and in this opportunity. So that will clearly be a first question that we want to hear."

A solid second place would be to inquire whether you could meet with additional people at the firm, specifically those that would be leading your practice area. It shows that the candidates are enthusiastic while also considering they'd be a good fit for the firm from their viewpoint as well, adds Baron.

Write to Yoree Koh

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