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How to hire and manage a bookkeeper for your shop

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 07:00
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I’ve made a lot of mistakes running a shop since I first opened my doors in 1974. In that time, I’ve spent my own time and money learning the exact wrong way to advertise, hire, fire and incentivize. I’ve filed 102 W2s in a single year hiring the wrong people, and I’ve spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a single, failed marketing campaign.

As damaging as these things are, there’s probably nothing I’ve done that has been more damaging to my business, bank account and health than hiring the wrong bookkeeper.

A bookkeeper is a vital part of running a successful repair shop, and I absolutely don’t recommend trying to operate without one. But I’d wager that 95 percent of the shop owners I know and have worked with struggle to hire, train, manage and hold their bookkeepers accountable.

This position doesn’t have to be a source of constant frustration and disappointment, especially with how critical it can be to your business. Start with learning how to hire a quality bookkeeper, how to manage him/her and lastly, how to best utilize this person.

Knowledge barrier

In the shop, we use service advisors or a related role to turn the technician’s knowledge and specialized lingo into language the customer can understand. This relationship makes sense. A technician’s highest and best use is under a car, doing inspections and turning wrenches, so we trust the service advisor to translate and clearly communicate.

A bookkeeper is every bit as specialized and deals in as much technical lingo as a technician, but doesn’t have anybody to translate for them. Which means we must approach this from both sides: we must spend some time learning basic accounting concepts, and we must expect them to translate for us.

When a conversation has gotten too technical for me – with a bookkeeper or any other position – I stop the discussion right there and ask one of two questions.

If I think I have a pretty good understanding, but don’t want to assume, I start by saying, “So, what you’re telling me is…” and repeating back their words in my own language.

And if I have no idea what they’re trying to communicate, there’s no point in me pretending, so I say, “Teach me what you mean by that.”

I know that probably seems like a strange place to start — how to ask your bookkeeper to explain what they mean – but honestly, it’s impossible to hire, train and manage a bookkeeper if you can’t communicate clearly with them. If we’re not willing to ask for an explanation, we’re going to stay stuck in the same cycle of distrust and frustration that plagues most shop owners and their relationship with their bookkeeper.

Setting expectations

Once you’re ready to openly communicate with your bookkeeper, the next critical step is to set clear expectations for what they need to do every day, week and month. These shouldn’t be poorly-defined concepts, but explicitly-defined tasks. What report to send, by what time, to whom.

In other words, a checklist.

At the expense of cutting a critical section short, you can download our Daily Bookkeeping Checklist for free at

Who to hire

My biggest failure in the bookkeeping department has been seeking the right personality. All the processes and checklists in the world can’t make the wrong fit a good bookkeeper.

For example:

I’ve hired empire builders, who wanted to take control of more and more responsibilities – which seems great until they walk and you’re left to figure out how to get five jobs done again.

I’ve hired pushovers, who were nice but unable to get even basic job responsibilities done.

I’ve hired overqualified bookkeepers who came in and wanted to change how my books were done.

I’ve been doing this since 1974. I’ve hired a lot of bookkeepers.

And if there’s a consistent lesson, it’s this: look for a bookkeeper with a personality in the middle, who is willing to fit into your system instead of taking over yours. Stick to core responsibilities – don’t let them control everything – and remember: bookkeepers are not managers or customer service people.

Does that last point sound crazy? Your bookkeeper already knows more about your business than probably anybody in it – maybe even more than you. Do you want the person who does your payroll and bank statements to communicate with your customers and employees? Because they’re doing so through that lens: “This person makes this much? I do more than them.” And, “This person owes how much? They don’t deserve excellent customer service.”

Bookkeeping has a natural tendency to produce feelings of jealousy and underappreciation. Combining that with the responsibility to lead other employees or talk with customers is a toxic combination.

Which leads to perhaps my most important point in this article: not only should bookkeepers not be involved in managing employees or providing customer service, they are also singularly unqualified for helping you make business decisions.

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