Here’s how to determine whether finding consultants to advise you on business matters is right for your practice.
Many small business owners voice frustration about finding and working with professional advisors. While they recognize the need for advice, they often don’t know where to find it or how to tell if a potential consultant is truly an advocate or a parasite. In fact, one of the most common questions I hear is, “What should I look for in an advisor, and how can I trust what they tell me?”
Unfortunately, trust is not always high, which can sometimes prevent the use of much needed professional help. There is also often a disconnect in the language spoken by advisors – whether it is the use of “legalese” or financial jargon that can be confusing at best. Good advisors, however, can provide very necessary and important services. For example, an experienced estate-planning attorney can provide family business owners with a range of important options for transferring their estate, including their business, to the next generation while minimizing their tax implications. They can educate you about the use of trusts, family LLCs and other vehicles that may well meet your needs. But in order to do so, these advisors need to be knowledgeable about issues the family will face and the issues that will impact the business. Often a professional advisor will be knowledgeable about one but not the other.
Here are seven considerations to keep in mind as you seek to work with a trusted estate or tax attorney, find a CPA who speaks your language or locate an insurance agent who truly gives you peace of mind.
1. Interview more than one professional in any given field.
Remember, you are purchasing services, and you have a right to choose a provider who meets your needs.
2. Write out a list of your needs and expectations before you meet with an advisor.
For example, if you want to work with a CPA, decide ahead of time what kinds of changes you want to see in the financial reporting for your company. List the experiences you have had in the past that did not meet your needs, and offer an alternative that you are looking for in a new relationship.
3. Retain a legal advisor with business experience.
When seeking an attorney to assist with estate planning, look for someone who has had some business experience – preferably someone who owned their own business or was part of a family business at some point. Failing that, look for an attorney who has a dual background in accounting and law (as many do) or who regularly partners with another attorney who can bring corporate and business experience to the discussion. Sometimes estate plans are written in a way that may destroy the business or cause long-term disharmony in the family. Begin by asking your professional colleagues about their legal advisors. Ask whether they took the time to explore the business impacts of the estate plan and the long-term wishes regarding family relationships.
When working with your attorney, be sure to develop a draft of the key points you would like your legal document(s) to address. Make sure you understand the language in any document your attorney produces; it is your document and you have a right to understand what it says.
4. Find an insurance agent who will consult with you not just collect a commission.
Some insurance agents are more interested in selling you a product than in learning about your business and personal needs. Consider working with someone who will actually consult with you, for a fee, rather than collect their entire payment through commission. When an advisor is paid for their impartial advice, they are more likely to recommend plans and products that will work in your best interest. When they are paid on commission, some less professional folks may be tempted to serve their own interests first.
Be sure to ask insurance prospects about their experiences working with family businesses and how the types of products or services they recommend for families with businesses differ from other types of insurance products.
5. Look for an independent financial advisor.
Personal and professional financial advisors and financial planners can also be driven by the sale of products rather than being focused on what is best for you and your business. To ensure you are getting the advice you need, look for an independent financial advisor – one who can develop a plan for you for a fee, regardless of whether or not you purchase other services from them. Seek out an advisor who takes an active interest in your business and how your business planning will impact your personal planning. Be wary of financial advisors who claim you must retire with exorbitant levels of personal wealth; they may suggest an investment plan that benefits them rather than you.
6. Tell your advisors how they’re doing – good or bad.
Let your advisors know when you are happy and satisfied with their services – and when you are not! Many small business owners feel intimidated by their professional advisors and continue to pay their fees while cursing their service. This does not need to happen. Work together with your advisors and let them know this is a transactional relationship, one based on mutual trust and clear communication.
7. Invite all your advisors to the same table.
It can be very frustrating and expensive to have your accountant, attorney, financial consultant and insurance specialists all giving you different advice and contradicting one another. Yet, it is not uncommon for one advisor to give you very different information from another. Consider inviting all of your advisors to the discussion whenever you are developing important plans and documents for your business and family. Don’t hesitate to invite your CPA to meet with your estate planning or tax attorney and your financial advisor or your personal banker. Bringing all of the necessary specialists to the table at the same time to hammer out key agreements and help make faster, and more informed, decisions may save you time, money and frustration. If any of your professional contacts balk at the idea of sharing time with others, you probably haven’t found the right match.
Lisë Stewart is founder and director of Galliard Group, a training and consulting firm specializing in family-owned and closely held businesses. She is a nationally recognized author and speaker who draws on her 25+ years of experience to share practical advice for ensuring sustainability of family businesses. She can be reached via email at LStewart@GalliardGroup.com.