Professional Advisors – Friends or Foes?
Originally published: 11.01.13 by
Finding advisors who
will do what’s best for your business
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 advisor 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, sometimes
preventing the use of much needed professional help. And there is 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
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
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 he or she 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
5. Look for an independent
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
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. And if any of your professional contacts balk at
the idea of sharing time with others, you probably haven’t found the right
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. Lisë can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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