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Getting the most out of your business advisors

By P. Douglas Filaroski    

Attorney Ray Driver remembers a call from a small business owner he consideredadvisors more than just a client.

“He said ‘I just wanted to let you know I terminated a contract with a vendor and now they are suing me,’ ” said Driver, who wished he’d had the chance to advise his client before the client made such a drastic and ultimately business decision that turned out to be very expensive.

For small business owners, maintaining a close relationship with the legal, financial, tax, and other professional experts they hire for services is one of the keys to keeping a useful stable of “advisors.”

“I know people don’t want to call lawyers on the front end because it can be expensive,” said Driver, a partner at Driver, McAfee, Peek & Hawthorne in Jacksonville. “But on the back end, it can be more expensive.”

Most small businesses can’t afford to have an expert on staff to handle all their professional needs. So there are several keys points to remember when contracting with a professional advisor.

Perhaps the most vital is to remember you’re not hiring a faceless professional who bills you by the hour; you’re hiring a true partner with whom an intimate business relationship is essential.

“That takes time,” Driver said. “But I believe that’s where it should end up. In fact, I historically have found many of my relationships grow into close friendships.”

David Barley, a certified public account at Barley, Martin &Wild, CPAs in Jacksonville, said perhaps the most important is to know the professional you’re dealing with before you hire him.

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“One of the best ways to find a good CPA, or any professional services provider, is to ask other professionals you already use for a referral,” said Barley, who suggested business owners ask their bankers, insurance agents, attorneys, even doctors for leads.

“They’ll send you to someone they trust, and they know will take care of you,” Barley said. “They don’t want to look foolish by sending you to someone that makes them look bad.”

Once you have a referral, check them out on association Web sites. While you’re there, get names of other professionals. Google the names and read what has been written about them.

The relationship cannot be effective unless the business owner feels comfortable with the professional and trusts them.

“One of the big issues is trust,” Barley said. “A reputable CPA will keep all of your information completely confidential. Being open and honest regarding all things financial is important.”

Michael Pitts, branch manager with SunTrust Bank in Jacksonville, said once business owners have selected an advisor they need to teach that advisor about their business.

That goes beyond phone conversations, e-mails, or even lunch meetings.

“Invite them out to your business,” Pitts said. “I’m a very visual person. So going to an owner’s location goes a long way in getting me to understand what they’re really all about.”

Contracting with a professional for services is really more than that. Small business owners should think of it as taking on a partner.

“The biggest thing is making sure everyone who is your partner is taking work off your plate,” Pitts said. “We want to do more than just lend you money. We want to provide you the backing you need to grow your business, but we need to understand it first.”

Of course, few healthy business relationships can exist without a contract or some form of documentation. That’s why Sheila Collins, president of Collins Capital Management Inc. in Jacksonville, says business owners should get terms of their agreements in writing.

Financial investments advisors should explain the difference between commission- or fee-based services. Then once services and fees are agreed upon, the advisor should provide a copy of the agreement to clients.

Also, your financial advisor should document the performance of your portfolio account as measured against appropriate market indexes each quarter, Collins said. 
Driver, the attorney, said a large percentage of the work he does for clients is contract work. Small businesses represent  a material portion of his business. Yet he knows small business owners don’t always get agreements with vendors spelled out in writing.

Driver said there’s another key that’s as basic but one that many small business owners forget: Listen to your advisors.

“That one seems pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised,” Driver said. “People will hire someone, pay them good money, and ignore or forget to seek their advice.”

Advisors don’t always have a clear-cut answer, but they often do and they are seldom uninformed about potential solutions.

“It doesn’t always mean they’re right,” Driver said. “Question them. There are few things in the business world that are black and white. So talk with them and come to a decision together.”

P. Douglas Filaroski is a contributing editor to the Jacksonville Small Business Advantage. He can be reached at dfilaroski@att.net.

 

SIDEBAR

How to hire advisors

Shop around. Ask business associates or other professionals who they use for legal, financial, tax or investing advice — and begin there. Do research through professional associations’ Web sites, and on Google. The most important thing: Consider more than one option.

Get it in writing. Once you’ve hired a professional to provide services to your business— an advisor—understand exactly what you’ve hired them to do. Then get it in writing. Make sure there’s a contract or written document outlining a scope of work.

• Get to know your advisors. Invite them to your business; show them around; get to know them on a personal level so they truly understand your business and its needs. Let them take you to lunch or coffee to complete the connection. Trust is the most important component of this relationship.

Make your advisor your partner. Talk often with your advisor. It’s vital you invite them into the decision-making process early so they can have an effect on that big decision. It’s your business, but you want your advisor to feel like a partner.

Challenge them to bring ideas. Challenge your advisor to be creative and bring solutions to the table. It’s not enough to perform services and follow the letter of a contract. They should fulfill the spirit of the deal and contribute ideas to help you become more successful.

Listen to them. This one sounds obvious, but how many business owners ignore the advice they’ve paid for. Your advisor’s not always right, but he or she is not usually wrong, and you should come to a decision together.

Advisors: Not hired for life

There is no such thing today as a lifetime job—not even for your trusted business advisors. It takes time to establish a trusting relationship, but trust alone is not enough to sustain an advisory association.

Periodically review your relationships. Ideally, you and your advisors will grow more successful together. But, if you (or they) outgrow the relationship, end it formally and seek other advisors that more closely match your needs.

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