How do I Interview a Financial Advisor?

Selecting a financial advisor is an extremely important decision. A great one can benefit you and your family for generations to come, while a poor selection can be devastating. You and your family may be working with this advisor over the next 10, 20, or 30 years plus. The advisor can have a substantial impact on the quality of life for you and future generations. How can you choose the right one?

While much is written about choosing the right investment, very little is written about choosing the right financial advisor. And yet an advisor can have a much greater impact than any single investment choice. If you were interviewing a potential advisor, how would you go about selecting that person? Remember this person can have a tremendous financial impact on you.

Would you go in blind to the interview and wait for the financial consultant to sell you? Would you just hope for the best? Wouldn't it make more sense to put together a list of questions to help determine if they are the right person for you and your family before you hire them?

But what questions should be asked? What questions will separate competent advisors from product pushers and transaction junkies? What questions can help you land the great advisor in a sea of average (or worse) professionals?

Based on my experience as a financial advisor, I have developed a list of questions to help you sort the real deal advisor from the many pretenders that operate in the financial services industry.

To use the list properly, I recommend rating the advisors you interview on a scale of one to five on each question you ask. Then, total them and score each advisor. That will help to narrow down your list of candidates and help you to make an objective decision. If you are making a decision with your spouse or someone else, each of you should score the answers individually to get an accurate score for each of you and then combine them.

1)  Who is your typical client?

This question is designed to help figure out if the advisor has expertise in working with “people like you.” What you want to hear is that you are similar to the majority of clients they work with. You do not want to hear that they work with all different types of people. And while they may say they work with “nice people,” you need to get more detail than that.

2)  What professional designations do you hold?

Professional designations are important, but they must be meaningful. The CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ certification generally takes at least two years to obtain, has about a 50-percent pass rate, and cannot be used until the advisor has two years of work experience. Other designations may sound impressive but can be earned by going to a two-or three-day class in Las Vegas and taking a test where the answers are already provided. They may be worthwhile classes to attend, but anyone can get the qualification. So beware of relying too heavily on the amount of letters behind an advisor's name. The “quality” of the letters is what matters, not the quantity.

3)  Are you fee or commission based?

How this question is answered is often more telling than the answer itself. The advisor should be able to communicate to you in a straightforward way how they are compensated for giving advice. Do not expect a “rate quote” at this time though. It will be too early to settle on a fee-structure or rate at this time. Is there a “better” way for advisors to be compensated? If you ask a fee-only planner, he or she will say fees. If you ask a commission-oriented advisor, he or she will say commissions. Other advisors are able to charge either fees or commission, depending on the circumstance of the client. The goal is to be sure that the advisor's compensation closely matches the client's advice and service needs.

Generally, commission-based salespeople are compensated when money is in “motion.” Many of their recommendations will be based on activity. This may or may not be in your best interest. If you want an ongoing relationship with your advisor, fee-based has the advantage of being a more “pay as you go” structure. Another advantage is the ability to “try out” the fee-based advisor without paying 4 percent or 5 percent to find out if he or she is right for you. But over time you may actually pay more under a fee-based relationship. You need to find the advisor that will give you the best combination of price and service for your particular situation.

When listening to the answer to this question, disclosure is the key. Do you believe what the advisor is saying? Does it sound too good to be true? Does he or she seem reluctant to disclose how he or she is compensated?

If the advisor says that there are no fees involved in the investments he or she recommends, the advisor is probably not telling the truth. It's not a good idea to begin a relationship where trust is so important with dishonesty.

4)  What is your work background and experience?

Experience does matter. You want an advisor with experience helping clients like you. You may be better off working with an advisor who is 35 with 10 years of experience vs. an advisor who is 49 years old and just starting out. Experience will also help you to identify what type of advice you are most likely to receive. If the advisor spent the majority of his or her time in investment management and stock picking, it stands to reason that is where the advisor is going to concentrate. If you want someone who is going to take an overall approach to your financial situation, he or she would ideally have experience with investments, tax planning, insurance, and estate planning.

5)  May I talk to a few of your current clients to get a better idea of their experience with you?

As far as speaking to current clients, you will want to try to get clients that have worked with the advisor over a longer period of time. Because you are looking at forming a long-term relationship, wouldn't it be most useful to know that the firm treats its clients as well in years three, four, and five as they do when they are coming aboard? One warning, do not overemphasize the importance of the referral check as it is possible that a few clients who are used as referral checks receive a much higher level of service. Interviewing current clients should be used when you are nearing a decision on your advisor not at the beginning of the process.

6)  Are you permitted to offer independent advice or are you an employee of a larger corporation?

For better or worse, employers can exercise greater control over their employees. It is important to understand any potential conflicts that may arise between you and your advisor and any limitations on the guidance you receive based on the fact that your advisor is employee. While the brand name of the firm and the national advertising campaigns may make investors more comfortable, it comes with a price, as the advice may be limited, standardized, and in the best interest of the firm and not the client.

With independent advisors, it is important to understand the resources they have behind them as well as their level of experience. The experience level of the independent advisor is especially important.

7)  Where do you believe you add value to your clients' lives?

This will show you what the advisor believes his or her role is in your life. Does he solve problems? Does she use creative thinking? Does he focus on issues within his control? Does she focus on successful behaviors? The answer given should closely match the issues that you are concerned with. A great answer is one that matters to you, not one that the advisor gets excited about. Be leery of a focus on performance of investments.

8)  What is your basic strategy that you use when managing client money?

You want to know whether the underlying investment philosophy matches what you are looking for. If you disagree with the answer given or don't understand the philosophy after repeated attempts to explain, it is probably best to cross the potential advisor off your list. It is not your fault if you are unable to comprehend the acronyms, colorful charts, mountain graphs, and industry jargon that may be used. It is your advisor's job to explain things in a way that you can understand. You will want to learn whether your advisor is responsible for the day-to-day decisions on your portfolio or whether he or she puts professional money managers in place to make those decisions and monitors performance. Be careful of financial advisors who make their own stock selections. Most great money managers are not financial advisors. If they truly have the gift of buying and selling stocks, they will focus on investment management and make a fortune with that alone. Warren Buffet and Peter Lynch were investment managers not stockbrokers or financial advisors.

9)  What makes you unique among other advisors?

This one will often put the advisor on the spot. He or she will have to communicate if there is anything special about him- or herself. Again, this is an opportunity to see if what the advisor provides matches what you need. Look for self-assurance and an ability to communicate value to you. Be leery of self-centered cockiness (there is lots of it in the financial services industry). But beware of a lack of self-confidence, as this may signal inexperience or doubt in his or her own ability.

10)  What happens to your clients if you retire, are disabled, or die?

The important thing is that your advisor has an effective plan in place so that you do not experience service issues in case of the unforeseen. Does he or she have a database and documentation plan in place so that the successor advisor can step in and help without forcing you to “retrain” the replacement on all of the issues that are important to you and your family?

One Final Note . . .

Be careful not to make your decision based on emotions and sales techniques. If you have a feeling in the pit of your stomach and feel uncertain, you need to take more time. By simply telling the advisor you need more time you will learn more about the advisor. If he has your best interest at heart, he will honor your request. If she applies pressure, gets upset, tries to scare you, or pull back the offer you should be concerned. Use the scorecard technique I outlined to help you make a great decision.

If none of your potential advisors scores well, don't give up. Keep up the interview process until you find the right advisor for you and your family. It's one of the most important “hiring” decisions you will ever make.