Five Questions to Ask Small Business Professional Service Advisors

Too often, small business owners do not have the right talent working for them. Some of that is lack of information — we don’t know what we need — but sometimes the situation is the result of not asking the professional in front of us the right questions, whether that professional is a lawyer, accountant, banker, or something similar.

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So what questions do you need to ask every person who’s providing you professional services to make sure that you’re getting the quality of service that you need? The questions generally relate to aspects of the relationship that you should understand to avoid surprises later. For the purposes of this article, the questions are going to be relatively generic and applicable to every different service provider that you might encounter. I will provide additional, industry specific questions in a later article.

Question one: how will you charge me?

You should know before you go in, do they charge on an hourly basis, on a monthly basis, on a per activity basis. Also how do they want to be paid? Many professional service firm ask for a retainer, in other words, to be paid up front. The money goes into their trust account and then they draw down against them. Be sure you understand that ahead of time. Be sure you understand how you’re being charged.

Question two: how do I reach you when I have a question?

You don’t want to have to spend time trying to figure out where to find your accountant, your lawyer, or your business consultant. You want to be able to reach out and touch them. That doesn’t mean that you need to have their text number or give them a special beep or anything like that.

You just need to know what the standard is. What’s the approach going to be? A related question is how do I get documents to and from you? Virtually any of these professionals at some point is either going to need to send you things or provide things to you. Sometimes those are documents that require official signatures on it, so you can’t do it all by email. Regardless of the manner of transfer, you need to know how they operate. Will they set up a dropbox or something similar where you can exchange documents that way? Will they email things back and forth? Will you be speaking specifically to their admin? How do you get in front of them? How do they like to get in front of you? Not having the answer to these questions will lead to unnecessary stress and delays, often when a deadline is rapidly approaching. Ideally, the professional will have some form of written discussion on this topic, but if they don’t, that just means that you need to ask for some additional information and clarification.

Question three: who’s doing the work?

I have heard so many small business people come in and complain that the person who did the sales job, who got them onboard is the last person they see doing any of the work.

That’s a question you need to ask. Many times that’ll be reflected in the bill. The bill, if you’re being billed on an hourly basis, will reflect all the different professionals who are working on your your manner, but sometimes you won’t know how to read those either, so you want to be able to ask the questions about the bill so that you know who’s doing the work.

In most cases, as a small businessperson, you’ll want to meet that person and ask them some of the questions you asked before. How do I reach you? How do you plan to reach me? How do we exchange documents?

Those people who are actually doing the work will be critical to the success of the engagement whatever they are doing for you.

Question four: what are the limits of your work?

Most of us, when we’re talking about doctors, we know that you don’t go to see a podiatrist if you have a heart problem. Yet people don’t apply that outside of that narrow medical field.

There are specialties within accounting, within banking, within the legal field. If you’re not aware of the limitations of the professional in front of you, you are costing yourself money and you are endangering your livelihood at the same time in ways that you can’t even imagine.

Admittedly, this is a little bit of a trick question. When you ask this question you might get somebody who doesn’t want to give you the straightest of answers. They are thinking to themselves, any area that I don’t know, I will learn by the time it matters. It’s not a good approach. It’s makes a whole lot more sense. Even though it may sound like it may cost you more money in the short run to know the limits of the people that you’re dealing with. For example, I’m dealing with a matter now where there is a probate issue, a business corporation issue and a tax issue, and really you need at least two if not three different people on the legal side dealing with those issues, but that’s just one example.

Keep in mind you see this in the medical industry all the time. Last time I was in the hospital, I had a pulmonologist, somebody dealing with my heart issues and a host of different people. That’s not that surprising and it’s true in other areas as well. Beware of anyone who tells you differently.

Question five: If I think you’re doing a good job, who are the people that I need to be looking out for so that I can send them to you?

No one asks that question. If you ask the question of your business professional who was helping you put the business together, you will immediately go to the top of their list in terms of the care and service that they want to provide to you and you’ll also get a very interesting insight into their business because after all, they’re small business people too.

If the person that they describe as their ideal client doesn’t look like you, doesn’t sound like you, doesn’t feel like you, maybe you’re with the wrong person. If it is you, that’s great. You’re in the right place. If it’s not, think again about whether you have the right person in front of you.

Of course, if that professional is doing good work for you, share the referral, tell your friends, maybe not necessarily on social media if you’re not comfortable doing that. A good word from a good friend is always much better than any amount of advertising that you can do.

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These questions are just a start on the journey of obtaining good counsel. The onus is on the small business owner to hold their professionals accountable and to get the best results and information possible out of those professionals. This all starts by asking the right questions and listening to the answers.