As much as many of you would like to believe you can do it all, none of you has yet to be ordained as Superman or Wonder Woman. At times, your business requires an expertise that you just don't possess and don't have the time to learn. That's when you need a professional — a lawyer, certified public accountant, marketer or other professional — to guide you in unfamiliar territory.
While there isn't a lack of professionals, it's difficult to know how to find one you can trust. Following are some suggestions for seeking out a pro.
- Ask around
There's nothing more important and valuable than asking around about professionals. Start by asking the owners of businesses in your area that are service-oriented businesses and those that are about the size of your business. You can ask other health club owners about who they use — although it might be wise to chat with owners of clubs outside your competitive area. Once you've developed a list of individuals to visit, ask each professional for references, and check out the references.
When you are looking for referrals, being a member of Rotary or Kiwanis is a good idea, says Doug Charney, senior vice president of Charney Investment Group of Wachovia Securities, Harrisburg, PA.
“Your most successful CPAs and marketing people and professionals will be members of Rotary,” Charney says. Membership costs are minimal, and membership provides you with the added opportunity to market your business to other professionals.
- Make sure the professional is qualified
Beyond getting references, you need to check with associations that certify or qualify an individual to ensure they are in good standing. The local chamber of commerce also will have information about professionals although they won't endorse anyone.
- Check out online portals
The Internet can be helpful in a search for professionals and their qualifications. For example, if you need a lawyer, you can check out portals such as FindLaw at http://biz.findlaw.com/, which is searchable by lawyer name, firm name, practice area or location, according to Leonard Lee at FindLaw. Often, these types of sites will include detailed profiles of the professionals including their experience, credentials and qualifications.
- Know what you want and what they can offer
You have to know what you think you need from each professional and then find out what each professional can offer. If you want a lawyer to set up a contract with your independent instructors, then you need to make sure that the lawyer has experience doing that. If you are looking at a marketing firm, you need to know whether you want them to create ads for you or simply handle press releases. If you want them to create and place advertisements, then you need to find out whether they have a graphic designer on hand to design the ad or whether they will be contracting with a designer — in which case, will they charge you extra for that?
- Ask about your uniqueness
Find out what kind of businesses the professional has worked with in the past. You don't want to be the first health club that a lawyer has worked with or an accountant has offered tax advice to. It's best if you don't tell the professional what business you are involved with before you ask them what kinds of businesses they deal with. Otherwise, they may be tempted to fudge the truth about their experience with the health club industry, and that will mean that you will be paying, either directly or indirectly, for their training in your industry, says Charney.
- Seek free consultation
Many professionals will offer a free first meeting as a kind of “getting to know you” session. Many lawyers will do this, says Lee. The meeting allows the professional to find out your needs and issues and allows you to ask questions about the professional and his/her business. You can also see whether the professional is someone you can get along with and work with on a long-term basis based on personality compatibility and expertise.
- Visit with more than one professional
With the free initial consultation, you can afford to visit three or four professionals, which allows you a comparison of qualifications. When you visit lawyers, you want to make sure that you ask the right questions, says Lee. Here are some things that Lee says you should find out before you hire a lawyer. Many of these questions (with some modifications) would be appropriate to ask of other professionals, too.
How many years of experience do you have?
Will anyone else will be working on the case/contract/account besides the professional with whom you are speaking (if so, find out about that person's qualifications)
What are the fees? Lawyers generally charge one of three ways: an hourly fee, the amount won or the type of case. Find out what the attorney estimates your total charges would be. Sometimes lawyers use paralegals and law clerks to help research a case. Find out whether that is a separate fee from the lawyer's fee. In addition, find out when the lawyer expects the bill to be paid and whether an installment plan can be set up for payment. With marketers and public relations firms, you need to find out who will be performing what work and how you will be charged for it.
Who do you turn to for advice if you don't know how to handle something?
What are your thoughts on the possible outcome of my case (if a lawsuit or court case has caused you to seek a lawyer)?
How can I help? Particularly in the case of an attorney, you can decrease some expenses by actively participating in your case. You may be able to gather documents on your own rather than paying the attorney's law clerk to do so.
How often will you contact me? If you are working with a lawyer on a case, you may feel the lawyer should call you everyday, but the lawyer may not think that's necessary. Make sure to establish how often you will be in contact and who will initiate the contact. This is also important to establish for a marketing firm, but perhaps not as important with a CPA.
Will I receive copies of documents? You'll want to keep in your possession as much of the information as your professional has on you as possible. That means asking your marketing company, CPA and especially your lawyer for copies of documents, contracts, etc. This is especially important should your relationship with the professional go sour and you need to find another professional or should you want to seek a second opinion on an issue.