Hiring Key Advisors: How To Reference-Check Attorneys, Consultants, Accountants & Other Professionals

Many health and wellness leaders choose attorneys, accountants, tax advisors and other key professionals based on personality and gut instinct. Here’s a better way to pick and choose these key advisors:

Get the names of several former and current clients — ideally, those with similar needs to yours. Then, use this guide to get the most valuable insights from them:

1) Set the stage for the conversation.

Introduce yourself and explain that Firm X provided their name as a reference. Very briefly describe your business and the kinds of services you’ll need from this professional.

This often-omitted step is important, because it gives the reference more context for their comments. They’ll often qualify their answers based on what you’ve told them about your situation: “We switched firms because we were expanding nationally, but since you’re strictly based in Chicago that shouldn’t be a concern for you.”

2) Of the services mentioned, which ones were the most valuable and why?

Focus most closely on the areas that will be most meaningful for your business. Keep an ear out for other potentially valuable capabilities that you may not have considered.

3) What kinds of additional value did the professional bring to your business?

Perhaps they referred potential clients or helped you network to other valuable business contacts. Or perhaps they have insights on the industry that are useful to you.

4) How quickly did they usually respond to you?

Ask yourself whether their experience would be acceptable to you. For example, Radial worked with a law firm that simply fell off the radar for almost two weeks while they were working on one of our projects. If you frequently have urgent projects, find out whether they were satisfied with how well those were handled.

5) Did they let you know who you could work with if they weren’t available?

Small firms often have only a few principals. And even in a larger firm, your primary contact may be busy working on other client projects or traveling on business. It’s important to know how they cover vacations, illness, and other absences. Trying to track someone down in a hurry can be a real problem.

6) Did you ever work with anyone else in the firm

For example, ask them who assisted them when their primary contact wasn’t available? How did that work out for them?

Here you’re looking for information about how well-prepared the backup person was to help. For example, did they have access to fully up-to-date files? Had they been briefed on your projects? You’d also like to know whether the quality of their advice and help was consistent with their expectations.

7) Did anything surprise you — good or bad — during the time you worked together?

This open-ended question provides an opportunity to get unexpected insights into the firm you’re considering. They may be positive, negative, or merely interesting!

8) What did you like best about this individual and his or her firm? What did you like least?

Plus, if certain attributes are important to you — same-day response to voicemail, network of local contacts, etc. — ask about their experience in those areas as well.

9) Could you give me an example of something that didn’t go as expected and how it was resolved?

Perhaps an opportunity suddenly arose that changed their priorities. For example, a new customer opportunity popped up that meant they needed to get a legal agreement pulled together fast. Try to find out how adaptable and flexible the professional was when that happened.

10) What advice would you give this firm on how they could strengthen their services?

No firm can do everything. The key is whether or not they have the strengths you do need. For example, if your business uses independent contractors extensively, you may want legal and tax advice from professionals with a strong track record in this field.

11) Are you still working with them? If not, what changed and who are you working with now?

Business often change professional service providers for perfectly valid reasons. Nonetheless, listen for red flags here. If the firm lacks key skills you need – or has incompatible business practices – keep looking. This question also gives you the opportunity to get the names of other individuals or firms you may want to consider.

12) Would you work with them again?

Obviously, “no” is a major red flag. Consider the reasons carefully. A business can outgrow a small firm – that’s usually not a problem. But more substantive reasons can be cause for concern. “Squishy” answers without specific reasons often mean that they weren’t terribly happy with the firm’s overall performance, but don’t want to say anything explicitly critical.

13) What advice would you give me if I decide to hire them?

Again, an open-ended question that may help you work more effectively if you decide to hire this firm, or may provide an unexpected insight into whether or not you want to work with them at all.

14) Is there anyone else you think I should talk to?

Again, an opportunity to get the names of other individuals or firms you may want to consider hiring. It’s also an opportunity to get the names of other clients who may offer additional perspective on the professional you’re considering hiring.

15) Evaluate the information you’ve received.

Conclude your reference-check process by considering the overall tone of the information from each reference.

Then, compare answers for each question across all of the references. Consistent answers are generally reliable indicators of what you can expect from the firm you’re considering. Inconsistent answers are areas where you may need to probe further before finalizing your hiring decision.

Make your final decision with confidence, knowing that you’ve balanced the importance of compatible personality with the real-life experiences of their clients.

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Leslie Nolen, Radial's president, is the nationally-known expert on the art and science of selling health and wellness.

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