How to Choose Service Professionals for Your Business (Part 1)
Interviewing and choosing service professionals (lawyers, bookkeepers, etc.) for your business isn’t always easy. How do you know if they’re any good? For starters, don’t look at the way they’re dressed.
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What you want is competence. That means you want them to know what they’re doing. Gauging competence isn’t easy, since they’re the expert in their field and you aren’t. With some professions, like doctors, they can seem very confident, but you won’t know about their competence until you wake up in a bathtub full of ice, missing a kidney, and they don’t even notice that the stitches aren’t lined up correctly.
One way for Bernice to get an idea of an estate planner’s competence, for instance, is to interview several estate planners. Ask them all open-ended questions and compare the answers. In particular, she can ask open ended questions that will cause them to educate her:
What are the important qualities I should be seeking in an estate planner?
How would I know if someone had them?
Tell me about a time you saved one of your clients from making a big mistake.
The similarities and differences between the three sets of answers will give an idea of who’s the most competent.
As rule of thumb, I listen for the person who makes the most distinctions about their topic area. You ask estate planner #1 how to set up your estate, and he answers, “Pretty much everyone has a will. You should just get that and you’ll be fine.” Number 2 says, “There are wills and there are revocable living trusts. Revocable living trusts let you go through probate faster.” Number 3 says, “There are wills and there are revocable living trusts. Wills are public and require you to go through probate, which can take a long time. Trusts speedily bypass probate, let you control who gets what, and they’re private, so Uncle Sandy doesn’t need to know you left Aunt Sandy the mansion. Plus, trusts are also harder to challenge in court.”
Estate planner number 3 gets my high marks not because I necessarily need a revocable living trust, but because the answer reveals an understanding of the nuances of the different choices.
Knowing the Limits of Their Own Knowledge
Nuance often means competence. But lack of knowledge can also mean competence. One of the problems with smart people (except me, of course) is that they often believe they’re smart, even in areas they know nothing about. All you have to do is spend five minutes reading any online debate and you’ll see this instantly.
One way to find out is to ask outright, “What kind of problems are you less capable in? When should I hire someone to supplement your skill set?” If they claim universal competence, either they’re totally amazing and incredible, or they’re overconfident with a troublesome lack of self-awareness. Which one is more likely?
Ask About Adjoining Areas of Knowledge
Even if they aren’t self-aware, you can ask about related knowledge. Listen for when they realize they’re out of their depth. If they realize it, that’s a good sign.
Bernice can ask her estate planner, “Will you help me choose investments for the money in my trust?” If the planner says yes, she should probably run in the opposite direction as fast as possible. While it’s certainly possible that someone could be both an expert investor and an expert estate planner, it’s unlikely. They are very different skill sets.
I once had a doctor give me an opinion about a certain alternative medical treatment. When I asked specifically, it turned out the doctor had read none of the research and knew nothing about the underlying science. On what was the opinion based, I asked? “You know. Hearing stuff around. Besides, the whole alternative treatment is clearly bunk.” Uh huh.