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Finding a Planner


How to find the right financial planner for you

Before my first child was born, I carefully searched out the credentials of many, many pediatricians before deciding on one who had the background I was looking for. Yet we soon realized that although he was a good doctor and had all the right experience, this pediatrician's style of practice wasn't right for us; he was too rigid. We tried another; this one was a little too loose and casual. On our third try we found the right physician for our family, and had a good, comfortable relationship with him for many years.

The process of finding a good financial planner isn't much different. You need someone with the right education, experience, and certification, of course, but the most important measure is how you feel about that person. If you and your financial planner don't interact well -- if you don't have the right chemistry -- then you won't be able to communicate candidly. That means you both will find the experience frustrating and possibly unproductive.

Go on a quest

Finding a financial planner who fits your needs will take some time, but putting in the effort up front will bring you the best results. Start by asking friends, family members, colleagues, your accountant, attorney, bank manager -- anyone who has gone through the financial planning process or has some knowledge of it. (It's similar to the way patients look for physicians.) You can also get referrals from professional organizations.

Next, set up interviews with each of these planners. You'll find that most planners will offer a no-cost initial consultation -- it's a kind of unwritten industry code. This first meeting is your chance to get an idea of what the planner can do for you and how you interact.
And don't make the mistake of interviewing only one person -- no matter how well she worked for your three best friends or your partner.

What to ask

During the initial interview with a financial planner, there are some general questions that you should be ready to ask:

  • What is your background and experience? Look for someone who has been working with other physicians or professionals in situations similar to yours. That person already has knowledge of your field; he won't be starting from scratch.
  • What are your professional qualifications? A Certified Financial Planner (CFP), for example, has gone through certain education programs, passed a 10-hour exam, has practiced for at least three years, and adheres to a code of ethics and practice standards. Stockbrokers, insurance agents, and accountants may also serve as financial advisers, but they should be able to tell you what additional education, training, and qualifications they have to do so.
  • What services do you offer? May I choose only those services that I want, or do I have to take everything you provide? If you're very satisfied with someone who's already providing you a financial service, such as a life insurance policy, you should not feel pressured to change that policy as long as it is compatible with your overall financial plan.
  • What is your approach to financial planning? What will you want to know from me? How will the process be structured? How often will we meet? What will you charge?
  • Do you work with a particular company? Planners who are employees of a company are really product distributors; they have an obligation to recommend the financial products of their employer to their clients. They may be good products, but there may be others that are better, and you'll never know about them.
  • Do you work alone or with others as part of a team? I believe that to be most effective, a financial planner must be part of a collaborative effort. No one person can possibly be an expert in every financial field -- in estate planning and in investments, in malpractice insurance, in medical coverage for small practices, and mutual funds. A person who works as part of a team has the advantage of drawing on the expertise of those other people on the team. A financial planner in that situation also has the opportunity for the kind of informal encounters with colleagues that can be so beneficial.

At least half of what physicians get out of medical conferences -- and I've been to many -- is what they learn in informal talks over dinner or in the exhibit halls. The same holds true for financial planners who are likely to meet their expert colleagues in the halls at work every day.

One note: It's a good idea to take along your spouse or significant other to these interviews. It's helpful to have another person listening. They may have insights or pick up something that was said that you completely missed.

What they'll ask

The kind of questions a financial planner will ask you are not unlike those you ask new patients. The planner will listen, make notes, make comments or ask questions, and then offer an overall plan for your circumstances. A financial planner will probably want to know:

  • Who you are. How would you describe yourself? Are you cautious and conservative or an impulsive risk-taker? Are you married or single, young or nearing retirement? These are all factors that will affect your plan.
  • Where you came from. What influenced the person that you are today? Did you come from a poor, struggling family, or were your parents wealthy? What experiences -- especially those dealing with money -- have shaped your life?
  • Where you are today. What is your family situation -- do you have children? Are you just starting out, mid-career, or almost ready to retire? How much have you saved already? How much debt do you have? What are your current investments?
  • Where you want to go. What are your short- and long-term goals? Are you worried about having enough money for educating your children? What kind of retirement do you envision for yourself?

The more the planner knows, the more likely it is she will develop strategies that are comfortable for you.

If it's a bad fit

After several of these meetings, you may find that there are one or two people you think you can work with. It's also possible the planner your partner or your father-in-law recommended isn't one of them. You may feel that you're in an awkward position -- how can you tell this planner that you're not interested in working with him?

As a planner with many, many years of experience, I can tell you that in this case it's much better to be truthful in the beginning and find someone else to work with. It may be embarrassing for you, and it might be a little bit of a blow to my pride -- why didn't you like me? But as a businessman, I can tell you that I would much rather have my feelings hurt a little bit now then try to struggle through several years of working with a client who is simply not comfortable with me.

This isn't a one-sided dilemma; there have been times in my career when I've felt that I didn't have the right personality to work with a potential client. In those cases, I've referred that person to a planner better suited to that client.

What more do you want?

When I was starting out in my financial practice, I remember talking with an older, experienced physician. He told me that he had finally reached a point in his life financially when he could quit working, but he was still practicing, anyway. He said he realized then that he was practicing medicine because he had a passion for it. He told me, "I never realized how much I loved it until I knew I didn't have to do it anymore."

You should choose a planner who has that same kind of passion about planning -- someone who loves what he's doing. Ask: "Why are you in financial planning?" You can learn a lot from the way he answers that question -- from the enthusiasm (or lack of it) that comes through.

Some additional thoughts:

  • Don't expect perfection. Just as there are no perfect doctors, there are no perfect planners.
  • Forget flirting. When you're looking for a financial planner, you shouldn't be looking for a date; you want a marriage -- a long-term commitment. You want to grow up and grow old together.
  • Familiarity breeds efficiency.  When you've been seeing a patient for years, it's easier to know what will work when the patient comes in with a problem. It works the same way with financial planners. When you've been working with someone for several years and you call with a question or a request, it's much easier for the financial planner to get the right answer when she knows you well.

A good financial planner is like a good travel agent. You have to pick the destination; the planner will help get you there, in the transportation that's appropriate to the location -- you don't need an ocean liner to travel a mountain stream. A good financial planner will make the right recommendations, the ones that will get you there safely.

Trevor 'Chip' Lewis Jr., CFP, is Managing Director of PSA Financial Center Inc. in Lutherville, Md. He was designated one of the Top 250 Financial Planners in Worth magazine in 2001, and the Top 150 Best Financial Advisers for Physicians in Medical Economics in 2002. Among other professional organizations, Mr. Lewis has been active in the leadership of the National Financial Planning Association and the National Association of Planned Giving. He can be reached at chip@psafinancial.com or via editor@physicianspractice.com.

This article originally appeared in the April 2004 issue of Physicians Practice.

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