How to select a small business adviser

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Cape Town Kalk Bay harbour (Photo credit: moron noodle)

When I was at high school if any of us were in trouble we would go and see our “sea lawyer”. This was the term that was used for an authoritative person amidst our ranks who would advise us on what to say in defence to our teacher or principal and lay out a strategy of mitigation and even coach us on the finer points of how to take a caning with the least amount of pain.

Some definitions put “sea lawyer” as an eloquently and obstinately argumentative person. Others have a less optimistic view of a sea lawyer and indicate that it is an old Navy term, when at sea a sailor is a law expert but in reality knows nothing.

When you look for an adviser for your small business it’s best that you stay away from “sea lawyers” who may pretend to know a lot about running a business but their advice could be misleading at minimum and at worst fatal for your business.

In a short space like this it’s impossible to come up with a full list of questions that you should ask any small business coach, consultant or adviser before you engage their services. But I’ve made up a little list below that could prove helpful to get you thinking about what it is you need to ask a small business adviser and how you should go about finding one that is credible and knows about your business.

The first thing is to clearly define what you need. It’s no use seeking out a business adviser and having a vague notion of what you want him or her to help you with.

Top of your list would be a question on the experience and track record of the business adviser you have contacted. What results have they achieved for other small businesses? Do they have proof?

Find out what specialisation your small business adviser is known for. They should have a solid knowledge of your industry or market. A few cleverly placed questions could quickly flush out any shortcomings.

It would be a good idea to ask for references or testimonials and even small business owners that you could speak to who can verify the small business adviser’s claims.

Make sure that you get more than one quote so that you have a range of options when it comes to making your final choice of a small business adviser that you can work with.

It’s also important to match your business adviser to the size of your business. You want to find someone who will put his or her heart and soul into helping your business and not be distracted by other client work. A business adviser who handles businesses larger than say, 50 employees, would have a different orientation to one who deals with one-person small businesses or solopreneurs. Just make sure that the business adviser is a good fit for you and your business.

It’s best to clarify fees upfront. Be very clear about what you require and what the business adviser can offer you. This is why it’s important to get an agreement in writing so that you have something to fall back on if things don’t work out as planned. Don’t be scared to rework or revise your agreement several times before it is precisely what you want.

Performance is a tricky issue because they are many variables that can act on a business even though suggested changes from the small business adviser are implemented by you. But do ask your business adviser how long it’ll take to see results from their support or advice. Even the answer that they give will provide you with a more clear understanding of what they are capable of.

In any such first meeting or encounter with strangers your trust will be low. Trust is built up over time. Be sensitive to whether the business adviser handles your questions calmly or is annoyed by your questions. If so, how are you going to work with someone like this who may have an emotional trigger personality? If anything makes you uneasy or wary, back off.

You may laugh, but it sometimes even takes one business adviser to advise you on selecting another business adviser. Whatever you do, avoid at all costs a “sea lawyer” who pretends that he or she knows everything about similar businesses to yours but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, you get that horrible feeling that they know very little, if perhaps nothing at all.

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