1. Deciding what advisers you need
Look at your aims for the next 12 months
- Define your goals. For example, do you want to raise finance, recruit new employees or file a patent application?
Identify the gaps in your own expertise
- Look at the list of goals you have prepared for the year ahead. Do you have the necessary skills in-house to achieve them?
Weigh up your options
- Assess whether it would be easier and cheaper to employ someone full- or part-time to carry out certain functions, train an existing member of staff, bring in a non-executive director or find a suitable adviser.
2. Finding advisers
Ask contacts to recommend advisers in areas in which you lack knowledge
- Ask your contacts if they can recommend the services of a particular adviser. Word of mouth is often the most successful way of finding good people.
Talk to your local chamber of commerce and your trade association
- Ask them to recommend people who specialise in your area of business.
- Check with any other local business support organisations.
Approach professional bodies for a list of their members
- Browse the websites of professional associations. Many have online directories allowing you to search by area or speciality.
- Members of professional associations often have to meet specific quality requirements before they can join.
Contact your local mentoring service
- Mentorsme.co.uk can help you find a local, quality-assured mentoring organisation that suits your stage of business development.
Draw up a shortlist
- Go through the names of advisers you have collected.
- Shortlist those who you think meet your specific needs, have experience of dealing with similar businesses and are likely to understand the issues you face.
3. Choosing the right adviser
Arrange meetings with the advisers on your shortlist
- Ask if they offer a free consultation for potential clients or find out how much they will charge for this session.
Prepare a list of questions
- Check what qualifications the adviser has, how experienced they are, what areas they specialise in, how much and how they charge, and what their payment terms are.
- Ask whether they will be able to refer you to someone else if you have a matter they are unable to help with.
- Find out how flexible the adviser is. For example, whether they will be able to visit your premises.
- Question whether they think your plans are logical and whether they will be able to help you achieve them.
Check the position on confidentiality
- If the adviser is a member of a professional association, they may have a duty of confidence towards their clients under professional conduct rules.
- Otherwise, get the adviser to sign a confidentiality agreement if you will be revealing sensitive business information to them.
Ask to see references
- A good adviser should be prepared to put you in contact with other clients who can give you a reference.
Re-evaluate the shortlist
- Compare each adviser according to their skills and experience. Which one looks best on paper?
- Consider whether you were able to communicate with them effectively. Did they explain things clearly and seem interested in your business?
Prepare a written agreement for your chosen adviser
- Confirm the prices they will be charging and the payment terms. Some advisers and mentors may provide initial assistance for free whilst you are growing the business.
- Agree what services they will be providing and for how long.
4. Managing the relationship
Establish how often you will speak to your adviser
- This will depend on the nature of the advice you are seeking.
Monitor how well your adviser meets your needs
- Regularly assess whether the advice you are receiving is helpful and appropriate.
- Remember that the adviser can’t make decisions for you - only offer advice and expertise to help you make the right choices.
Be pro-active about handling problems
- Discuss any problems with your adviser and explain what steps you think should be taken to resolve them.
- If the problem is not resolved and your adviser is in a firm of lawyers or accountants, you may want to complain to the senior partner.
- The relevant professional body may have a formal complaints procedure in the most serious cases.
Gather quotes from other advisers periodically
- Check that the deal you are getting is still competitive.
- Remember that a good working relationship is probably more valuable than saving a few pounds.
5. Financial advice
Decide what information you are looking for
- Your bank will be able to advise you on certain matters, including overdrafts and bank loans. It may also be able to talk to you about hire purchase, factoring and invoice discounting.
- Accountants can offer tax services, accounting and bookkeeping expertise. They should also be able to advise on issues such as what form your business should take, the best funding options and the most appropriate mix of finance for your firm.
Make sure any accountant you use is properly qualified
Anyone can call themselves an accountant. Look for a member of:
- ACCA (the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants);
- ICAEW (the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales);
- ICAS (the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland).
Ask for proof that accountants are qualified to carry out the functions you require
- Check their eligibility to do certain things. For example, accountants have to meet specific criteria to be able to audit limited companies.
- List all the functions you would like them to perform and check that they can do so. You might want advice on grants and loans, information technology and pensions, as well as help with taxation issues, for example.
Decide whether you are confident in their capabilities
- Although your accountant might file your annual accounts with Companies House and carry out other administrative duties, the directors remain responsible. Any fines for non-compliance will be imposed on the business, not the accountant.
6. Legal advice
Locate a solicitor that can help with your particular problem
- All solicitors have a general qualification that allows them to practice law. However, individuals within a firm increasingly specialise in particular areas of law.
Search for law firms that specialise in particular areas
- You might want assistance with areas such as: commercial law and contracts; employment law; tax law; intellectual property; property law; health and safety; data protection; laws applying to your particular sector.
- You can search for local solicitors with the right expertise through the Law Society.
Get an idea of costs
- Ask for an estimate of the total bill before engaging a solicitor. Some will offer fixed fees for specific services.
7. HR advice
Decide whether you need assistance with legal or practical employment issues
- Solicitors with expertise in employment law are best placed to advise you in areas such as: drawing up employment contracts; discipline and grievance policies; dismissal and redundancy; representing the company in employment disputes.
- An HR specialist or consultant may also advise on law and can help you with issues including: recruitment; managing employees’ performance; leadership and team-building; motivating employees; training; developing pay policies.
Ask about previous experience
- Find out about their qualifications. If using a HR expert who is not a qualified solicitor, ask them if they are members of the CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development).
- To gain CIPD membership, advisers have to demonstrate sufficient levels of knowledge and competence.
- Check references. If you need expertise in a specific area, make sure the professional has relevant experience or qualifications.
Do your own research to avoid unnecessary charges
- Search online for free sources of advice and tap into free advisory services. There is plenty of information available on issues such as the rights of working parents and carrying out recruitment interviews.
- Acas produces a wide range of advice on HR issues including pay, working time and leave, redundancy and workplace disputes. The Acas Helpline offers free advice.
8. Intellectual property advice
Do some research first
- Many aspects of intellectual property (IP), such as carrying out basic searches to find out whether anyone else has already secured a trade mark similar to your intended one, can be carried out independently.
- The Intellectual Property Office can help you find out more about the key issues and what it costs to carry out certain tasks yourself.
- The British Library Business and IP Centre National Network offers a range of innovation and IP support services.
- Although an adviser may charge more for these services, outsourcing them may save you time and money in the long run.
Intellectual property protection can be dealt with by professional advisers
- Ask your solicitor if they can help or recommend an adviser.
- You can find a patent attorney through the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA).
- You can find a trade mark attorney through the Chartered Institute of Trade Mark Attorneys (CITMA).
Ask the adviser you intend to use what they will charge and how long it will take
- Get this in writing.
- Check the position on confidentiality. Members of CIPA have an implicit obligation of confidence towards their clients.
- Otherwise, you would be well advised to draw up a suitable confidentiality agreement, especially if your IP rights are not yet protected.