5 mistakes to avoid when hiring a financial advisor

Avoiding these common mistakes will lead to a more fruitful and long-lasting relationship.

  • By Coryanne Hicks,
  • U.S. News & World Report
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With technological advancements, being a do-it-yourself investor is easier than ever. You can open your own brokerage account or register with a robo advisor to start investing without leaving your couch. Hiring a financial advisor, on the other hand, requires a lot of due diligence and communication to find the right advisor for you. Which begs the question: Are financial advisors even worth the time, energy and financial commitment?

The answer comes down to understanding how much time you want to spend managing your investments, your knowledge of investing and your discipline to stay the course when markets are difficult, says Stein Olavsrud, a certified financial planner and executive vice president at FBB Capital Partners.

"The biggest mistake we see investors make is they lack the discipline to stay invested when things are awry, or they fail to reinvest capital and sit on large sums of uninvested capital," he says.

Many investors are living the consequences of this right now. "In late February when the market dropped, many investors followed the herd and pulled their money out of the market and into cash," says Mark Matson, founder and CEO of Matson Money. "This has a detrimental impact because these investors missed out on the upswing that followed."

Investors who work with a financial advisor, on the other hand, are more likely to recognize and overcome behavioral biases, making them more confident in times of crisis, he says.

So it can pay to have a financial advisor on your team, but not just any advisor will do. Investors can end up in subpar relationships by not knowing the best practices for hiring a financial advisor. To help you find the right financial advisor, here are five common mistakes to avoid when hiring a financial advisor:

  • Focusing on past performance.
  • Not understanding the difference between the fiduciary standard and suitability standard.
  • Not asking about compensation.
  • Not vetting an advisor's credentials.
  • Not interviewing multiple advisors and their clients.

Focusing on past performance

When you hire a financial advisor, you're hiring more than just a money manager. A good financial advisor can provide holistic planning and guidance.

"This is the process of pursuing life goals through the proper management of your resources," Olavsrud says. "(Holistic planning) allows you the opportunity to look at your big-picture goals and values and how your investments and expenditures should be oriented to meet these goals."

Advisors who focus solely on investment performance are missing that bigger picture, which can result in adverse consequences for the client, says Erin Wood, vice president of Wealth Planning at Carson Group. "I've seen many clients that have a solid investment portfolio, but they still aren't going to achieve their retirement dream because it was never tied to their goals."

An investment strategy alone is no guarantee of long-term achievement. Likewise, an advisor's past performance is no guarantee of capability as an advisor.

"Looking to past performance as an indicator of success or qualification (in a financial advisor) is a big mistake," Wood says. "Not only does the past not guarantee the future, it has nothing to do with the goals (you are) trying to achieve."

Not understanding the difference between the fiduciary standard and suitability standard

Just as financial advisors can be holistic planners or investment managers, they can also fall into one of two camps regarding the level of care they are legally required to take when advising you: those who uphold the fiduciary standard of care and those who follow only the suitability standard of care.

"An advisor who is a fiduciary has an ethical duty to recommend the best investments for you," Olavsrud says. The advisor must follow the best course of action for you, regardless of how it affects the advisor's own outcome.

"Conversely, the suitability standard of care simply requires the broker to sell investments which they believe are suitable for clients, not necessarily what is best for the client," he says. Typically, brokers and insurance agents act under the suitability standard.

When hiring a financial advisor, ask if the advisor acts as a fiduciary at all times. Clarifying that the advisor is always a fiduciary is important, because some can take their fiduciary cap on and off depending on the role they're playing at the time.

"Some organizations are required to act as fiduciaries, while others use the title loosely," says Angela Coleman, a fiduciary investment advisor at Unified Trust. So you should understand not only the distinction between these terms but also how the advisor you're thinking of hiring defines them.

Olavsrud suggests asking an advisor to sign a statement attesting to their adherence to the fiduciary standard of care before you hire them.

Not asking about compensation

One of the distinguishing features between fiduciaries and advisors under the suitability standard is how they are compensated. Advisors can be compensated in one of three ways: through an annual, hourly or flat fee; through commissions on the products they sell; or through a combination of fees and commissions.

Since fee-only advisors are not compensated based on the investments they recommend, they don't have a financial incentive to put you in one product over another. As such, a fee-only advisor is likely to have a very different investment approach from one who is compensated via investment commissions, Coleman says.

Matson says commission-based models should raise red flags for investors, as these models misalign the advisor's incentives and your own. "Advisors become incentivized to trade more frequently and sell expensive products," he says.

That's not to say all commission-based advisors will act in such a manner. It is certainly possible to find a reputable advisor who works off commissions, but it's best to know the conflicts of interest this model can create before hiring an advisor.

You should ask any prospective advisors how they are compensated before you hire them.

Not vetting an advisor's credentials

The term financial advisor is really a "catch-all title," Wood says. "They might really be an investment advisor, an insurance agent or a holistic financial planner."

Before you even seek to hire a financial advisor, get clear on the type of advisor you're looking for; then ask prospective advisors for details about how they work with clients and the credentials they hold to verify they're the right type for you.

"Designations like the certified financial planner or chartered financial consultant are holistic-focused," Wood says. "These advisors include goals, taxes and risk management to determine the appropriate investment strategy."

A chartered financial analyst, or CFA, on the other hand, indicates someone who is among the best in the investment management industry. CFAs are more likely to focus on the investment analysis and management side of financial planning.

Be sure to verify any prospective advisors actually hold the designations they list on their business card. The CFP Board and CFA Institute both have search functions for finding advisors in your area who hold these designations.

You should also use the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority's BrokerCheck tool to vet an advisor's background and certifications and make sure there are no outstanding arbitrations or complaints against the advisor. You can also use the U.S. Securities and Exchange and Commission's website to see if the advisor or firm has been subject to any SEC infractions.

"Research is important when making any purchase, so hiring an advisor should not be different," Coleman says.

Not interviewing multiple advisors and their clients

You may fall in love with the first financial advisor you meet, but that doesn't mean your hiring process should end there. "As part of the necessary research, investors should interview multiple advisors to make sure there is a good fit personally and that the investment style matches," Coleman says.

By interviewing multiple advisors, you are more likely to identify which traits are most important to you in an advisor.

"In order to truly succeed with an advisor, investors need to find one who focuses on investor education and coaching to help make financial decisions," Matson says. "This is especially important now: Economic and market uncertainty, social unrest and the upcoming election will not be going away anytime soon."

He also recommends looking for advisors "who use investment philosophies rooted in academic principles and scientifically tested theories – not just stock picking – and advisors who act as true coaches, not just asset allocators."

By interviewing different advisors, you can also get a feel for how each communicates and runs a practice. Finding someone you can effectively communicate with should lead to a longer-lasting and more fruitful relationship, Coleman says.

She also suggests interviewing not just an advisor, but their clients as well. Ask advisors for multiple references, she says, then ask each of those clients about their specific experiences, the products and investments the advisor recommended they use and the success they've had with meeting their goals.

"Speaking with more than one current client will allow you to gauge how informed they seem to be, providing a view into the advisor's ability to effectively communicate, and it will provide you with more than one point of view," she says.

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