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How to choose a financial adviser

Finding someone to guide you through the investment world needn't be difficult. Former adviser Mark Hayes-Newington explains where to look
Given the number and complexity of financial products on the market, all but the most sophisticated consumers are likely to need help from a good adviser. But finding one often seems a quest doomed to end with the selection of the next Barlow Clowes. It needn't be that difficult if you follow some simple rules.

A list of financial advisers can be obtained from IFA Promotion (tel: 0117 9711177), who will give you the names of three independent financial advisers nearest to you. But first, ask your family and colleagues. There is nothing like an impartial recommendation. While past performance is no guarantee of the future, it is the only yardstick there is. Don't worry if the suggested broker isn't immediately local. Most will travel, although regular trips from Inverness to London are likely to be reflected in the cost of the service.

You might also seek some pointers from employers, accountants or your bank. But remember, some will try to persuade you of the benefits of their own service. Consider them, but look at other options.

Identify two or three advisers before applying some initial checks on the status of your selected group. First check their claims to membership of professional bodies. Don't just rely on headed paper. Phone the Personal Investment Authority and/or the other organisations and check that any registration number is correct and valid.

Always visit your financial adviser at least for your first meeting. Check the premises. They needn't be palatial, but should fit with the impression that the IFA gives. Like a bank, if the operation looks run- down there is every chance the service will be. Ask about your adviser's relevant qualifications and those of staff. Also ask what was involved in obtaining the qualification. You cannot expect a full CV but it is worth asking what experience the adviser has had.

A competent IFA should be able to explain in basic language what sort of service he or she can offer and, most important, how these services can help you. Ask whom you will be dealing with. It is no good getting on with one person at your first meeting only to be passed on to a school leaver who knows nothing.

It is important to ensure that the IFA you choose has the right tools for the job. This no longer means grey hair and 30 years worth of sales anecdotes. It means the right computers to help manage information about you and the markets.

A good IFA can rely on an enormous range of systems to deliver a better and speedier service. Client management systems are used to hold the personal and financial details an IFA is legally obliged to record. You should feel confident in giving the IFA as much information as possible.

A good computer system means an IFA can keep you in touch with important issues and market developments. Many IFAs will also offer to run your details through a "needs analysis'' system. This identifies the products best suited to your financial planning objectives. It is often best if you can go through this process in front of the computer to help you understand.

There are a number of systems that help an IFA quickly identify the best product, be it pension or investment. Some systems keep more than 35,000 pages of data covering thousands of products. Without good computer systems it is inconceivable that an IFA could keep a tab on all the options in the market.

However, don't take what's on the computer as gospel. Ask for things to be explained. The computer can only help you analyse and consider the options.

Your IFA needs to make a profit so you will be charged for the advice. It is important that the structure of any charges is made clear from the beginning. The most popular method of paying involves commission taken from the money you invest. Alternatively you can pay a defined fee.

Using these pointers, you should quickly find a suitable adviser who can offer you a long and beneficial service. But keep the relationship under review lest the level of service starts to fall away.

One final tip about making judgements about the adviser from his or her car. While an Aston Martin parked outside the office may cause some concern, a reasonable Mercedes shouldn't scare you off. It may simply mean a successful business, not clients being overcharged. Reliant Robins and Austin Allegros, however, are definitely out.

Mark Hayes-Newington, a former IFA, is marketing director of The Research Department.