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If you ask for help, ask the right person

If you suddenly inherited an unexpected pile of money, how would you handle it?

If your business faced a crisis that could make or break you, where would you go for advice?

Do you believe that, whatever the emergency, the Yellow Pages are the best resource for finding a lawyer, accountant, doctor, mechanic or expert in whatever?

If the answers to the above are all "I don’t know," you need to do some homework. If you aren’t prepared for the worst, or the best, it will usually get worse. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail. And it doesn’t have to be.

The time to find an expert is before you need one. Anticipating what could happen in your personal life or business is not a new concept — it’s the "what-ifs" that we should all be thinking about anyway.

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When you need to pick an expert, there are a few points to remember:

• Consult someone you already know and trust. When a problem hits, it’s a poor time to look for help. How can you know you can depend on someone you have known for half an hour? I would rather rely on someone I know I can count on, even if his or her experience is limited, than start from scratch. That person can usually lead you to someone who can help you if different skills are necessary.

• Use an expert to find another expert in the same profession. Don’t ask a lawyer to help you choose a doctor. You need to know who knows what you need to know. And the way to do that is to ask someone who knows.

• Ask questions — a lot of them. One of my favorite investment questions is "Are you putting your own money in the investment you are recommending to me?" Try that one if you want to get a reaction! Another classic: "How much are you being paid to provide me this service (give me this advice)?" The answers to these questions will tell you if the expert will be straightforward with you in future dealings, or if you will need to continue to look for an expert.

• Check references. Ask for names of present and previous clients. Present clients are probably still satisfied with their choice, and their opinions can be very helpful. But it’s the previous clients — those who have moved on to other experts — who will tell you what went wrong.

When you are interviewing your next expert, ask a critical question: "Who is going to be responsible for my account on a day-to-day basis?" If it isn’t the person who is making the pitch, insist on meeting the person who will actually be doing the work. I realize it’s rather primitive, this insistence of mine on human contact in selecting the people on whom my life or personal fortune may depend. But it’s a privilege I demand when I am spending my money, and so should you.

Harvey Mackay is a Minnesota businessman and author.

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