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Take a closer look at your adviser, and be skeptical Add to ...

Dan Richards is president of Clientinsights. He is a faculty member in the MBA program at the Rotman School at the University of Toronto.

Given the markets of the past 18 months, many investors are looking to change how they work with their financial adviser and get more involved in the decision making on their accounts. To do that successfully, however, both advisers and investors need to alter their approach.

Not that long ago, most Canadians had blind trust in the financial institutions and investment advisers they worked with. Lost in a sea of jargon and intimidated by the complexity of the financial arena, many investors simply took it for granted that their interests were being looked out for by the companies and advisers they invested with.

Today, fewer investors accept advice blindly - an increasing number are asking tougher questions. Some have taken this one step further and abandoned traditional sources of advice entirely to pursue do-it-yourself options at discount brokerage firms, using recent entrants like exchange-traded funds. Discount brokers have responded by dramatically increasing the quality of information available on their websites, moving from just processing trades to providing guidance and quasi-advice.

The do-it-yourself approach makes sense for the right investor - but working with an adviser is still the preferred choice for most Canadians. The challenge for both investors and the financial industry is how to strike an effective working relationship.

Demands for communication

Heightened scrutiny is far from unique to the financial arena. With the Internet, traditional sources of authority are being questioned like never before - whether it be our political leaders, corporations or mainstream media.

In response to demands for more accountability, many newspapers and governments have established ombudsmen.

Lessons from medicine

Medicine is another example of the shift from blind trust to skepticism.

Go back to the 1950s and '60s and doctors were seen as godlike figures, whose advice was taken without question. Ready access to online information has led to profound changes. Doctors today are increasingly faced with more informed and assertive patients.

Just being knowledgeable is no longer sufficient - today doctors have to respond to pages of questions that patients have pulled from the Internet. As a result, medical schools are adding programs on listening skills and effective doctor-patient communication - skills have been proven to increase the chances that patients will adhere to medication, improve patient outcomes and raise both doctor and patient satisfaction.

The same applies to financial advisers. Today, knowledge and good advice aren't enough - advisers also have to make open and proactive communication a priority.

Moving to informed trust

But it's not just advisers who have to change.

For those Canadians who prefer to work with a financial adviser, Warren Buffett offers the best advice on this issue: "If you don't know jewellery, know the jeweller."

What that means, quite simply, is that it's critical to invest the time to find a knowledgeable adviser who is open to questions, who listens, who you like, and whose advice you trust. And if you can't find an adviser you like and trust, keep looking until you find one you feel confident about.

Once you've found that adviser, two other things need to happen.

First, if they want to be involved as equal partners, many investors need to make a commitment to the hard work and effort required to increase their knowledge around investing.

And second, Canadians have to be prepared to bring a basic level of trust to the relationship. Regrettably, for some people healthy skepticism has crossed the line to cynicism and absolute distrust - and with that the refusal to believe anything they're told.

Once you've found the right adviser, you need to adopt an attitude of informed trust - on the one hand asking questions and not blindly accepting what you're told but at the same time believing that your adviser fundamentally has your interests at heart. If you're going to question every word you hear, you're likely better off investing on your own.

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