By David Elms
Chief executive of Independent Financial Adviser Promotion (IFAP)
David Elms, a financial advice expert
As the number of investment, mortgage, pension and insurance products multiplies and financial decision-making becomes increasingly complicated, more and more of us are turning to an expert who can guide us through the maze.
Finding a local independent financial adviser (IFA) is relatively easy. Friends or relatives can often recommend one, or you can quickly obtain details of local IFAs online.
But what if, like increasing numbers of people, you are looking for an adviser with additional knowledge and expertise to match your specific advice needs?
As with any profession, financial advisers will often list a long string of letters after their name.
At first glance these letters will tell you very little, and the chances are you will still have some doubts about their value.
So how do you spot the ones that really say something about an adviser's ability, and how do you compare the value of one qualification with that of another?
All financial advisers are required by their regulator, the Financial Services Authority, to pass an exam known as the Certificate in Financial Planning (Cert.FP) or an equivalent, before they are allowed to provide financial advice.
The Cert.FP is a basic-level exam, which many experts equate to a challenging GCSE or 'O' level, perhaps an 'A' level, in difficulty.
From there it is possible to go further, in much the same way as someone with 'A' levels can go on to obtain a degree.
There are basically two types of advanced qualification - those awarded for general financial advice, and those awarded for specific product advice, such as pension or mortgage planning.
The most popular advanced qualifications for holistic financial advice are the Advanced Financial Planning Certificate (AFPC) now known as the Advanced Diploma in Financial Planning and becoming a Chartered or Certified Financial Planner (CFP) Licensee.
Advanced qualifications in pensions include G60 and AF3 and for investments, G70, AF4 and the Investment Management Certificate (IMC).
Specialist qualifications in mortgages include the Certificate in Mortgage Advice, and the Certificate in Mortgage Advice and Practice (CeMAP).
Comparing these qualifications is made hard because different organisations have been allowed to create exams for various parts of the financial services industry.
Earlier this year Unbiased.co.uk, in conjunction with the Financial Services Skills Council, devised a simple two tier ranking system for around 50 different qualifications from eight awarding bodies in order to make it easier for consumers to search for the right IFA for them.
The system divides qualifications available to IFAs into Level A and Level B, the designations of which are shown below:
Level A is the minimum level of qualification required to become a Financial Adviser, such as the CII's FPC and CFP, the IFS CeFA or the CIOBS CIP qualification.
Financial Advisers with Level A qualifications have a broad-based understanding of the financial services industry.
Advisers qualified at this level are able to use their knowledge and skills to advise consumers on a range of financial products, including pensions, investments and protection (life and health).
Level A qualifications provide eligibility for membership with a professional body. All members must follow a code of conduct specific to the professional body.
Level A qualifications are equivalent to A level standard.
Financial Advisers with Level B qualifications demonstrate a high level of expertise and have a more specialised knowledge of financial products.
They are able to provide detailed analysis of financial information and can devise solutions to complex financial problems.
Advisers with a Level B qualification may be eligible for a higher level of membership of a professional body.
Professional bodies require all members to sign up to a code of conduct. Level B qualifications are set at a standard equivalent to components of an undergraduate degree.
Of course many extremely good and talented IFAs have become so because of their years of experience in the industry, not because they chose to obtain an advanced qualification.
However, there is often a correlation between a good adviser and a commitment on their part to learn as much as possible about a particular subject and to put this knowledge to the test in exams.
Most awarding bodies also insist that to keep those precious letters after their name, advisers must maintain records of continuous professional development (CPD).
Naturally you should look for other qualities in your IFA beyond being super-qualified in the financial areas you want to discuss.
You should be choosing an IFA based on a range of other factors, such as location, value for money, and of course how you get on with the adviser.
The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.