As you look for ways to build your business in 2014, consider pursuing a professional designation. As part of a broader strategy of continuing education, a designation can help to strengthen your practice in various ways.

For one, a designation helps you prove your credibility to your clients. It will also give you more confidence, especially when you are talking to prospects, says April-Lynn Levitt, a Toronto-based business coach with The Personal Coach.

A designation will also help you stand out from other advisors who did not pursue that same level of education. This is especially true given the growing awareness of designations within the general public, thanks to a number of recent high-profile financial scandals that have prompted clients to ask more questions about the credentials of their advisors.

“Clients are kind of wary [and asking], ‘how do I trust this person, is it another Bernie Madoff?'” says Levitt.

Attaining a designation and following through on its continuing education requirements will also keep you plugged into changes in the industry.

“There are tax changes, regulatory changes, product changes,” says Greg Pollock, president and CEO of Advocis in Toronto. “There is no doubt that these designations assist advisors in terms of being knowledgeable [regarding] all of these evolutions in the marketplace.”

The key question is, which one do you pursue? There are many designations available to advisors. You can be a certified financial planner (CFP), a chartered investment manager (CIM) or a chartered life underwriter (CLU), for example.

If you truly want to specialize, options include being a financial divorce specialist (FDS), a certified executor advisor (CEA) and an elder planning counselor (EPC).

In order to narrow down your options, ask yourself the following questions before investing your money and time:

  • What is your client market?
  • What kind of advice do you provide?
  • What services will your clients need in five years?
  • Are you interested in the courses the designation offers?

Knowing her desired target market is what helped Tami Romanchuk, an advisor and owner of Edmonton-based Innovative Financial Management, decide to pursue a CFP designation.

“I want to do high-end planning,” she explains. “You can’t do high net-worth planning if you don’t have the skills to do a full financial plan.”

Both Levitt and Pollock recommend the CFP as a valuable designation to have. The CFP is the most widely recognized financial planning designation around the world and has the best public awareness, according to Levitt.

Pollock considers the CLU another key designation in the industry, describing it as an extension of the CFP that includes the study of estate planning and wealth management. The CIM’s study of portfolio management is an important option for advisors who work with securities.

“I think [those three] cover a broad range of the designations that are out there in the marketplace,” says Pollock.

You should also note that not all designations are created or studied equally. The CFP and the CLU can take between one and three years to complete, says Pollock. Some others could be done in a weekend.

That is not to say that courses requiring less time are not valuable. You should just be aware of the depth of study that different designations require. Also, look for approval by a recognized designation body like Advocis’ independent educational branch, the Institute of Advanced Financial Education, or the Canadian Securities Institute. Your designation should also require continuing education, allowing you keep up with developments in the industry.

This is the first article in a three-part series on continuous learning in 2014.

On Wednesday: Learning from a mentor.