Q: I’d like to start working with a career coach, but I’m not sure how to find one that’s right for me. What do I need to look for and what can a career coach really help me with?

A: Getting outside help to propel your career forward can be worthwhile. Now comes the tricky part: finding the perfect match. Just try Googling “career coach” and you’ll be treated to more than 2.1 million results.

A good starting point to finding the right coach involves asking yourself a couple of important questions: “Why am I hiring a coach?” and “Do I want someone who can help me with a career change or help me move up in my current field?” Or, do you have something else in mind?

With the answers to these questions, you’ll have a more tangible goal. Plus, you’ll be able to quiz a potential coach on his or her level of expertise for your particular needs. A reputable coach will answer your questions during a free initial meeting, whether it’s by phone or in-person. Beware the coaches who demand large fees upfront and don’t offer an initial free appointment.

You’ll find that hiring a career coach is very different than hiring most other professionals. There is no official licensing agency for career coaches, and thus you’ll find a wide range of quality among the many people claiming to be career experts. “It’s particularly important to do your due diligence,” advises Marty Nemko, a career coach based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Coaches can receive certification through the International Coaches Federation (ICF), and some 3,900 have done that. Another option is finding a coach through the Professional Association of Resume Writers and Career Coaches (PARCC), which also offers certification. Both organizations offer free coach searches on their Web sites. Just remember that the certifications are not guarantees, and there are plenty of good coaches without them.

Personal references would seem an ideal way of finding a coach, but they aren’t always your best bet. Coaching is incredibly personal, and a particular personality might work well for your colleague or friend but could be a disaster for you. Try a targeted Web search, typing in “career coach” along with one or two of your areas of interest. Then, focus your efforts on the first page or two of results.

While the material and insight on a coach’s own Web site is important, more vital is where else their name appears on the Web: What has been written about them (the good and the bad)? Where and how often they have been published or quoted? In other words, how eminent are they? What are their areas of expertise and clients’ experiences with them? This information is a lot more valuable than the edited material coaches use to market themselves.

Bill Dueease, president of the Coach Connection, based in Fort Myers, Fla., likens hiring a career coach to finding a good sports coach. “What is their win/loss record?” and “How well did their previous clients do?” he asks. For Sherri Thomas, president of Career Coaching 360 in Phoenix, it’s similar to hiring a personal trainer at the gym. “I don’t go up and ask each one if they’re certified in weight training or aerobics. I just look for the one who has the most ripped abs and whose body shape I most want to be like.”

Likewise, you want to find someone who has been highly successful in his or her own career. “With a personal career coach, you should ask what their own career path has been like,” advises Ms. Thomas. It’s essential to find someone with real experience – both in the coaching field and outside of it. “You want someone who has been in the work world. That way, they can role-play with you,” says Mr. Nemko.

Keep in mind that the majority of coaching today is done by phone. In fact, Mr. Dueease doesn’t allow face-to-face meetings between clients and coaches — no matter how close to each other they live. By keeping the appointments to the phone, clients and coaches can stay on an even playing field, and judgments about appearances don’t get in the way, he says. It also dramatically opens up the size of the field from which to choose a coach, since there aren’t any geographical limits.

Once you’ve narrowed your search, you’ll want to interview a few candidates. Ask about fees, as rates vary greatly, anywhere from $50 to $300 per hour. Some coaches require a minimum number of hours, advises Mr. Nemko. On average, coach-client relationships last from six months to a year.

Above all else, picking a coach comes down to chemistry. You will be sharing intimate details of your life with your coach, so it’s important that you like them and see them as your equal. “You’ll want a career coach who can give you career success strategies and tools, but also inspire, motivate and teach you how to move your career forward,” says Ms. Thomas. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.