One of the keys to a successful internal audit is building rapport with the audit client. While there are many tools and techniques related to building rapport in the general sense, internal auditors can take actions throughout the course of their audit procedures to build relationships with their clients that will aid in maximizing the success of the internal audit function. These actions include understanding the business, active listening, maintaining respect for the client’s time, a problem-solving attitude, and a partnering approach to the relationship.
Understanding the Business
Audit clients often will have more respect for internal auditors who demonstrate an understanding of the business or process that is being audited. Taking time to appropriately plan for client interactions, including reviewing prior audit workpapers and financial statements, understanding trends and key performance metrics for the area being audited, and understanding the regulatory environment are all ways to demonstrate an understanding of the business. Auditors should consider discussing any questions they have about the client’s business with their management team in advance of client interactions to address any areas of uncertainty. Less experienced auditors also may consider including more experienced auditors in client meetings based on the knowledge level of the auditor and the information to be discussed.
There are numerous barriers to listening that can prevent auditors from truly understanding the message being relayed by the client. For example, lack of interest, bias, external or internal distractions, time constraints, and focusing on the next question to be asked can all limit an auditor’s ability to interpret the information being communicated. To increase rapport with the client, internal auditors should approach meetings, interviews, and other interactions with the goal of active listening. A first step in this process is awareness of the barriers to active listening, and planning meetings with the intent of minimizing such barriers and limiting distractions. In some situations, this could include involving another team member in the meeting to take on the role of scribe. The auditor may also consider paraphrasing what the client said back to the client to ensure an accurate understanding of process, concerns, and information conveyed.
Respect for the Client’s Time
Like anyone else, audit clients typically have many demands for their time. Demonstrating a respect for the client’s time through planning in advance of the audit process, proactive communication, advanced scheduling of meetings, arriving to meetings and other appointments on time, and keeping to scheduled meeting times and agenda items (as applicable) will provide an opportunity for the internal auditor to further build rapport with his or her audit clients. Further, auditors should consider turning their cell phone ringer off and avoid looking at the phone during meetings with the client. In addition, to the extent possible, auditors should confirm their information request list is comprehensive to minimize the back and forth with the client. Finally, the auditor should evaluate the form of communication to ensure it is not only best suited to client preferences but that it is also the most effective method of communication to obtain necessary information. This may involve having a conversation with the client at the outset of the audit to identify and understand the client’s communication preferences.
Auditors should approach each internal audit with a focus on not only understanding the internal and external environment of the operating unit, but also with an intent to peel back the layers of the information gathered, including any exceptions identified to understand the who, what, when, where, why, and how behind the information. Through this process, the auditor may identify risks that were not considered in prior audits. To maximize the effectiveness of the audit, auditors should team with the client to identify the most appropriate solutions for any risks or issues that are uncovered.
Historically, internal auditors have had a negative reputation in some organizations due to a “gotcha” attitude. Further, in some organizations internal auditors have been seen as the “police,” reporting back to management all of the things that an operating unit is doing wrong. Internal auditors have an opportunity to build rapport with, and gain respect from, their audit clients by developing a partnering approach to the relationship. This can include working hand-in-hand with the client to truly understand the root causes behind any issues identified and working toward recommendations that not only address the root cause but also consider the associated benefits and costs. This can incorporate reporting to upper management any best practices the client has implemented within its organization and sharing best practices that the auditor has seen within other operating units.
Building rapport with the audit client should not only make the day-to-day audit process more enjoyable for the internal auditor and the client, but ideally, it also will lead to a more successful internal audit function that will add maximum value to clients. While these actions may appear to be common sense, keeping them front of mind during interactions with the client should result in a more positive experience for all parties involved in the audit process.