Recently, I saw a sign in a hotel elevator that said, “Your satisfaction is more than a goal, it’s a promise.” It was just one in a slew of aphorisms that seem to permeate today’s customer-focused environment. However, this one caught my eye because it made an interesting distinction — goals versus promises.
Consider some of the stated (and unstated) goals internal auditors establish with customers. At the outset of an engagement we talk to them about what we will accomplish, what we need from them, and what they can expect in return. Generally, the discussion results in goals like providing immediate updates on issues and concerns, getting the customer’s input throughout the process, and using the customer’s time efficiently. It also usually results in specific timelines for the ongoing completion of the engagement.
However, we underestimate the significance of this customer interaction if we think of the agreed items as simply goals. They are promises — and this is not a trivial distinction. Goals are aspirational; promises (if your word actually means anything) are immutable.
Take, for example, the date the report will be issued. How often is the final report actually issued on the date agreed upon at the outset of the audit? Does it often occur on a revised date? Maybe the testing takes longer than anticipated, or the client goes on vacation, or certain interviewees are unavailable, or more report rewrites are required than expected, or (fill in the blank with your favorite reason/excuse). Besides, the customer is often consulted and everyone agrees on the revised schedule, right?
I’m sorry, but poor planning is not a viable excuse for going back on a promise. And if every audit engagement includes breaking a promise as simple as the date of final report issuance, what is the customer to think about all those other promises? “You say there will be open communication, but how often will I be surprised by something? You say you will keep me advised on progress, but how often will periodic updates be cancelled? You say you will use my time efficiently, but how many times will my staff and I answer the same questions and provide the same information?”
In my former role, my team provided the audit customer with a document that specified, among other items, the background, time frame, and scope of the upcoming audit. Externally it was called the Terms of Condition. Within my group we called it our contract. It represented a binding agreement with, and promise to, our customer.
Internal auditors are only as good as their word. And it is a slippery path to begin saying there are extenuating circumstances that mean we can go back on that word. Something as simple as a report issuance date can be the start of that slide, and it should be viewed as a serious breach of commitment.