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​"We Are Here to Help You": Managing Relationships When Management Is Skeptical

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"We are here to help you!" This phrase is often uttered at the opening meeting of a new internal audit engagement. The words seem so innocent, but in a 2012 blog post, I first explored the challenge for internal auditors to make those words more than a hollow promise. The phrase is often referred to in jest as "the oldest lie in the world." As the old joke continues, the second oldest lie is management's response: "We are glad you are here!" Unfortunately, as with many jokes, there is just enough truth in the punchline to make for some discomfort.

The great majority of internal audit professionals are truly collegial in their relationships with clients, and hopefully most of our clients really are glad to see us. But it is always good to take a hard look at how we are viewed and how we can change mistaken perceptions about ourselves in the minds of skeptical clients.

Are we viewed as nitpickers? Maybe we're not concentrating enough on the biggest risks. Are we viewed as time-wasters? Maybe there's a way we can organize our work to take up less time of those subject to our reviews. Are we viewed as bearers of bad news? Maybe there's a way we can add more balance to our reports or put a more positive tone on some of our recommendations. But perhaps there is a more simple explanation: Maybe we just need to concentrate more on transforming negative perceptions in every engagement.

Over the years, I've offered simple tips to win over skeptical or adversarial clients. If used on a recurring basis, these practices can sometimes turn even the most difficult client into an internal audit advocate. 

  1. Manage expectations. Good relationships start with keeping our promises, and we can help audit clients avoid future disappointments simply by not promising results that we're not sure we can deliver. If you're not certain when an audit report will be approved, for example, don't promise the report for "next month." If you're not sure how long the audit will continue, say so. If you promise to limit the on-site presence of your audit team to a specific time frame, you should make every effort to meet that deadline. Of course, if your team discovers significant problems or potential fraud, all bets are off. 
  2. Practice the fine art of appreciation. Thanking clients for their time at the beginning and end of an audit is obligatory. But if you are not showing appreciation to your clients throughout the audit, you are missing opportunities to turn audit adversaries into supporters. It's particularly important to show your appreciation when you are not in agreement. If a client questions your findings or criticizes your audit, for example, try starting by saying, "Thank you so much for sharing your perspectives. How would you recommend we word that instead?" 
  3. Don't dwell on the past. Clients can't undo the past, so it helps to keep conversations forward-looking. The easiest way? Limit phrases like "should have" and "failed" in your client meetings and audit reports. Instead, substitute "from now on" or "in the future." The change is subtle, but you are repositioning internal audit from being perceived as a fault-finder focused on past mistakes, to being forward-looking and focused on future improvement. 
  4. Practice the art of listening. We all know that listening is an important component of communication, but auditors too often forget that, just because you understand your client's point of view, it doesn't mean that the client is finished talking about it. Internal audits often surface troublesome issues, and when clients push back, it can well mean they feel they haven't been heard or that you don't understand their point of view. 
  5. Try to conclude every conversation with a consensus. The best way to transform the skeptical client is to consistently strive for a consensus. In only a few seconds, simple words such as, "Let's see if we can't find some common ground," can diffuse a confrontational discussion and demonstrate your collaborative attitude. If, after extensive discussion, your audit client still vehemently disagrees with your conclusions, you should probably offer to reevaluate your conclusions to allow a cooling-off period. As the old saying goes, you may eventually "agree to disagree." However, clients almost always appreciate your efforts to reach consensus on audit results.

Client relationships are delicate and based in large part on trust built up over time. Skeptical clients often have had bad experiences with auditors (maybe even your team). Unfortunately, it is up to us to work tirelessly to erase their negative memories and forge a relationship built on sustainable trust that will serve the organization well into the future. I share these tips to help you in that quest. I welcome your suggestions on winning over the skeptical client.

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