"We are here to help you!" That phrase seems so innocent, but those six little words are sometimes referred to as "the biggest lie of the internal audit profession." As the old joke continues, the second biggest lie is management's response: "We are glad you are here!"
I have written several blogs this year about how internal audit should be helping their organizations navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Surveys continue to indicate that internal audit's support is being genuinely welcomed in a great many organizations. As management fends off the threats from the COVID-induced health and economic crises, they often welcome help from any trusted source available. Ah, but there is that word again: trust. If internal auditors haven't been cultivating the trust showing they have been "here to help" in the past, then why should management believe them now?
The great majority of internal audit professionals are truly collegial in their relationships with clients, and their clients really do embrace the role we play. But clients remain skeptical — particularly if they felt unfairly treated by internal auditors in the past. I believe 2020 presents a great opportunity to closely examine how we are viewed and how we can change any mistaken perceptions in the minds of skeptical clients.
I first tackled this topic in my blog several years ago. The questions I asked then are relevant today:
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 audit work. 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.
During my career, I have encountered a great many skeptical internal audit clients. Sadly, in most cases, their skepticism stemmed from how they had been treated by my predecessors in internal audit. I often had my work cut out to convince them that I really was there to help. It goes without saying that, first and foremost, we must be focused on the most significant risks the organization is facing. We are hardly helping if we are auditing the molehills while the mountain sits in the distance. But clients still can be skeptical of our intentions — even if we are "following the risks."
There are five strategies that I first shared in that earlier blog to win over skeptical or adversarial audit clients. If practiced on a recurring basis, they can turn even the most difficult clients into internal audit advocates.
- Manage expectations and over-deliver. 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 the audit report will be approved, for example, don't promise it "by next week." If you're not sure how long the audit will continue, say so. If you promise to limit the amount of management's time your audit team will need for interviews and meetings, you should make every effort to keep that promise. That is particularly important in 2020, when management is under so much pressure. Of course, if your team discovers significant problems or potential fraud, all bets are off.
- 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 potential 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?"
- 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 will reposition internal audit from being perceived as the "fault finder" and focusing on past mistakes to being forward-looking and focused on future improvements.
- 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 the client is finished talking about it. Internal audits often surface troublesome issues, and when internal audit clients "push back," it often means they feel they haven't been heard or that you really don't understand their point of view.
- Try to conclude every conversation with consensus. The best way to transform the skeptical client is simply to consistently strive for consensus. In only a few seconds, simple phrases 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. In periods like the one we are in, the trust that we have established with management can yield significant dividends. Again, trust takes time to build, but it is never too late. If there is a long history of contentious relationships, we cannot simply show up and say "we are here to help — and we really mean it this time." Instead, we must build or rebuild trust one brick at a time.
I hope you find my suggestions helpful as you attempt to craft and build trusting relationships with your skeptical clients.