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​The Ultimate Measure of Internal Audit Success

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Last blog post, I provided a quote from Tom Peters regarding customer service. Let’s take another look at it.

In the private or public sector, in big business or small, we observe that there are only two ways to create and sustain superior performance over the long haul. First, take exceptional care of your customers ... via superior service and superior quality. Second, constantly innovate. That’s it.

My post went on to talk about the need for internal auditors to help ensure the success of their organizations by including assurance that the organization/department/process/etc. focuses on customer service.

I ended that post with one of my favorite comments, “Auditor, audit thyself.” Internal auditors are great at inspecting, evaluating, and providing “input” on others. But we seldom use those same techniques on our own operations. And customer service is another area where we would do well to turn the microscope on ourselves.

How do we ensure we provide superior customer service and superior quality to our internal clients?

If asked, “Does your department provide customer service and quality?” I’m sure almost everyone would respond with a resounding, “Yes! Of course!” If I add some qualifiers, “Does your department provide superior customer service and superior quality?” the response might not be as resounding. But I think a significant majority of us believe that, in spite of recognizing room for improvement, we do a pretty darned good job.

But, here comes the follow-up question. “How do you know?”

After momentary crickets while the crowd does a bit of soul-searching, the chorus of answers starts up. “We have measures of success” and “We send out surveys” and “We have never heard any complaints” and even “Because they come to us requesting our services.“ Now, that last one is a pretty good answer but, maybe, still not enough. Because, even with the positive reinforcement that occurs when clients ask for our help, there is still one more follow-up question.

How many of you, being completely honest and forthright, could answer, “Because our customers tell us it is true,” with the even more forceful, “Because we have fans of internal audit throughout the organization,” and the final nail in the proof-of-superior-customer-service placard, “And they rave about us to others.”

When I was with Farmers Insurance, not only did we have people who told us they believed in our work, not only did they prove this with their unwavering support of our results, and not only did they prove this by consistently coming to us for help, they also talked about us to others — the benefits of working with us, the positive results we had provided, and the value we added – raving about what we could do. And then those people, spurred on by the incomparable recommendations of our fans, came to us.

The No. 1 sales and marketing technique: word of mouth. Raving fans telling two people, and those two telling two more, and those two telling two more and etc. and etc. and etc.

Internal audit continues to be the focus of various onslaughts: stakeholders who want more; competitors who think they can do our job better; resources that seem endlessly limited (time, money, and, most importantly, quality hires); and our own concretized ideas, concepts, and even systems that still seem rooted in the '70s (and earlier).

Yet, a lot of audit shops still seem to think they are entitled to their jobs. “We have a charter” and “The board would never replace us” and a litany of catch phrases that do nothing more than puff up our egos while ignoring that many of our customers/clients/stakeholders are starting to wonder, just as the two Bob’s did in Office Space, “What is it you say you do around here?”

We have to understand who our customers are; that is foundational. But it is only the beginning — a very feeble beginning. Because it is far more important go further and understand what they want and need. (Two decidedly different things — understand that difference before you venture too far). It is only with that understanding that we can provide the quality and service they expect. And then, the ultimate step, surprise them with superior quality and superior service.

Oh, one more thing. If you think you have already reached that plateau of superiority (and you may well have; I don’t know), then do not sit, gloat, and light up the cigars in celebration. Note the penultimate sentence in the Tom Peters quote. “Second, constantly innovate.” Tomorrow, your reign as customer service king will no longer be true. Service and quality are constantly moving targets. We have to understand that reality and adjust our thinking, our approaches, and all our audit work accordingly.

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