​​''We Are Here to Help You'': Managing Relationships With Skeptical Clients

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“We are here to help you!” This phrase seems so innocent, but at The IIA’s recent International Conference in Boston, I once again heard those six little words 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!”

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 maybe it’s time to take a hard look at how we are viewed and how we can change mistaken perceptions about internal auditors in the minds of skeptical clients. Are we viewed as nit-pickers? 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.

Following are five simple tips that I have used to win over skeptical or adversarial audit clients. If practiced on a recurring basis, these practices can sometimes even turn the most difficult client into an internal audit advocate.

  1. Under-promise; 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 sure when the audit report will be approved, for example, don’t promise a report ”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 keep the promise. 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 for 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 the ”fault finders” and focusing 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 doesn’t mean that the client is finished talking about it. Internal audits often surface troublesome issues, and when internal audit clients are ”pushing back,” it often means they feel they haven’t been heard or that you don’t understand their points of view. 

  5. Try and 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 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 very delicate and based in large part on trust built up over the span of time. Skeptical clients often have had bad experiences with auditors in a past life. Unfortunately, it is up to us to work tirelessly to erase their memories of bad encounters with internal auditors in the past and build a relationship built on sustainable trust in 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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