“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.
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.