By Richard Chambers | August 6, 2014
“Thank you for meeting with us today. As you know, we have already found quite a few things wrong in your department.”
One of the first client meetings I ever attended was also one of the least successful. The meeting was a failure from the very beginning. The internal auditor’s opening statement about finding “things wrong” put our client immediately on the defensive. As a result, the client pushed back, the auditor stood his ground, and the conversation degenerated into little more than an argument.
“But this is wrong. You need to fix it,” the internal auditor complained. “You just don’t understand my department,” the client shot back. “You are an auditor. What makes you think you know so much about our operations?”
It became difficult to come to any agreement, even on minor points.
As the newest auditor on the team, I felt trapped. I was at the meeting only to observe, but things obviously were not going well. An internal audit manager finally stepped in — far too late, in my opinion — and tried to defuse the situation. But the damage — both to any chance of a productive meeting and to the overall relationship – was done. Eventually, we decided to push pause, end the meeting early, and try again another day.
There is a common misconception that internal auditing is simply about finding what’s wrong and telling people how to fix it. If only it were that simple. At its essence, internal auditing is the art of bringing about positive change. But we all know that getting people to do what you want takes more than telling them what they should do. Paradoxically, the more forcefully we argue our points, the more likely our clients often reject them.
That day was one of the few times when I wondered whether I had chosen the right profession. Would all client meetings become this contentious? What would I have done?
When we returned to our offices that day, we reported the problem to the CAE, who helped us, calmly, to discuss what we might do different the next time. Some of those tips stick with me today. To avoid an audit meeting from going south:
Isaac Newton once said, “Tact is the art of making a point without making an enemy.” Being tactful is just that — having the ability to communicate our messages clearly while being sensitive to those around us. Being tactful does not mean that internal auditors should ignore the facts or hide what we believe. It does mean we should present our ideas in ways that make them more palatable. In the long run, it will almost always lead to better decision-making and client relationships.
What are some other tips?