How to Build Rapport with your Audit Clients
Whether you’re coming at an audit engagement from an internal audit or external audit perspective, your objective is to get the information you need in order to truly ascertain what is happening in the business area you’re auditing. Beyond the paperwork are the people working within the business and their insights are just as crucial to the audit process.
So, how do you go about building that relationship and rapport in order to facilitate an effective and thorough audit?
Be a People Person
Well, the first thing is to not make it all about business. Your clients are people, with families and lives and interests outside of your audit interactions. Get to know them on a personal level. Former external auditor for KPMG, Lars Sigmond suggests that you, “Treat everyone as if they were your colleague even though they’re your clients.” Of course, this is easier if you’re working in internal audit as you’re already part of the company, meaning plenty of opportunities to build those relationships. For external auditors who will realistically only spend time with their clients for a couple of weeks out of the year, this process can be harder. However, thanks to digital means you can stay in touch with your clients year-round, interject those personal questions along with the business-focused issues and make time for a little socialising during the audit period.
Sigmond asserts that you can maintain independence without impacting your client/auditor relationship. “Take one night away from the audit and go for dinner so it’s not all about the audit,” he says. “Establish a good relationship with one another because it is a necessary evil that they have to go through but it’s up to you to make it as bearable as possible for both parties.”
On that digital note, there is an expectation in this world of smart phones and email that you will respond to your clients in a timely fashion. This is an important part of the client relationship process. You need to make them feel like a priority while setting realistic expectations. So, try to plan out a reasonable timeframe within which to respond to client emails and calls.
Trust is key
You need to earn your clients’ trust both professionally and personally. Demonstrate your expertise so they know you’ll navigate them through the process properly. Don’t be afraid to dispense your professional advice, even if it’s at odds with what they’re saying. You’re the audit expert. However, choose an empathetic approach with the way you audit. The clients will likely be anticipating the engagement with some anxiety, worrying you’re there solely to pick up on their mistakes. Try to be sensitive and not emphasise their mistakes but rather position yourself as more of an advisor, helping them understand how they could improve in future.
For those working in external audit in particular, flattery goes a long way. Compliment your client on the work they’ve done.
Sigmond prefers constructive criticism as a tactic for preserving those all-important client relationships. “If your approach is to go in there with the aim of looking for problems or mistakes to report on, you’ll probably have less success than someone wanting to test the controls to look for how to improve,” he says. “Find a different way of communication; the message can still be the same, but people are likely to take it better if you are framing the audit as observations for improvement rather than just reporting their mistakes.”
Be an Active Listener
Part of good communication is eliminating the barriers that can lead to effective listening. Don’t plan a call or meeting when you know you’ve got limited time and may have to duck out early. If you’re plagued by distractions, be it personal or professional that will show through to your client so try to solve those ahead of any client interactions so you can give them your full attention. Respect their time. Yes, you have questions you need answers to, but don’t be in a rush to move on to the next question. Be present in the moment and you’ll find you’ll probably get more out of your client than you were expecting.
Understand the Business
You will engender mutual respect if you can show a good understanding of your client’s business. Engaging with the trends and key performance metrics for the area being audited and staying informed of the regulatory environment will give you a great contextual framework and show your client that you care about what you’re auditing enough to understand what it’s about.
Treat the audit process as a collaborative project with the client as your partner and colleague. Take the time to get to know what makes them tick, how they conduct themselves in meetings and what their goals are. Focusing on the human side will greatly improve the business side and make the experience pleasant for all involved.