Over the years, I have heard many audit leaders describe the stakeholders in their organizations as customers or clients. I have recently been researching the concept of client service and considering how this could apply to the internal audit practice — and I now see these leaders as early adopters of a visionary track that has the potential to significantly elevate the internal audit profession.
As internal auditors, our job is to set clear expectations based on the clients’ priorities and then deliver our services to our best ability. In the end, I believe a model promoted by David H. Maister, author of “Managing the Professional Service Firm,” best illustrates the dynamic of client satisfaction. Maister asserts that clients are satisfied if the perceived value they receive exceeds their expectations. In other words, perception - expectation = satisfaction.
Delivering internal audit services that exceed the expectations of our clients and other stakeholders propels the department’s stature by improving the perception within the organization of the value audit provides. This article breaks down how to apply a client service approach to internal audit, and suggests six ways to adopt this model to enhance your clients’ and other stakeholders’ perception of — and satisfaction with — internal audit.
Taking a Client Service Approach to Internal Audit
As we all know from The IIA’s definition, internal audit “helps an organization accomplish its objectives by bringing a systematic, disciplined approach to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of risk management, control, and governance processes.” The CAE and the Audit Committee decide where the resources are to be focused. In a client service approach, internal auditors view the assurance and insights we deliver a service. We should never be content to simply achieve the expectations harbored by those we serve. We should instead seek to exceed our client’s expectations as we deliver value for the organization.
1. Communicate Regularly With All Stakeholders
Communication is the top skill for success within internal audit, and the skill is equally important in client service. Communication means listening to clients, setting clear expectations, and remaining calm when stressful situations arise. Successful communication requires you to follow through on actions and deliverables. Otherwise, you risk losing the client’s trust.
2. Prioritize Client Concerns
When you kick off an audit, there are at least two paths you can choose. On one path, you can perform an audit based on the risks you have identified, with preset audit programs and little interaction with your client. On the other path, you can start by listening to your clients and consider the risks that are their highest priorities. If one of our goals is client satisfaction, we must afford them a voice in the audit process. Obviously, the independence of internal audit dictates that we make the final decisions about the objectives and scope of an engagement, but if clients don’t expect you to listen to them — and you do — you will have exceeded their expectations.
3. Trust the Team to Make Decisions
Internal audit teams are highly motivated, professional individuals. If you trust your team to make good decisions, let them. If you don’t, then find a new team. Clients can become frustrated if the team members have to run back to the audit directors for every question. Empower your team to make decisions independently, praise the good outcomes and offer constructive feedback.
4. Gather Meaningful Feedback
Gathering feedback is a common practice among internal audit teams, but not all feedback is the same. When you gather meaningful feedback and then put the feedback into action, your clients will feel valued because your actions prove that you care about their opinion. Actually applying a client’s feedback can positively influence even the most demanding client’s opinion.
5. Practice Transparent Auditing
Transparency enhances client service by showing clients that we are their advocates. For example, when we need to inform a client of an issue that surfaced during the audit, we should show them how we found the problem. If we used data analytics, show them the steps we took so they can self-test in the future. The additional transparency lets your clients know that you respect them, care about their work, have nothing to hide, and want them to succeed.
6. Market the Internal Audit Function
An internal audit department can increase its perception within an organization by publicizing its successful client service initiatives. The CAE can arrange for learning sessions to meet various departments in the organization and talk about past successful audit and advisory engagements. You might also encourage clients and other stakeholders to provide feedback about their client service interactions with the audit team or leave a review on an internal website about which engagements were especially helpful to them. During the closing meeting, we should reiterate to the clients what their priorities were at the outset and how we delivered on those expectations. Actively marketing the audit function informs the other teams and encourages them to welcome future engagements in their areas of responsibility.
Integrating Client Service to Advance Internal Audit
Satisfied clients welcome us back, and they advocate on our behalf. We all want to provide a service that adds value to our organizations, and to do so requires trust in the internal audit department. Applying principles of client service to the audit process enhances our ability to deliver exceptional audit work by molding the perception others have of our services. By focusing our efforts on exceeding our clients’ expectations, we can leave behind satisfied clients who respect the service we deliver. The gains will compound, and our future audits will provide deeper and more meaningful insights, and further exceed client expectations.