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Taming audit client tantrums

All this, for a new toy

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Most audit clients understand that the purpose of an audit is to perform an independent evaluation of functions to determine if operations are effective and efficient.  It is a strenuous process on clients.  In many instances, it may not be enjoyable, however, most clients tend to respect the process.  Occasionally, there are clients who exhibit behavior that is less than mutually respectful.  I have said it before, being audited is just as stressful as auditing.  I have personally seen clients scream, curse and toss items.  While some clients are simply wired to be difficult (see related article on audit client types), I truly believe that a majority of clients are mature enough to confront concerns respectfully.  I also believe that it is up to auditors to approach sticky situations differently in order to see different results.  The following 3 items can help tame tantrums in many instances.

Acknowledge the Emotions
Oftentimes client outbursts have nothing to do with the issue presented.  There is usually some underlying emotion evoked upon hearing audit issues.   This usually results in strange responses such as defensive posturing, snippy comments, etc.  For example, some issues may address the risks and provide some good recommendations, however, the unit may not be financially able to address the risks.  Seeing these types of recommendation makes clients feel helpless and angry.  It is at this point where auditor can build or break client relationships.  Oftentime auditors  “force” clients to commit to an unrealistic action plan.  However, in this moment auditors can acknowledge the clients feeling and explain the option of risk acceptance.  Clients have every right to accept risks.  Also, accepting risks formally in an audit report may help clients to obtain resources necessary to address risks.  This level of understanding can only be achieved by moving clients from irrational reaction to factual reality.  In other words, acknowledge the existence of the feeling, but manage the reality of the issue.

Focus on Facts
Once you’ve brought the client to a rational state, you can begin to focus on the issues.  The broken processes or controls are the true problem, at least initially.  Beginning by blaming people is almost always disastrous.  That is not to say that people may not be at fault, however, the process or control failure comes first.  The facts will reveal the nature of the failure.

It is  usually Processes not People
Auditors usually lead off with this statement.  While accurate, emotional clients have not reached this rational place yet.  Many still believe that issues are a reflection on them as people.  This can be this case, but usually it is not.  Issues typically exists because of lack of awareness, lack of funding, inadequate training,or miscommunication.  Issues normally are not due to negligence, incompetence or lack of desire. We know that; however, our clients don’t see or know that when reviewing audit reports.  As a result, I would not begin with this of the client is still dealing in emotion.

Conclusion
The next time you experience a client tantrum, reconsider what is really happening.  Remember, emotions may be contributing to the reaction.  In which case, auditor must acknowledge the emotion, carefully move the client to addressing the facts and focus on the processes that are broken.

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Robert Berry (88)

Robert (That Audit Guy) Berry is a risk, compliance and auditing advocate, educator and innovator. He helps good professionals become better by creating articles, web services and training that allow them to expand their knowledge network.

4 thoughts on “Taming audit client tantrums

  1. I’ve had auditees throw tantrums a few times, when I was a staff auditor as well as when I was head of an audit department.
    In my opinion, acknowledging the emotion is not the way to go for two reasons. Saying “I can tell you’re angry” risks starting another round of screaming and throwing things. More importantly, it also validates the emotion. Let’s be clear – tantrums are not acceptable in a corporate setting.
    Unfortunately, auditors are subjected to this type of behavior, because they are perceived as young, inexperienced, or not knowledgeable, and easily manipulated. A better strategy is to have a long pause …. long enough for the “client” to realize s/he is acting out …. long enough to realize that acting out is inappropriate. (Watch the body language when this happens.) Then ask to reschedule the meeting, and ask that the auditee’s superior as well as your superior be included in the conversation.
    Doing so will change the behavior from emotional and aggressive to a more defensive and self-conscious position. This will allow for the facts to show through the next time the finding is presented.
    Been there, it works.

    1. Chris – Great comment. I have also used the “long pause” strategy. Regarding the “acknowledge the emotion”. I agree the way you presented it (i.e. I can tell you’re angry) is not the way to do it. However, you must acknowledge the emotion. By that I mean, determining the cause of the emotion. So that goes back to your “long pause”. That is one way of acknowledging it. It is saying to the client, your behavior is not acceptable, but something is obviously bothering you. Now straighten up and let’s get down to business. I am definitely not saying give the emotion power. That is a recipe for disaster. I’m glad you made your comment. It also made me think about something very important. When I wrote this piece, I assumed that it was an unstated norm that mistreatment was unacceptable. However, I received a few emails in which people indicated this behavior was normal in their environment. I think the next article will be about “Setting Boundaries with Audit Clients”. I thought boundary setting was an understood norm for auditors.

  2. The issue of client tantrums (let’s call this “audit results negative feedback”), is to me more a failure in the audit process that the fault of the client. When expectations are well understood by all parties, and an open communications plan has been followed, there should be no audit results surprises. There have been a number of audits of which I have taken management where the previous audit team and customer team was emotionally tied to audit preconceptions. Since much of what we do as auditors is counter-intuitive, it is imperative for us to communicate with the customer throughout the audit process. And where the culture of the customer is to be combative with auditors, it is well served to have a kick-off meeting where there is a problem resolution process agreed to by all parties, and to ensure there is an understanding of how the audit plan will be implemented. We all need to remember that completing an audit is providing a service to your customers. Albeit, sometimes we are the bearers of bad news, what we should always bring to the table is that by correcting the findings the organization can often reduce their risk and may provide the foundation for a more efficient process to be implemented.

    1. Eric. Agreed. It is usually a breakdown in audit communications. I have another article scheduled for posting addressing this. What I will say, however, is that no amount of bad communication justifies mistreatment.

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