CPE for Government Auditors

Build Safety in Audit Interviews

1 Build Safety in Audit Interviews 2

In order to win in an audit interview, you should keep a poker face and not answer any questions.  Yep.  Don’t answer questions – or, more specifically, don’t answer questions in the way you answered questions in school with the ‘right answer.’

The way you handle their answers to your questions – and the way you handle your answer to their questions – can either enhance or destroy trust.  If the client feels safe with you, they will share information and resources, thoroughly answer your questions, forgive you if you mess up… the list of benefits goes on and on. If the client doesn’t feel safe, your audit can get very hard, very fast.

Keep a Poker Face

On one of my first audits, I conducted an audit interview with a low-level manager. I was conducting what my supervisor thought was a routine audit interview on a run of the mill audit of compliance with purchasing regulations.

My audit interview was going fine until I hit the canned questions in the interview questionnaire about unusual purchases.  I asked if the auditee had purchased vehicles, boats, or planes in the past three years. Strangely enough, the manager of this land-locked state agency had bought a boat recently with state funds.

“A boat!” I spurted, “What do you need with a boat?” As you can imagine, the friendly tone of the meeting went downhill fast, but I didn’t think anything of it and went back to my desk unaware of the drama I had triggered.

After the interview, the manager told her leadership that I was a spy (a spy!) with the press (they had recently suffered a flurry of bad press) and that no one in the agency should talk to me.  My audit director took the time to personally scold me over the phone and pulled me off the audit immediately. My supervisor was left to clean up the mess I had made.

You see, I lost my poker face. When a client says something like that to you, and you react strongly—even if you react at all—they are going to shut down at the least and freak out and create drama for you and your audit team at the most. Turns out that the manager did have the authority, the right, and the justification for buying that boat. I was wrong. She was right. I was toast.

So from then on, no matter what the client said, I kept a poker face. And for those of you that know me personally, you know this is very, very hard for me to do.

On future audits, I calmly wrote any unexpected answers down and went back to my office and thought about what had been said in the audit interview before expressing my “expert” opinion.  I did a little research to make sure that I had a good point to make before I made it.  This more rational, methodical approach kept me from ruining the safety my team had built with the client and as an added bonus, I didn’t get kicked off of any more audits.

Don’t Answer Questions

Now here is a second thing I have learned about safety—don’t answer questions. OK, maybe I need to be clearer. What I mean to say is don’t answer questions with facts.

I learned this from an old-pro seminar leader. He told me that when people ask questions they really don’t want the answer. And you know what? About 80% of the time, he’s right.

People often ask questions during an audit interview that they already know the answer to. Or they are asking a lead-in question, not the true question. Many times, instead of wanting an answer, they are trying to express some emotion without having to come right out and express it.

Here is an example. Let’s say the client asks you, “Why did you choose us to audit?”

Now what you could do, which 80% of the time would be the wrong thing to do, is to say “We start our audit risk assessment process by choosing a methodology for dissecting the organization into its component parts. Then through interviews and research we numerically rank the risk….” And on and on and on. You spend a whole minute describing your risk assesement process because you assumed that this is what the client wanted to know.  You are responding like you were taught to do in school when answering the teacher’s questions.  But we are not in school and the client is not your teacher.  New role, new day!

Adults in professional relationships and settings, like in an audit interview, use questions to make a point, not to uncover facts. Let’s say that the client is instead expressing anger at being chosen. He doesn’t think it is fair that he was singled out for audit when his peers are running around happy and free of scrutiny. He is trying to tell you he feels mistreated.

By answering his question with facts, you have chosen, unconsciously or not, to ignore his emotion and go off on a tangent sharing way too many boring details. As you speak, this client is probably feeling even more misunderstood and angry than before. By the time you are finished, he may be fit to be tied.

So what do you do? Well, first you take a split second to gauge what the client is feeling. Look at his posture, pay attention to the tone of his voice. And then return to him with a question. You see, don’t answer the question… not yet anyway.

Here is how the interaction might go if you try to resolve the emotion instead of answer the question with fact:

Client: ” Why did you choose us to audit?”

You: “Do you want me to describe our audit selection process?”

Client: “No, not really. I just don’t understand how I was chosen and others were left alone.”

You: “So you feel that we aren’t being fair in how we select areas to audit.”

Client: “Well, I wouldn’t exactly say THAT, but I do feel singled out. Did I do something to cause this audit?”

You: “Oh. No, we aren’t looking for anything in particular and we aren’t here as a result of any problem, it is just your turn. The others will have their turn, too. Maybe not this year, but we will get to them. I can show you our long-range plan, if you like. We presented it to the board last month.”

Client: “No, I don’t need to see it. I just wanted to make sure.”

You: “So are you OK with going ahead with the interview.”

Client: “Yes. Thanks.”

You: “So have you purchased any boats lately?”

What happened here is the auditor did not rush to gloss over the clients concerns. The auditor uncovered the emotional concerns of the client and helped to resolve them. The auditor also checked to make sure that the client’s emotions had been resolved before they moved on.

So in answering or NOT ANSWERING questions, follow the following guidelines:

  • Don’t leap right into explaining the facts
  • Gauge the emotions of the questioner
  • Ask the questioner a clarifying question to ensure that you will be answering the question they are really asking or resolving the feeling they are really expressing
  • Allow the questioner to express their feelings
  • Do something to either acknowledge or resolve their feelings (sometimes you can’t resolve their feelings, you can only acknowledge and empathize with their feelings)
  • Make sure they are clear before you move on

Wow, that is a lot of work. But, talk about a safety builder! If you respect the client’s feelings like that on a regular basis, they are going to think you hung the moon. They might actually begin to like you or something crazy like that.

For more on how to conduct solid audit interviews that build client relationships, please enjoy my self-study book on the topic  http://yellowbook-cpe.com/product/interviewing-skills-for-government-auditors

Stay safe—safe to talk to, that is!

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