Working the phones for audit purposes

Inc. published a short article on “working the phone” yesterday that touched on a number of things that anyone should take to heart if their job involves talking to people on the phone, which is to say, pretty much all office workers that do work.

This is one of the bigger differences between my previous gig in internal audit for a global building materials manufacturer and my current one with a national retailer. Before, I was doing a lot of traveling to various plants and subsidiary offices to conduct audits, and meeting face-to-face was much more important to getting work done. There were phone calls during the planning phase and weekly conference call updates on any issues that arose, but the majority of the time we were sitting across a table from each other.

Phone calls (and voice mail) are much more important in my current environment. Schedules are more structured, especially those of senior management. I’ve had to adapt to this by getting better at gathering information via phone calls and leaving voice mails that are more likely to get results.

Some of the highlights of the article as I see them:

Never have a business conversation, especially on the phone, without knowing exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.

Absolutely the most important point is to know why you’re calling and have an idea of how you want to get there. I’ll make notes beforehand in a Word doc and have it on screen when I make the call. I’ll even incorporate if-then conditional statements based on my questions and the possible answers I expect to get. They get thrown out the window if the answer is not one that I’d expected, but like a boy scout at least I’ve prepared.

It takes a bit of practice, but what you need to do is suspend your “what do I say next?” until after the other person is done speaking.

This is something I’m going to try to keep in mind in the future, more to assess whether I’m doing this already (the default assumption for most of us, I think) or not. Really consciously focus on listening and processing when my audit clients are speaking, which segues nicely to the next item…

When you pause before responding, the other person knows that you’ve listened.

If I’m speaking to someone for the first time and we’ve never met face-to-face, I want them to feel fully comfortable sharing information with me. For someone who maybe isn’t used to dealing with auditors, which will happen if it’s an area that doesn’t get audited often or hasn’t been audited at all, this is critical. This tip is going to be useful in achieving that level of comfort, and that should give me better results.

As you speak, gradually take on the least obvious elements of other person’s voice.

This is a subconscious rapport builder, and will work if it is subtle. If it’s not, it’s going to come off as disingenuous and have the opposite effect. So it’s a gamble.

In my previous job, I worked day-to-day with people from Ireland and the (US) South, and I found it impossible not to lightly pick up those accents when I was with them so much. (The company was headquartered in Ireland and the North American corporate office was in Atlanta, so most of the internal auditors were from those areas.) The combination is a bizarre one, especially peppered with Canadian “eh”s as well!

I’ve found it’s also useful to check people’s schedules prior to making the phone call, to anticipate whether they will be there to pick up or whether it’s likely to go to voice mail. If I need to call someone and they’re in meetings all day, I’ll draft the voice mail message before I call so I can be succinct and not forget anything.

My preference is to have a face-to-face instead of a phone call, because in-person meetings allow for body language and they just feel easier to make a connection with the client. Email is useful because it provides a record of the discussion that can be referred back to if needed. But for situations where immediate attention is best, the phone call reigns supreme.

Please share in the comments how you get the most from your phone-based interactions!

The case for digitized perm files

Having lugged around three thick files representing the full permanent file for an audit client for the past few weeks, I’ve come to the conclusion that my firm needs to consider digitizing these things.

Perm files for accountants consist of client documents that carry forward year to year. For example, engagement letters are good for three years before they need to be updated and signed the client again, so a copy goes in the perm file for that time. Loan and lease agreements and their related payment schedules straddle multiple periods, as do rebate/royalty/license agreements. Articles of incorporation or amalgamation, and anything to do with share purchases and sales.

There’s no good reason to continue to keep physical copies of all these documents, rather than storing them in PDF or similar format and printing them when a hard copy is required (if ever).

The advantages are many:

  • Cheaper to store
  • Can easily be reprinted if hard copy is ever required
  • Increased mobility due to weight savings and digital format
  • Backups are simple and easy to do frequently
  • More secure storage on protected hard drives
  • Searchable (becomes really helpful as the file gains documents)

The same can basically be said for digitizing whole work paper files each year, but there are still situations where having a physical copy with work done directly on it is needed. I think tablets could be useful in ushering out the era of paper-based files, but who knows when the big firms will start to use them.

How far away from a truly paperless client file system is your firm?

Sharpening the axe in auditing

A post today at VeraSage provided a perfect metaphor for audit planning:

Once upon a time, there were two lumberjacks who challenged each other to see which one could cut down more trees in a day. At daybreak, the first one began furiously chopping down trees. He worked up a sweat and by noon he had cut down 16 trees. Meanwhile, the other lumberjack was way behind because he took the first two hours to sharpen his axe. […] By early afternoon, the first lumberjack was slowing down. It took him almost an hour to cut down one tree, while the other lumberjack was catching up fast. […] By late afternoon, the second lumberjack who had sharpened his axe had passed his friend by many trees and won easily.

They associated it with doing away with timesheets, but I was thinking audit planning and prep checklists the whole way. An audit where a little extra time is spent before preparing the client will go that much faster and smoother when fieldwork actually starts.

That quaint value pricing fad

It’s all the rage these days on accounting blogs – value-based pricing. You’ll see it everywhere, hip accountants (Who’s a hipper accountant than one who blogs? One who blogs about value pricing!) posting missives decrying the historical basis of hourly billing and extolling the virtues of pricing based on value.

What value pricing means to them, is that we should charge for our services based on a basically intuitive notion of the “value” we’ve provided. Sometimes that value is quantifiable, when you identify cost savings the client would not have come up with on their own. (These poor clients, they’re a hapless bunch to the value pricing gang.)

But most of the time it’s like pulling a number out of thin air. What’s the value of creditor-proofing? Is the value the money you save the company that would’ve gone to the creditors? How about due diligence? Surely a percentage of the sale price is the value of that!

You see, value is in the eye of the beholder. Clients will have a different value attached to the services provided than the provider does – it’s inevitable. How about advising a client against a tax plan that could potentially draw the attention of the CRA? (Aside: CRA is the Canada Revenue Agency, our IRS.) If advice is heeded and the attention diverted, where is the value? The amount the client would’ve had to pay after a tax audit?

In most cases (possibly not with the Big Four, I’ll have to consult with my friends one that one) there’s already value pricing in effect. It’s called the “fee quote.” Many of our clients – actually most – request and get from us a quote at the start of whatever work we’re doing for them, typically audits, of how much the bill is going to be. In this way, the “value” of the service to be provided is agreed upon. Isn’t this a better way to do things than generating a figure to represent the value created at the end of the job?

If the job turns out to be more difficult than forecasted, we’ll usually sit down with the client and explain what sort of extra work we’re having to do and why we need to do it. We provide an itemized list of the extra work and the extra time it required. Right the value pricing gang is choking on the bit: “Extra time? Value isn’t based on time! The billable hour is evil!”

Any way you swing it, the fee quote is the type of value pricing that both clients and professional service providers prefer, because it sets expectations at the beginning of the work and it doesn’t expose those despicable timesheets to the client. And timesheets are still very useful in determining the cost to the firm of an audit.