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!


Traditional partnership model being tossed aside

The way most professional services firms are organized is the partnership, which more often than not is based on the premise that the people who bring in the most business earn the biggest cut of the take. Some firms have begun to question the wisdom of this model, and are moving to an organization that splits up the income evenly amongst all partners.

Is this good for growth? In what dimensions is growth measured? Revenue or profit? Client satisfaction? Is revenue growth a proxy for a satisfied client base? What about other goals like developing and retaining top talent?

A recent survey conducted by Grant Thornton of mid-size professional services firms inquired about the two opposing partnership models as well as value pricing, which is another idea finally seeing the light of day.

Mr. Moore says there are storm clouds on the horizon and firms that don’t address the changing environment risk failing.

One of those clouds is the focus on an eat-what-you-kill business model. It promotes stars and rainmakers, those who bring in the bulk of business, who are tight with clients at the expense of the health of the overall business.

I don’t see a problem with promoting stars, and neither should firms that want to grow and prosper. Bringing in business is good on all levels of the firm, from the lowliest junior staff to the managing partner, and there’s no reason why firms should stop encouraging this.

Mr. Moore says more law firms need to adopt a team-based model that stresses firm-client relationships over individual-partners relationships and which deploy alternative billing schemes.

I think we’re already doing this on some levels. Clients build working relationships with the lead partner but also the tax partner and other concurring partners brought in for their specialized skills. Senior managers and managers are increasingly being brought in right from the beginning, and even senior staff if they have certain special skills.

I’m not against the main premise of the article — the so-called “eat-what-you-kill” model attracts a certain type of person and promotes a certain type of culture. And an organization that is essentially the opposite will affect the opposite. It will foster greater teamwork as it attracts those more inclined to lean on their teammates.

But I’m not convinced that those are the firms that will outlast the other ones just yet. Nor am I sure whether I would prefer at this point in my career or later on to work at one of them.


Mind maps made productive for public accountants

I’m a huge fan of visualizing things. Things like data. Data is fun, sure, but not as fun as a data visualization. Pictures are worth a thousand words, and pretty pictures have gotta be worth at least 1,001.

What’s helping me visualize data these days? Mind maps.

That’s because there are two really cool web apps that make creating and sharing mind maps a snap – and Mindmeister.

Mindmeister appears more polished at this point, but you have to sign up to use it. will have you mapping right away (before needing to register) but isn’t as slick yet. Both are pretty cool tools for visualizing some interconnected data.

Mindmeister audit mind mapI’m hoping to use these tools in the near future when I’m leading an audit planning meeting. I think this is where I could use this technology for productive purposes (rather than just messing around) and display the relationships between sections of the file and the engagement’s specific risks.

It wouldn’t take much to liven up a planning meeting, that’s for sure. I think it would encourage more participation and livelier discussion of the relevant issues, engaging everyone from the partner down to the junior staff. For juniors, it would illustrate how interconnected the issues and risks are and enable them to better understand the client and the engagement.

There’s also Mindomo, which is more feature rich than both Mindmeister and, but less Web 2.0ish. I’ve found so far that it’s easier to just get going with the first two apps, plus I think they’d be easier to use in a meeting to brainstorm. For more detailed maps, Mindomo is probably better.

But what do you think? Are mind maps an exciting new frontier for the staid business meeting?