The Client Waltz

waltzNot too long ago I attended a dinner meeting out of town and had a short discussion about field work with a fellow fraud examiner working her first fraud examination as part of an investigative team.  The corporate counsel of the client organization had directly engaged her small firm and my new friend and dinner partner was experiencing difficulty in gaining access to the client staff with whom she needed to work to perform her part of the investigation.  The root problem seemed to be that the engaging counsel had failed to adequately brief either the lead fraud examiner or his client on just how the examination was be conducted and, consequently the examiners were experiencing frustration because they didn’t think they were initially working with the right people to get their job done.

All too often, fraud examiners are asked to rely on a small number of primary contacts – such as the controller, chief financial officer, or business process manager – to supply all the information for an engagement. In some instances, these individuals may, as a result of confusion or worse, prevent the examiner from speaking with other members of the area under review – a practice referred to as shuttling. But regardless of whether this occurs, talking only with supervisors and managers may not elicit the detail and precision necessary for an effective review.  It’s critical that CFE’s know how to break down any barriers that keep them from those with actual knowledge of the fraud, while at the same time avoiding any damage to their rapport with the primary review contact (in this case, the corporate counsel).  This can be an intricate dance indeed! By enhancing their interpersonal soft skills, CFE’s can walk this delicate line more effectively and increase the likelihood of an outcome satisfactory to all parties. Several key skills, in particular, help fraud examiners gain access to all relevant client staff and elicit the kind of information that will result in a better investigative product.

As a general rule the CFE team leader should try to set up a detailed engagement planning and ground rule meeting with the primary examination contact(s) before starting the examination and then follow up with a formal engagement letter. Meeting the corporate counsel for lunch, for example, would have helped break the ice and provide a more relaxed environment for initial discussion then the hurried phone call from the client counsel that apparently took place in this case.  During the meeting, the lead CFE should try to identify some common ground that can be used throughout the engagement to shore up the relationship and help build rapport. S/he should also take note of the clients’ mannerisms and reactions and keep them in mind later when performing the review. When posing a tough fraud related question to the client, for example, the auditor can then observe whether the client’s mannerisms change compared to those observed while simply establishing rapport. Subsequent further probing on the part of the review team may be warranted if discrepancies are noted.

It’s always a challenge for a team of fraud examiners to quickly learn as much as possible about the business processes affected by a fraud before speaking directly with process owners. Otherwise, those involved with the fraud may perceive the CFE’s as ill prepared or uninformed and be prompt to try to take advantage of that ignorance. When any team member lacks familiarity with the client’s business, her credibility and professionalism may be called into question, and the relationship with the client can quickly become impaired.

Understanding the basic mechanics of client financial business processes up front enables the team to devote more of their engagement efforts to direct examination work. In other words, it helps ensure team member practitioners don’t spend an inordinate amount of time learning while on the job, focusing instead on staying alert for unusual transactions involving the fraud, changes in suspect behavior, and other potential issues. Moreover, examination subjects are more likely to point out more complex issues and solicit input if they feel comfortable with the examiner’s abilities. These insights, in turn, may lead to opportunities for documenting a wide range of situations useful later in court and subsequent recovery efforts.

And it goes without saying that team members should avoid excessively confident or arrogant behavior. In most instances client employees will know more about their operation than the investigative team, and they deserve respect for their expertise. Client staff should be lead to perceive the team as working collaboratively with them in a didactic manner to help resolve a difficult situation — this approach typically achieves the best results. By contrast, even a perception of an adversarial or gotcha approach can quickly sour the situation and compromise the entire process of the examination.

When asking the tough questions, the ACFE tells us that team members should avoid phrasing that may seem confrontational, and they should refrain from steering the response. For example, instead of saying, “You review the XYZ report weekly, correct?” the examiner could say something like, “Could you help me understand how often you review the XYZ report?” Essentially, CFE’s should ask open ended, nonthreatening questions, followed by requests for clarification. Also, be sure to express interest.  Team members should always try to show genuine interest in the subject’s work. In most instances, client employees are proud of what they do, and are pleased to share the details of their work with those they perceive as experts. Expressing interest can elicit valuable information and enhance the examination quality.  Interest is demonstrated by not appearing rushed and by asking relevant, informed questions.  Although this approach takes time (and CFE’s are always pressed for time), it can lead to insight and knowledge that always proves invaluable during the court room and prosecution phases that so often follow from our work product. For example, the unusual or infrequent irregular transactions/events that may not surface during standard interviews or via sample-based testing but are so vital to our work can often be highlighted in this manner.

Client employees contacted in the course of the investigation should be assured that the team is only interested in the facts and that no one is looking to judge them or their work product. Examiners need to listen carefully and objectively to subjects and avoid approaching discussions with apparent preconceived notions or biases. Maintaining impartiality will not only enhance our results, it should result in a stronger relationship with the main client, even when engagements lead to the confirmation of the suspected fraud.

Clarifying the significance of examination findings and discussing workable approaches for moving forward with the main client, help maintain the CFE to client relationship and establishes the CFE as a trusted fraud expert and advisor. For example, suppose the CFE, during her examination discovers that someone in the organization (not connected with the suspected fraud) has the ability to receive goods into inventory, perform physical inventory procedures (cycle counts), make inventory adjustments based on inventory counts, and directly write off damaged inventory to scrap. When reporting this collateral fact, the CFE might want to do more than simply document the apparent access and segregation of duties issues. S/he might want to elaborate on the finding’s significance for potential future fraud by mentioning the risk of loss of inventory (assets), as the employee’s level of system access provides an opportunity to inappropriately write off usable product as damaged, lost, or never received and then use it for personal gain. Descriptive interactions of this type add value to the examination by enabling our main client to fully appreciate the larger risks (even beyond the present fraud) associated with findings and take appropriate action to address them.

When identifying and framing any fraud related issue, CFE’s should keep its true level criticality in context. Managers and business leaders do not appreciate drama, and overreacting can hurt the examiner’s credibility and rapport with valuable future business contacts. Sticking to the facts can help keep almost any sensitive situation from spinning out of control.

Mindful management of the mechanics of client relations can change a stunted two-step into a graceful waltz.  All it takes is practice.

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