My Awful Big 4 Customer Experience (w/ 5 Modern Audit Service Tips)

I’m a sucker for an excellent customer experience. As a business owner, I can truly appreciate how much effort and thought goes into ensuring that every tiny little detail of the customer journey is pleasurable, easy and seamless. This is why the Uber’s, Airbnb’s and Apple’s of the world have had so much success and in some cases, have overthrown long-standing incumbents. Modern, new age businesses understand that customer experience reigns supreme over almost anything else when it comes to attracting and retaining customers. By the same token, a terrible customer experience frustrates me like no other, which is why I wish I would have experienced a modern audit service recently (more on that below).

Part of the goal of content I put out through my weekly Future Firm® Weekly Top 5 email is to shine a light on firms out there that are shredding it when it comes to offering an excellent customer experience.

Today, however, I tell a very different story. One that focuses on firms that still don’t seem to get where the future is heading and how to deliver a modern audit service.

In this post I will talk about the time I was recently audited by one of the Big 4 and about why the experience was so painful with tips on how I feel a modern audit service in 2019 should have been handled. For confidentiality purposes, I will not name the firm in question, though I suspect the customer experience I received with this Big 4 audit firm is likely not much different from most (though not all) of the larger firms out there, where the experience is likely ranked anywhere from awful to horrible. There’s a reason why companies like Stamped are hitting the market to help improve the audit experience.

Am I being too picky? You tell me. My story and observations are below.

But First, What Is A Good Customer Experience?

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I won’t go into great detail on what makes up a good customer experience, why it’s important and how to craft one (I specifically wrote a piece on this here), but at its very core, a good customer experience is the feeling a customer gets with each interaction with your company. Every touch point that a customer has with you should be easy, pleasant and seamless. A good customer experience is very much a feeling. Note: there is a difference between customer service and customer experience. Customer service is simply a subset of customer experience. Good customer service does not mean a good customer experience.

Designing a good customer experience may sound easy, but it’s not. There are so many touch points a customer has with your firm, from navigating through your webpage, to contacting you online, to scheduling a meeting, to providing you with documents, etc. Every single touch point should be easy, pleasant and seamless. This is the core of what makes a good customer experience.

Customer experience can therefore be defined as, “the sum of all interactions between a customer and an organization”. A good customer experience is then ensuring that all of those interactions are easy, pleasant and seamless.

So What Happened During the Audit?

If a good customer experience is ensuring that all interactions and touch points with a company are easy, pleasant and seamless, then I experienced the exact polar opposite of this when audited by this particular Big 4 firm.

I will preface my opinions on the matter by saying that I was a licensed auditor for close to 10 years though I would not consider myself strong in the field of audit and had no interest in ever signing off on audited statements and as such, I voluntarily relinquished my auditor title just this year. That being said, I do understand audit, but though I would not consider myself an expert.

Enough of that, let’s take a look at the 5 poor customer experiences I received from this Big 4 firm and how I feel it should have been handled.

Poor Customer Experience #1 – The Initial Audit Planning Meeting

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As some of you may know, I’m an online kinda guy. I work online, all of my business is conducted virtually, all files and documents are stored on the cloud and I have basically worked remotely for the past few years. At times I have had a physical office, though there was never anything in the office other than a few desks.

So naturally when it was time for the initial audit planning meeting with the auditors, they absolutely requested to have an in-person meeting at the office. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of in-person meetings when they can be just as easily done virtually, and even though there would be virtually nothing to inspect at the office (ie. no machinery, no equipment, no nothing) they were very adamant of meeting me in-person at the office.

So after a brief phone call to discuss the business at a high level, we set a date to meet at the office for the audit planning meeting.

Strike 1.

Modern audit service tip: If you take on a client, you need to work how they like to work. Some may prefer in-person, but many prefer to work virtually, if feasible. Firms these days need to understand this and tailor their approach accordingly using the right technology and processes.

Poor Customer Experience #2 – The PBC (Provided by Client) List

Prior to the initial audit planning meeting, it’s typical for the client to submit a variety of documents to the audit firm for their review to help them plan the audit. We were on a bit of a tight deadline, so the PBC list was provided to me early on a Friday and I was told that I needed to get it back to them ASAP so they could review it in time for the meeting the coming Tuesday.

The PBC list came as a 2 page PDF document with about 50 requests. Already slightly peeved from strike 1 above, the first thing that written on the PDF document was, “In order to facilitate our work, please provide the requested documents in Excel format.” When you’re dealing with a lot of requests, a PDF document is clearly not the best kind of document to check things off your list, so of course I had to transcribe the entire list into an Excel document so that I could write notes next to each item (otherwise, how else can you ensure that you’re properly providing everything they need). A clear waste of time for me.

But the sentence that really got me was, “In order to facilitate our work…“. Do you think you’d see the Uber’s of the world talking like that? If you summoned a ride via the app and the app then said, “In order to facilitate our driver’s work, please walk 3 blocks north for your pick up.”? Definitely not. The whole name of the game these days in the service sector is, make my life easier.

Having to take a PDF document, transcribe it myself into Excel in order to track the multitude of requests because no better technology was provided to organize/track/provide the requested documents and then having to read the bolded line on top of the document that says, “In order to facilitate our work…” really just irked me. Not one single effort was made to make this process easier for the client.

Frustrations aside, I completed the PBC list that same day by mid-afternoon and submitted it.

Modern audit service tip: This is actually a very easy one to fix and I’m actually very surprised that this Big 4 firm didn’t have a more sophisticated way of gathering documents in a more streamlined, organized fashion in some kind of platform that’s shared between the client and the firm. While I understand that not all clients are tech-savvy, you still need to have a more modern option on hand which you can then propose to the client with options.

Option 1: We can give you a PDF document with all our requests with a corresponding Excel checklist so that you can make your notes on it and check your list off as you go.

or (preferable)

Option 2: We set you up in an easy to use cloud-based task management system (where we provide you step-by-step instructions on how to use it) and each item is a task that we can track and collaborate on to see what’s been submitted, what’s outstanding and to share comments on specific requests in one central platform.

Poor Customer Experience #3 – Overworked Staff

The audit planning meeting was slotted for Tuesday at 9am. I was there early as I like to be. At 9:10 I receive an email that the manager and audit partner will be 10 minutes late. Ughhhh… one of the reasons why I much prefer virtual meetings is that these issues happen less. The manager shows up at 9:25am and let’s me know that the audit partner was going to be another 30-45 minutes late.


So the option was to wait for him, or, wait for it…. have him remotely call in (I thought we couldn’t do this meeting remotely?). Of course I chose the latter option, so he was put on speakerphone on the manager’s cell phone echoing through the conference room where he was barely comprehensible (other than me being able to hear him order coffee at the Tim Hortons drive through).

Then we start getting to the manager’s questions. I start seeing a trend. The questions were all items that were asked for on the PBC list. I then asked the manager if she reviewed the package I had sent days before, and the answer was no. So basically I’m now duplicating my efforts. She explained that she was very busy and this audit was added to her pile last minute over and above a very hectic schedule.

While I was frustrated with the situation, I was not frustrated with her. She was probably working 80+ hours that week as most in audit at the Big 4 do and how can you possibly be completely on your game offering a top notch customer experience with that kind of workload? Impossible.

The meeting ended with me regurgitating everything that I had already provided (and with no reason to actually have met at the office).

Showing up late aside (it happens to everyone but is also a cumulation of everything else that was wrong with this service), it my eyes, it was clear that the appropriate workload planning was not done to ensure that this manager had enough time to properly offer a quality service.

Modern audit service tip: Yes I understand most firms are on the billable hour approach (the alternative is to ditch your timesheet as I had done previously with my firm) and therefore the bias is for your staff to work as many hours as possible. But overworking your people and not managing workload/capacity will lead to poor service experiences. Instead of just looking at historical time and how long things take, firms should forecast their time outwards and compare assigned work to a team member’s availability to determine where crunches will occur in order to staff up and/or move resources around so that a normal work week can be provided. This will ensure higher quality client interactions and provide team members with the appropriate amount of time to respond to requests on a timely basis.

Poor Customer Experience #4 – The Non-Stop Email Requests

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Following the audit planning meeting, most communication was conducted via email. I would receive different requests from different people, at times from people I was never introduced to. Most emails would have several requests followed by a long email string. When you are busy and getting requests from different people, with different lists, with long email strings, it’s very easy to lose track of what’s taking place and what’s outstanding only have to waste time to dig around in your inbox to see what was sent and when.

Managing several different request lists from different people (from the same company) in your inbox is never fun.

Modern audit service tip: Once again, a collaborative platform with all outstanding requests (and being able to comment next to these requests) would solve this and greatly streamline the process for all parties. Over and above this, any staff member that interacts with clients should be introduced to the client beforehand just so they know who they are and what they’ll be doing. Customer service 101 folks.

Poor Customer Experience #5 – No Collaboration Tools Used

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Accountants like (sorry, love) Excel. It’s basically the #1 tool for everything they do. But why are we using Excel to collaborate on work still? I can’t tell you how many different versions of the same Excel document I received from this Big 4 audit firm only to find out I wasn’t working in the latest version having to re-do some of my work.

There are tools like Google Sheets and web versions of Excel where you can share a document once and collaborate in it in real-time without having to send multiple versions of the same thing back and forth. I mean, this kind of technology has only existed for, like, 10 years, right?

Modern audit service tip: It’s time to introduce something like Google Sheets to your workflows. Using Excel to accomplish all work that is performed ignores of any the efficiencies (and therefore positive customer experiences) that can be gained from better collaborative tools.

The Winners Will Win On Customer Experience

On the whole, the entire audit was one huge example of how to completely ignore the customer experience. Sure, everyone I interacted with spoke well and professionally and I’m sure the end product was of high quality, but this is just one small component of the customer experience (and is honestly the absolutely bare bones minimum expectation today). No technology was used to ease the process, no thought whatsoever was put into facilitating the customer’s journey and the whole thing felt like it was being jammed through a meat grinder.

The service was exceptionally far from what I would consider a modern audit service and in this day and age, this kind of service experience is completely unacceptable. If some firms don’t wake up, they will see competitors that understand customers expectations step in and take market share. In my opinion, it’s already happening with these accounting tech startups like Botkeeper, Pilot, Bench & ScaleFactor starting to raise a ton of money to challenge firms who don’t understand the concept of providing an excellent customer experience.

You have to understand that people hate audit. It’s a painful and frustrating exercise for the client. And you know what I see in that? A massive opportunity. Just about every single industry is being transformed through technology to help re-jig the customer experience into something easy, pleasant and seamless, yet professional services like audit have seemed to have completely missed the boat up until now. But, no doubt it will happen. It’s just a matter of time.

It’s time for the big guys to recognize this and transform their service experience.

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My Awful Big 4 Customer Experience (w/ 5 Modern Audit Service Tips)

2 thoughts on “My Awful Big 4 Customer Experience (w/ 5 Modern Audit Service Tips)”

  1. When I read Option 2 under The PBC (Provided by Client) List I immediately envisioned a Trello board with Butler enabled that moves cards around as certain tasks/triggers are completed. What a dream to work with that would be… I’m in industry now and the company I work for doesn’t have audited financial statements but if we ever do I’m going to insist we work in a similar format.

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