Skills for gathering customer intelligence

Written by Debbie Liles on 6 December 2016

Hi, I am looking for some comments and feedback please.

I am running a four hour session for auditors trying to encourage them to start noticing potential areas for exploration/further work when they are with their customer. This information will then be fed back to sales. Naturally one of my concerns was around why should they, and the WIFM question. I do not intend focusing here as my intent is for the Head of Sales to do all the positioning around this. So far the areas I am considering are:

Assessing and rating their soft skills, thinking how they can apply these,  focusing on building trust using David Maister's work on the trusted advisor, listening to connect, probing and perhaps using some statements/research from Dan Pink's work to provoke debate, such as 'we are all in sales'. I was also considering using images/ video as a warm to demonstrate how we miss seeing things......Four hours is not enough really, so how would you prioritize and what do you feel I may be missing. Looking forward to your feedback



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Submitted on 7 December, 2016 - 10:17

Dear Debbie

I had an "eek!" moment just reading your post - what about the ethics of doing this?  I don't think I have enough context to answer the question and still, this is what initially came up.

The second thing that came up was thinking about a coaching client of mine who does internal audits in her organisation and clearly excels at it... she visits, asks loads of questions, identifies gaps and positions them carefully with her colleagues along with their strengths.  A clear factor in her success is her ability to ask questions of people that help them both to identify what they're good at and to become aware of areas they were previously unaware of and which can be improved.  She's also very willing to help - so I guess something that characterises her is both her focus on quality and improvement, and her desire to serve.

So, what do I make of these unbidden thoughts - how do I relate them to your question?  What comes up for me is a curiosity - whether the session could be run by drawing on their own experience.  Thinking about occasions when their clients have requested additional help or of people who seem to be good at stimulating these extra requests what do they notice about them?  What intentions do they bring to the work of conducting audits?  What behaviours?  Any particular strategies that differentiate them from their colleagues?  This could be followed by some self reflection on which of these attributes and behaviours they demonstrate already and which they would like to develop further.

Just a starter for ten :-)




Submitted on 9 December, 2016 - 12:09

Thank you for taking the time to respond. I am aware of potential ethical issues and have already highlighted these to my client but good to see some one has the same reaction as I did. Your thoughts are helpful as they confirm I am moving in the right direction, and I agree the best auditors are curious and ask lots of good questions.


Submitted on 16 December, 2016 - 07:27

Hi Debbie.  I wanted to comment on the ethics issue - from the customer's perspective.  

If I was the customer and I wasn't aware of a service or product my supplier had which could help me achieve my personal and/or business objectives, then I would want to know about that.  If I learned that they knew they could help me but had chosen to keep the information secret I would be less than happy!  So a professional and polite enquiring auditor who helps the customer to understand their issues and points them in the direction of someone with more expertise in that area who can help is a true partner rather than just a supplier.

I'd propose there is a simple place to proverbially draw the line in the sand... when you have something that has the ability to help support the client's goals and objectives, then don't be shy about telling them about it.  If you have something that makes money but is not relevant to the client's personal/business goals and objectives, then leave them alone!

Hilary Cooke

Submitted on 13 December, 2016 - 10:34

Hi Debbie - I hope I am not too late with this - but if I am I hope the workshop went well :-)

I was interested in this as a dilemma, because it has the potential to be all sorts of things for all sorts of people - so glad that the ethical paradigm is sitting square on the table. 

In my experience, it is often relevant to raise the sales issue with people for whom it is not their "normal" role - or perceived to be, so this is a big question for our increasingly service-driven economy.

With this group I think I would be interested in their perspective first and what their own metaphors for auditing might be? Culturally, professionally and personally I bet there will be some differences right across a range of spectra from helping to exposing malpractice and outing the baddies. I wonder if their model is working with, working under or working over their client? Even if they are aware of these choices? That will make a big difference to how curious they can be and how they can be curious. It will also have an influence on what model to use as a best fit.

I would also like to explore with them why and how they could be curious about "what else" and how it serves the client and their employing organisation

I guess the most helpful framework could be around the auditor-as-consultant? So I think I would go with some of the structural stuff rather than just the behavioural. Without wishing to stereotype (and then doing exactly that!) as auditors, they may like the logic of structure so anything along the lines of the consultancy process and process consultancy - Lippitt and Lippitt the multiple role of the consultant, or some of the models from Edgar Schein or Margerison might be helpful . Or John Heron "Helping the Client" frameworks, which although have their roots in therapeutic relationships, I find are wonderfully rich for consulting models.

As they are auditors, some legitimisation of this process is probably going to be welcome too, so this might be useful as a starter for 10 - from the Treasury itself:

 They define Internal Auditing as "an independent, objective assurance and consulting activity designed to add value and improve an organisation’s operations. It helps an organisation accomplish its objectives by bringing a systematic, disciplined approach to evaluate and improve the effectiveness of risk management, control and governance processes ”. So loads of scope within that definition bandwidth to play with.

If you want more validation (they are auditors after all) then The Economist does some interesting exploring around the potential conflict of interest - see one at  Probably a good idea to have both sides of the "argument" and a balanced view in case of push back. 

Hope it helps in some way - certainly shows up how much preparation is needed for a 4-hour workshop!

Best wishes





Submitted on 16 December, 2016 - 16:30

Hi Debbie

like Hilary, I hope I'm not too late.  I'll try to keep  it brief in case the workshop has been and gone.

Having worked in a Big 4 firm for many years, I can put a couple of thoughts to you.  The way they work (and clients expect) is to know the other offerings of their firm, so that they can offer suggested solutions as required, or be able to direct them to a different department.  The skill is in their ability to ask the right questions, to the right people at an appropriate time. If, for example, a tax director speaks to one of the auditors about something they are concerned about, they need to know if that's a 'hook'. What is the issue the tax director is raising? What could be the underlying concern? How do they explore it?  What questions do they ask to clarify their understanding of the issue? There is nothing wrong with them saying, 'how useful would it be for you to speak with a Tax Partner?'

My advice to you is give them scenarios (which can be provided to you by someone in the firm) and let them explore it in a discussion.

Then get them to consider: How do they approach it? What services do they need to know about? How good is their internal network? How do they use their network?

I could go on but it may be food for thought for you.

Let us know how you get on.


Submitted on 19 December, 2016 - 11:15

A thank you for all your comments and suggestions. It always makes me smile wistfully at the amount of preparation/research is undertaken for a four hour slot. We then present a version to our client which looks clean and simple and certainly does not show the amount of effort undertaken! Thanks again, and I wish you all an enjoyable festive break