Many times I have interviewed accounting staff and walked away thinking, “I have no idea what they just said to me.” Do you ever have this problem? If yes, this article is for you. Below I provide four keys to better client interviews.
In my early years–fresh out of college–I would think: “I must be stupid. It’s obvious, he understands what he just said, but I don’t.” Often my anxiety would increase when I realized the interviewee (e.g, accounts payable clerk) had no college degree (and me, a masters in accounting).
After years of performing interviews, I realized that I wasn’t dense (at least, not as much as I thought), and that I was encountering what The Art of Explanation calls, the “curse of knowledge.”
What is the “curse of knowledge?” It’s when someone knows a subject very well, and, consequently, has a difficult time imagining what it is like to not know it. I was experiencing the “curse of knowledge.” Those I interviewed thought I knew what they knew. As a result, they left out details.
Also, those I interviewed had years of experience doing the same job day after day. Of course they understood what they did. But I had less than an hour, in many cases, to grasp their duties.
Additionally, those I interviewed used a language unique to their office, and I, mistakenly, tried to use a different language—one I had learned in college. The result: we did not understand one another. So how can I communicate and comprehend better?
If they call it a thingy, then I call it a thingy.
I often want to impress more than I desire to understand. The remedy: Admit (maybe even out loud) I don’t know everything.
I tell the clerk, “Treat me like I don’t know anything. I’ve never been here, so I need your help in understanding what you do.”
To higher level personnel (e.g., CFO), I might say, “I have worked in this industry for fifteen years, but I need your help to understand how you guys operate.”
For example, “May I repeat what you just said to make sure I understand? ‘The thingy is created once per week on Mondays to ensure that total receipts agree with deposits.’”
Just last week, I reviewed a complex accounting system (for about three hours). As I did so, I used my cell phone Evernote app to take pictures of computer screens and printed reports. I also used the app to record parts of the conversation. Later, I summarized the conversation in memo form (complete with pictures).
Scanbot is another useful iPhone app if you take pictures of client information. By using your phone to take pictures, you can leave your physical scanner in your office.
Have I left out any key interviewing ideas? Please share your thoughts.
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Charles Hall is a practicing CPA and Certified Fraud Examiner. For the last thirty years, he has primarily audited governments, nonprofits, and small businesses. He is the author of The Little Book of Local Government Fraud Prevention and Preparation of Financial Statements & Compilation Engagements. He frequently speaks at continuing education events. Charles is the quality control partner for McNair, McLemore, Middlebrooks & Co. where he provides daily audit and accounting assistance to over 65 CPAs. In addition, he consults with other CPA firms, assisting them with auditing and accounting issues.
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