You’re about to start an engagement with a client who has never been through a compliance assessment before. Or maybe they have, but they’re still figuring out how the compliance process works. You’ve been there before. You know the lay of the land and the pitfalls in the compliance journey. You know the chaos coming their way, and the shortest route to the end of the assessment.

You’re like a compliance sherpa—a guide to your clients, because you have the knowledge and experience to guide them through the compliance journey. But that’s only half of the knowledge you need. A critical component of a well-oiled engagement depends on how well you understand your client. If you don’t understand their fears, frustrations, confusion and expectations, you won’t be able to guide them according to their particular needs.

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Here’s what your compliance assessment clients are going through—and how you can use that to ensure a more successful engagement.


For you, a compliance assessment is just another day at the office. It’s business, pure and simple. For many of your clients, it’s personal. The moment you walk through that door, they’re under the microscope. You aren’t simply assessing the state of their compliance—you’re assessing them.

They see a compliance audit as a black-and-white, pass/fail moment. They get nervous about answering a question wrong and worry that you’ll “fail” them. They fear that if you find a problem, they’ll fail the audit—which means they themselves have failed. They’ll get in trouble with their boss, and who knows what the consequences of that will be?


If your client isn’t afraid of the assessment, they may be resentful of it. Your presence is just an interruption in the middle of an organizational flash flood when they’re trying in vain to keep their head above water. The IT director is tapping their foot on the latest dev project, people are suddenly having email issues that need resolved, and the organization is in the middle of upgrading the server room. A compliance assessment is icing on a cake they never ordered.

Don’t be surprised if that frustration is directed your way. Your requests might get ignored or put on the back burner. You might get a superficial effort or a slapdash response to your request. You don’t have to accept it, but you also shouldn’t take it personally. Your client is frustrated, too.

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Your clients may be brand-new to the compliance realm—but even if they aren’t, it’s a mysterious black box to them. Your assessment firm’s process may not make sense to them, and compliance process itself is an overwhelming mystery. They don’t understand what they need to provide to you, or why it’s relevant.

They may not express it, but they have basic questions:

  • What will the assessment process be like?
  • How many days will it take?
  • What kinds of questions will be asked?
  • What will you be looking for, and why?
  • What happens if a problem is found?
  • Is my job in jeopardy?
  • What is the final deliverable?
  • Who should I contact if I have questions?


If this is the first time your client is embarking on a compliance assessment, they have no idea what kind of path lies ahead of them. Most of them are expecting it to be quicker and easier than it will be. They don’t realize what kind of chaos awaits as they attempt to track their activities, keep a pulse on their status and manage the back-and-forth flurry of documents that will soon cross their desks.

As the hurricane of compliance bears down on them, your client will realize how much they need to figure out. They’ll expect you to answer questions about how to fulfill various requirements, even though you’re not a consultant.

What Am I Supposed to Do with All That?

Being a guide for your clients doesn’t mean you have to hold their hands through the process. You’re not their therapist. You’re the guide who’s been through it all before. You know what’s coming, and you’re able to lead your clients safely past the pitfalls and through the chaos.

The more you understand how your client is experiencing a compliance assessment, the better equipped you’ll be to guide. Here’s what to do with that insight.

Put yourself in their shoes

It’s not easy to go through compliance, especially the first time. It’s really easy to forget how challenging the first rodeo can be. Throughout the engagement, think about how your client is experiencing the process. Ask yourself if there’s anything you can do to make things a bit easier for them. Take time to explain context, to clarify why this and not that, and to defuse fears and frustrations. When necessary, help them to maintain perspective—this isn’t do or die, most of the time.


Just because you’re relaying information to your client, that doesn’t mean you’re communicating well. Remember that your clients don’t have your knowledge or experience, so you may need to communicate with them like you’re explaining it to your Aunt Agnes. Don’t use jargon they won’t understand, and always explain the why as well as the what.

Be a good listener. Ask clarifying questions, and seek to understand them. The more you know about your client, the better you’ll work together as a team.

Most importantly, always encourage questions. Better to nip something in the bud before it becomes an issue.

Take a deep breath

Your client is going to make mistakes throughout the engagement, because the compliance process is a cluster of confusion. They’ll ask the same questions again and again. They’ll keep putting their files in the wrong location. They’ll forget to update the central tracking tool.

Be patient. The compliance engagement will go a lot smoother if you can keep your cool, and they’ll learn the ropes more quickly. Patience also keeps the wheels greased when frustrations are running high.

Related reading: Compliance Auditors: Deliver the Value Your Clients Are Looking For

Ready, Set, Guide

Start your next compliance engagement on the right foot. The more you understand your client’s fears, frustrations, confusions and expectations, the better you’ll be able to meet them where they are. And that will make you a better guide through the assessment process.

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