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Audit firms should ditch sales culture

UK watchdog flags up concerns.

Photograph: Getty Images

I have no problem with audit firms providing some consulting services to audit clients provided it does not impair an auditor’s independence but there’s one thing that grates me about the audit profession. It’s when firms use audit as a lead-in to sell more lucrative consulting services. What is icing to this distasteful cake is when audit staff are praised for their role in winning consulting work.

This month, a UK watchdog responsible for checking the quality of audit firms released inspection reports of a few larger firms, flagging concerns PKF and Mazars had been praising and/or rewarding audit staff that successfully sold ‘non-audit’ or consulting services to audit clients. There reports apply to inspections carried out in 2010.

In the PKF report, the AIU warned the firm should: "Ensure credit is not sought or given in appraisals for success in selling non-audit services to audited entities."

In the Mazars report, it was recommended the firm: "Ensure that staff and partner remuneration and evaluation decisions do not reflect success in selling non-audit services to audit clients… [and] there is greater focus on audit quality indicators in appraisals for audit partners and staff."

To single out Mazars and PKF based on one inspection report is unfair. Rumours about auditors up-selling consulting have been rife for many years. Consulting is more lucrative and less labour intensive than audit, and firms all over the world, particularly the Big Four – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – are beefing up their consulting arms like never before.

The problem with firms providing too much consulting to audit clients is the fear that they become reliant on that revenue and it will affects an auditor’s ability to exercise professional judgement. There’s also the argument that auditor’s might feel uncomfortable auditing a colleague’s consulting or tax work.

Although most consulting services are prohibited to audit clients, firms are still earning a significant amount of revenue from this practice. In 2011, PwC UK earned £363m from non-audit services to audit clients, which is about 40 per cent of the fees it earns from audit, while Deloitte made £185m, which is 36 per cent of its audit revenue.

The independence of auditors is a big issue for the accounting profession because, rightly or wrongly, questions are being raised as to why auditors gave a clean bill of health to banks such as Lehman Brothers just before they collapsed.

The EC has proposed radical reforms that could force the largest accounting firms in Europe to break up their audit businesses from advisory and tax. If such a proposal were to pass into law, it could threaten the existence of the four major brands – PwC, Deloitte, Ernst & Young and KPMG – although intensive lobbying from the ‘Big Four’ should derail this idea.

Nevertheless, auditors of all sizes could make their lives a whole lot easier if they ditched the sales culture and focussed on ensuring their clients accounts are in check, rather than worrying about their own.

Arvind Hickman is the editor of the International Accounting Bulletin.