The Powerful Tension Between Relationship Virtues and Commercial Virtues

I recently attended a conference where New York Times columnist David Brooks was the keynote speaker. One of the main themes of his speech was the tension between “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues.” In our success-driven culture, he explained, we strive for resume virtues: achievement, recognition, wealth, and other material accomplishments that are admired and lauded. These are in sharp contrast to the eulogy virtues that we hope our friends and family will use to describe us after we die: generosity, kindness, goodness, integrity, and so on.

I found this a very thought-provoking distinction. It raises many questions—for example: Why do we devote most of our lives to the resume virtues, when we know in our hearts that what really matters in the end are the eulogy virtues? How can we better integrate both into our day-to-day living?

A less profound but similarly challenging tension exists in building client relationships. I’ll call them the “Relationship Virtues” and the “Commercial Virtues,” to borrow a turn of phrase from David Brooks.

The Relationship Virtues in business would include the following:

  • Always putting your client’s interests first
  • Investing in trusted relationships for the long term
  • Honesty and openness
  • A willingness to give trust to get trust (as opposed to cynicism)
  • Giving your client a break or concession when they really need it, without fear that they’ll take advantage of you.
  • Giving each and every client your very best

The Commercial Virtues, on the other hand, might include:

  • Drawing the maximum revenue and profit from your business relationships (“monetizing” your relationships)
  • A focus on continuous growth
  • Always looking out for and protecting–perhaps first and foremost–your and your firm’s interests
  • Trusting but trusting slowly and verifying–ensuring fiscal and legal checks and balances are in place so you aren’t taken advantage of.
  • Differentiating your levels of service and even quality based on the attractiveness and strategic fit of each client.

The pat response to this dichotomy would be to say “Always do what’s right for the client and the rest will follow…” (e.g., clients will reward you, your reputation will grow, etc.).  And there is a great deal of truth to that statement. But it’s a little too pat!

There are real conflicts. For example, you may focus mainly on the Relationship Virtues, but your client might focus mostly on the Commercial Virtues. The result? You could give what you feel is a temporary price concession to help your client out in a pinch, but they might then treat that as the new, permanent level for your pricing and degrade or ruin your profitability going forward. In other words, they take advantage of your relationship orientation. Or, a client might ask you to write a proposal and share your approach and methodologies in order to learn more so they can simply be better equipped to do the project themselves.

It works the other way around, also. A service provider, in order to support ambitious growth goals, can easily convince itself that a dubious project is in the best interests of its client.

In other words, advisors and clients sometimes take advantage of each other when there is a mismatch in emphasis between the Relationship and Commercial Virtues.

How do you balance or integrate these two sets of virtues in your client relationships? You do it by allowing a couple of basic principles to guide your behavior:

  1. Direct all your actions towards helping your clients succeed, but don’t harm yourself in the process.
  2. Ensure your own business is profitable and competitive, but not at the expense of others.
  3. If following principles (1) and (2) put you in conflict, withdraw from or try to reconcile the situation while doing the least harm to your client and to your business.

There is no scientific way to perfectly reconcile these potentially conflicting outlooks. You have to balance them fairly and act with honesty, consistency, and transparency.

In plain English: Never take advantage of your client, but never be a doormat either.

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