Reflection 94: Radical Decency in Business, Difficult Choices, Rich Rewards

The author of this Reflection is Michael Brady. He runs a financial advising firm in Broomall, Pennsylvania and serves on the Board of the Decency Foundation.

I am a strong believer in Radical Decency and the importance of practicing its values in all facets of my life, in all contexts, and without exception. That includes business. I run a financial advising firm, and work hard to incorporate Radical Decency’s values into my business practices. That means treating my clients and staff – and myself – with decency and respect.

Recently, I was confronted with a challenge to those values. Specifically, I had a substantial client whose demeanor and actions ran counter to Radical Decency’s values – that is, the values we deliver as a firm and that we expect back in the advisor-client relationship. This client forced me to decide whether I would tolerate indecency for short-term financial gain.

Let me set the scene:

A client was referred to me who was financially well off.  During the summer, she and her husband live in a gated, 55 and up community here in Delaware County, and then they escape to Florida when the weather turned. The husband is a retired accounting professional who prefers to handle his own affairs. However, they sought me out because his wife wanted someone outside the household handling her planning and investments.

They engaged our office last winter and things started out well enough. Throughout the following months we would receive emails from her husband; he was in charge of asking all of her questions and translating our answers to something she could understand (her words, not ours). We would always respond within a short period of time and would always include her on the email response.

During the summer I instructed my staff to reach out and schedule a visit to review how things were working out. My operations manager, Adam, sent the husband an email asking for some dates and times to get together. Unfortunately, he mistakenly did not include the wife in the message. This touched off an immediate call from her berating Adam and using terms like “disrespectful” and “sexist.” She also threatened to file a complaint; a step that, in our industry, is taken very seriously.

Responding, we immediately self-reported the incident. And I took full responsibility, which led to me hearing an earful as well.

Months went by and I believed we had all moved on following our firm’s forthright apology. Accordingly, I scheduled a check-in visit with them. At the meeting, though, wife continued to berate me and my staff for the mistake we had made that past summer.

At this point, I had a decision to make. This client was a source of significant revenue for the firm. Therefore, I could have indulged her anger and let her attack me and my staff for as long as she wanted, with the understanding that she would probably continue using our firm once she was finished. From a strictly financial perspective, this might have made sense. On the other hand, I could have indulged my own frustration by immediately shutting her down and storming out of the room. That might have been cathartic for me, and my staff might have appreciated the gesture. But, it would have been unprofessional and rude to the client.

Instead, I took a third approach. I took an approach that sought to be decent to the client – and to myself – and my staff. I interrupted the client and calmly explained to her that it was time to move on, to put the incident behind us and talk about her finances. This gave her the opportunity to course correct and receive the services she was paying for. But it also drew a clear line in the sand that said “I won’t let you continue to abuse me and my staff.”

Unfortunately, she refused to move on, and so I politely packed up my file and explained to her that I would no longer serve as her adviser and that she had thirty days to replace me.

After I left the meeting, I felt exhilarated. Sure, I was missing out on money. But the value I gained by handling the situation like I did was worth so much more. Not only did it lift a huge burden off of my chest because I no longer had to deal with a difficult client; it also showed my staff that I am serious about running a values-based firm.

This last piece is, I think, incredibly important for a business owner. You frequently hear the cliche “the customer is always right.” That may be a good slogan, but it implicitly means that your staff is wrong when there’s a disagreement. It devalues their contributions to your business and lowers morale and loyalty — both of which are vital to a well-run business.

In other words, my decision to let go of that client was both Radically Decent and smart for business. And that’s not a coincidence. Radical Decency is not about being a martyr; in many cases, that would require you to indecent to yourself (and maybe your family as well). Instead, Radical Decency argues that using decent business practices is a recipe for success: If you treat yourself well, you’ll be a better boss (decency to self); if you treat your employees with respect and pay them fairly (decency to others), they’ll work hard and you’ll retain talent; and if your choices with customers and the larger community consistently reflect Radical Decency’s values, you’ll also gain fiercely loyal customers who want to do business with you.

The only compromise you have to make — and it really isn’t a compromise when you do it right — is to set decency as objective 1 and profit as objective 1A. That is to say, profit has to be treated as hugely important, but also clearly subordinate to being decent.

And that’s what I did with this client. I made it a priority to treat her well and answer all of her questions quickly and expertly. I also willingly absorbed a substantial amount of her anger in order to retain her as a lucrative client. However, when push came to shove and I had to make a decision between appeasing her and being decent to myself and my staff, I made profit priority 1A and chose the latter. Because of that decision, my team is more aligned than ever knowing that I will never allow business to come before our core values.